2c- Eth­i­cal Conun­drums in Com­munity Research

Research and writing in general, and ethnographic research and writing specifically, require that you very consciously consider issues related to your role as author/writer and the representation of the community you are writing about. In this section you will find some typical and not so typical difficulties that students have experienced as they have navigated the complex ethical waters of ethnographic writing and research. Many of the questions and concerns center on how to make ethical and honest choices about the portrayal of a community without it in some way being or feeling like a betrayal to the members of that community. These examples may serve as a guide for difficulties that arise in your own research.

Conundrum 1: Things never got as interesting as I wanted them to at my site. Can I spice it up a little bit by manipulating the situation?

The quick and easy answer here is NO. The more complicated answer is also NO. One way or another this issue comes up from the student who wants to lie to create a fight between to community members to see how things will play out, to the student who wants to expose police brutality by purposefully making the police officers very angry with him, to the student who wants to set a trap for his/her supervisor at work and get someone fired, etc. As an ethical researcher and writer, you must approach your primary data and your representation of the site and the cultural meaning there with what you have. You are not writing a script for a manipulated reality TV talk show expose. You are trying to fully explore the meaningful partial truths in your research site. Take the time to revisit all of the notes you have on what really happened. Look deeper there for the meaning and the partial truths.

Conundrum 2: There is so much I want to say, but I’m afraid the community I’m researching will feel offended. They were so nice to me. I don’t think I can write about this. Or conversely, they were such jerks, I can’t wait to expose them.

This is a conundrum you should really follow up on with a lengthy internal dialogue. Why do you think they will be offended? How might you contextualize the difficult things so that they can be understood to be as complex as they really are? Are you offering multiple perspectives? Are you revealing yourself and the reasons why you think what you think? Is what you want to say something well supported by your primary data and your secondary research?

Sometimes this type of research leads to knee-jerk judgment and criticisms that, upon a deeper look, aren’t really supported by the data you have. In these cases, it’s important to really interrogate why you think you are having the response you are having. Look to yourself as ethnographer to see from where you are drawing your conclusions.

Other times this type of research leads to well-thought out, well-supported and documented observations that are criticisms. This can be difficult to deal with if you find yourself wanting to say difficult things about a community that you care about. Remember that the more context and detail and complexity that you provide, as well as a reflection of and analysis of the struggle you are having saying what you want to say will help your readers understand that you care for and criticize a community you care about. Support what you have to day in deep and complex ways.

That said, in all cases, take great care to not judge or pass judgment on a group or community to which you do not belong. Bear in mind that in the course of a semester or a quarter or a trimester, you will probably learn much more about yourself in your ethnographic research process that you will actually come to know about others.

Conundrum 3: I chose to research this community because it meant so much to me and now I just don’t like it anymore. I feel let down.

This problem most often arises when students have decided to research one of two places: their workplaces or their church groups. In response to feeling let down, upset, angry, or disenchanted, some serious self-reflexivity can come into play. Interrogate why you are feeling this way. What does this help you to know about you and your values? About the way you see the world? Why are you feeling conflict now with this community?

You should also be aware, that it is not surprising to have these types of feelings surface when you are holding something close to you under a microscope for a relatively short period of time. In the ethnographic research process, there can be an arc not unlike feelings related to culture shock, the initial honeymoon phase (isn’t this wonderful!!!) followed by a period of disappointment or even revulsion. Unfortunately, the period of the time built in to most college classes does not leave room for you to move out of the disappointment and into the acceptance that comes with a deeper understanding. So, you need to force yourself to look for meaning and understand at a somewhat faster pace than might feel natural, to try and see beyond the disillusionment to what is really going on with you.

Conundrum 4: I did not get enough information because while I thought I had plenty of access at the beginning of the semester, they never really let me learn anything about them.

This is when you have to take a step back from what you hoped would happen with your research and what you really observed. It is also the point where you might look to write more about your journey in the research process and what you learned about yourself and/ or the process of entry than the community itself. Often, this problem can turn into a really rich auto-ethnographic exploration.

One student planned to conduct her research while volunteering in the HIV/AIDS medical support community in Chicago. She did not anticipate the complexities involved in actually getting a foot in the door to volunteer and by the time she had to pull the final essay together, she had not even started volunteering. She did, however, have lots of information about the processes required for new volunteers and was able to examine the process of becoming a volunteer as well as what she say as the interesting impediments to volunteerism present in our society. Remember, you only need to write about what does happen, not what you thought, or wanted to happen.

Yet another student hoped to explore a community group of Japanese-American survivors of internment camps in the US from WWII. As a Japanese international student in the US, she negotiated entry into the community, but was never able to move beyond her outsider status. She was confronted with a “gatekeeper” who really did not want her to “bother” the members of the community. She was able to turn the frustration of this experience (and feeling that she had nothing to write about) into a very thoughtful exploration of her own identity and status as a young Japanese women and her assumptions about what she shared with the members of this Japanese-American group. She wrote, in essence, about the empty spaces, the lack in her knowledge, and how she felt about how it is we actually determine what it means to be an outsider.

Conundrum 5: Only one really EXCITING thing happened at my research site over the course of my observations. Can I just write about that and leave the rest of it out?

You must carefully consider whether or not the ways in which you select the information you include your writing is an ethical treatment of the community. If you chose to write about only one event, you must do so in the context of the “regular” activities as well and explore the how and why of the out of the ordinary event. Don’t select information because it sees like it would make a great headline. That’s not what you are trying to do. The line here is respect and your search for the ways in which the community and culture you are researching is meaningful in some way. Where is the meaning in highlighting the out of the ordinary and ignoring the everyday? You should also put yourself in the shoes of the people you are observing. Have you ever exhibited uncharacteristic behavior in an emotionally charged moment? Have you ever said something you regretted as the result of specific circumstances? Would you want someone to come in an only choose one of those moments to represent you?

There certainly will be additional conundrums that come up within your own community of researchers. Share them, take council from your classmates and instructor. Keep ethics and humane research present in your mind and in your actions at all times.