Ethnographic Field Data 2: When Not-Sharing is Caring

In my last post, I recommended that we consider archiving and sharing records from our fieldwork. Yet sharing both raw notes and publications can present challenges, as Rex recently covered with the controversy over Alice Goffman’s ‘anonymous’ but easily traced research in Philadelphia, published after she destroyed her fieldnotes.

Kristin Ghodsee similarly writes of the difficulties she encountered as she researched post-Socialist Muslims in Bulgaria—research that caught the interest of both local and American officials. After being detained and interrogated by Bulgarian officials, she decided to drop almost all of the ethnography from her forthcoming work. She describes her encounter with the state in this way:

He then asked me: “Are you responsible for this?”
“Excuse me?” I said, not quite understanding his implication.
“Is your purpose in Bulgaria to encourage these girls to assert their human rights?”
“No,” I stammered, “I’ve been doing this research since 2004, long before this summer.”
“But you know the girls?”
“Some of them.”
“And the people who are teaching them?”
“They are all the subject of my ongoing research. An academic research project.”
“Good,” he said. He nodded and jotted something down on his clipboard. He finally asked me if I had any questions for him.
“Is this interview a normal procedure for Americans applying for long-term residency?”
“No,” he said, matter-of-factly, “It is only for you.”
“Why me?”
“Your topic is interesting to us.” (Ghodsee 2011, p. 180).

As Ghodsee goes on to suggest, sharing the results of our research in any form, published or unpublished, can attract unwanted attention and present unexpected ethical dilemmas. This is a challenge: how can we ensure the safety and privacy of the people we share life with, and yet convey what we’ve learned. How could we share some raw materials in a way that might inform future scholars–or at least those who agree to keep the ethical norms of our profession?

Or, as the American Anthropological Association’s 2012 code of ethics puts it, how can we “do no harm” and yet “make your results accessible” and “preserve your records“?

Security for ethnographic data

We’ll talk more about sharing research in the next post, but let’s start with how we can secure our records. Below is a sketch of ways to begin securing the ethnographic data you currently gather, and to manage how it is passed along to other researchers when you can no longer care for it. Once again, you’re encouraged to share your experiences in the comments.

Consider what you gather. This is obvious to many of us, but there are times not to gather—or not to record—stories that could be used to harm the people we work with, especially if they’re outside of the scope of our research.

Lock it up. If you need to encrypt sensitive data, do so—but keep a record of passwords and security keys on paper, as well as in a PGP-encrypted digital file (more details here or here). You can look up how to create encrypted volumes on your computer, or talk with campus IT about how you might transmit data directly to secure servers in your home country. Health researchers such as Caroline Kuo are way ahead of us in securely storing and transmitting sensitive stories from vulnerable and remote communities worldwide.

Back it up. Store any important files in multiple formats and locations, both print and digital. The 3-2-1 Rule is a common way to remember this:

Keep 3 copies of any important files
on 2 different types of media (print, digital, CD, computer, flash drive)
with 1 copy being stored in another location and/or offline.

For instance, you could print out digital fieldnotes and lock the papers up. Or, you could scan/snap photos of your paper diaries, storing the scans on a secure computer drive. This multiple formats-multiple locations principle helps to protect your notes in case of theft, fire, decay, and computer or network failures. Backup hard drives should also be locked up and password-protected (but give the password to someone you trust!).

Beware the Cloud. There’s a tradeoff here: storing in more formats and places means you are less likely to lose irreplaceable records, but also increases the chance of hacking or leaked notes. Notes on sensitive topics may not belong in the Cloud, Dropbox, email, or even local computers in the field, as your notes can easily be accessed and personal connections traced.

Write a fieldnotes will. Even before you reach the end of your career, it would be wise to document and share your expectations of who will care (a “fieldnotes will”?) for your documents if you can no longer care for them. Campus archives may be prepared to advise on this, at least for physical materials. ‘Data’ librarians attempt to advise on digital materials. As above, giving passwords to a deeply-trusted person or arranging their access to your future archives will help ensure that your records won’t be lost or inaccessible when it comes time to pass them on.

Talk to a librarian or archivist. Seriously. These people are the campus experts on long-term storage of paper–and increasingly digital–research records, and campus IT may also be able to help in securing your digital files. See also Andrew Asher & Lori M. Jahnke‘s readable exploration of qualitative archiving — if your librarian isn’t familiar with the particularly challenges of safeguarding ethnography, this is a good primer.

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