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.