5b- Ethical Considerations when Conducting Research of Secondary Sources

Eth­i­cal impli­ca­tions regard­ing the dif­fer­ence between how peo­ple in gen­er­al speak about an idea and how it may be under­stood and clas­si­fied by the Library of Con­gress is read­i­ly illus­trat­ed by the dif­fi­cul­ty with which a recent stu­dent had in look­ing up infor­ma­tion about what he called “male bond­ing.”  “Male bond­ing” is the term one African-Amer­i­can male stu­dent used to describe the qual­i­ty of friend­ships in which he was engaged at a local pool hall. The prob­lem was that when this stu­dent typed in males and bond­ing, the major­i­ty of the research and sources on the sub­ject would be clas­si­fied as focus­ing on gay cul­ture, or homo­sex­u­al behav­ior.  This not only sur­prised him, but also momen­tar­i­ly stumped him since he was not only sure of his sex­u­al ori­en­ta­tion as het­ero­sex­u­al, but he was also con­vinced he was bond­ing with his friends at the site in ques­tion.

One of the more sig­nif­i­cant byprod­ucts of this research process is a kind of broad­er under­stand­ing of cul­ture in gen­er­al.  This stu­dent, who would have nev­er ever thought about homo­sex­u­al cul­ture, let alone asso­ciate him­self with respect to such cul­ture, was imme­di­ate­ly faced with a pos­si­ble tie to such a top­ic, if only through a cou­ple of key words.  If the term “male bond­ing” did not yield what we were look­ing for, the ques­tion became: How could we change the search in order to locate more rel­e­vant sources?  As the instruc­tor encour­aged him to keep try­ing, he decid­ed to add the words het­ero­sex­u­al and friend­ship to his list of pos­si­ble terms.  Even­tu­al­ly, he found his way to a sig­nif­i­cant body of lit­er­a­ture focus­ing on pla­ton­ic male rela­tion­ships.  From this point, he nar­rowed his inter­est in aca­d­e­m­ic sources to attend to the ways in which males indi­cate and cre­ate non-sex­u­al inti­ma­cy with one anoth­er through ver­bal ban­ter.

In addi­tion to lessons regard­ing cre­ative research, the sub­text here was even more impor­tant:  How can you redesign your own search to find what you want with­out dis­hon­or­ing or dis­re­spect­ing the infor­ma­tion you may pos­si­bly find?  Ini­tial­ly, this stu­dent was not only con­fused, but defen­sive about hav­ing his research site, if acci­den­tal­ly, con­nect­ed with homo­sex­u­al cul­ture.  This instance allowed us to talk through his impulse to pos­si­bly use the schol­ar­ship he found regard­ing “male bond­ing” to argue that his friends weren’t homo­sex­u­al, and that this was “more nor­mal” male friend­ship.  The entire class was then engaged in a dis­cus­sion regard­ing the eth­i­cal treat­ment, not only of indi­vid­u­als (this brought up the notion of human rights and homo­sex­u­al­i­ty in gen­er­al) but of aca­d­e­m­ic ideas as well (how and when to use the writ­ing of oth­ers in your own work).  Because this stu­dent saw no con­nec­tion between his research and homo­sex­u­al cul­ture, it would most like­ly be uneth­i­cal to cre­ate some sort of com­par­i­son between the “male bond­ing” described in this lit­er­a­ture and what he was expe­ri­enc­ing in his research site.  The dan­ger here, he and the class soon came to under­stand, was the pos­si­bil­i­ty of dis­cred­it­ing, or defam­ing homo­sex­u­al cul­ture by set­ting it up as an “Oth­er” in con­trast to his “nor­mal” cul­tur­al expe­ri­ence.

The solu­tion, for this par­tic­u­lar stu­dent, was to write about the process in his field­notes, but to then all but ignore hav­ing found this infor­ma­tion and refrain from using the term “male bod­ing” in his essay.  The final essay focused on friend­ship and the impor­tance of banter—of teasing—to him and his friends, con­nect­ing this ban­ter with the his­to­ry of “play­ing the dozens” in African Amer­i­can cul­ture.  In this way, the stu­dent expand­ed his own knowl­edge base, hav­ing come to under­stand “male bond­ing” as a rel­e­vant and accept­able research area, even if it was not of inter­est to him.

The point of this larg­er exam­ple is that you must nev­er assume that your mean­ing-mak­ing, your under­stand­ings are the “nat­ur­al” or “organ­ic” way of under­stand­ing some­thing.  Your words used to explain or label a par­tic­u­lar sit­u­a­tion or idea may dif­fer great­ly from the words and terms used by a spe­cif­ic aca­d­e­m­ic field to describe or label that very same sit­u­a­tion or idea. The key here is to pay atten­tion, to be will­ing to sec­ond-guess your own ideas, to ask for help, to know your­self, to be self-reflex­ive to the point of under­stand­ing whether you are able to eth­i­cal­ly incor­po­rate research ideas, or whether they would be used to fur­ther iso­late or den­i­grate par­tic­u­lar indi­vid­u­als, behav­iors or cul­tures.  Your instruc­tor and the oth­er stu­dents in class are there to help you work on these ideas, to make the best deci­sion pos­si­ble for you and your own research.  This is the root of eth­i­cal research.