Thinking About Research Ethics

I’m currently on a committee which has been tasked with developing a set of ethical guidelines for visual ethnography in Taiwan. While I agreed to take part in this process because ‘image ethics’ are something I take very seriously, I am also very skeptical about the application of a medical ethics model to anthropology. For this reason I was happy to come across a paper by Bill Simpson entitled “Ethical moments: future directions for ethical review and ethnography” which is a free (if not “open”) download from JRAI.

Simpson is focused on institutional review more than ethical guidelines, but since one exists largely to facilitate the other, it is worth looking at the problems Simpson argues emerge within the review process:

At the outset, there is a serious disjunction between the way in which research is thought about in the context of ethical review and the way in which ethnographic research unfolds according to its own temporality and logic: that is, following the contours of social life as these are revealed by the persons with whom one engages in the field.

I find particularly compelling his argument that the anthropological subject does not easily fit the notion of a “human subject” presumed by medical ethics (whether medical subjects do or not is another question):

However, whilst anthropologists engage with subjects who are indeed human, they would not normally think of themselves as studying ‘human subjects’ in the medical sense, or as part of the legacy of experimentation described above. The vocabulary of subjectivation used by anthropologists is far richer and ranges through informants, interlocutors, consociates, collaborators, consultants. and friends. All of these suggest a relationship with a person for which the reduction to a corporeal ethics is likely to be at odds. Fundamentally, selfhood is seen as a situationally defined project, rather than one to be defined essentially. In this vein, Battaglia has argued for an ‘ethics of the open subject’ and, drawing on Haraway, takes a position which questions the ‘skin-bound individual as the natural boundary of the total person’ (1999: 135). In this approach, there is a profound acknowledgement of the relationality of the human subject. Furthermore, to talk of the ‘field’ is to talk of an entity which is itself relational and not merely spatial. The anthropologist, to a greater or lesser extent, becomes part of this field as a moral agent who is subject to evaluation by those engaged with when in the ‘field’. Subjects, by means of their own processes of counter-subjectivation, locate the researcher in terms of motive, intent, and the level of threat or danger that his or her presence brings, now and in the future (Carrithers 2005; Simpson 2005).

In conclusion he suggests that there are a series of three ethical moments that emerge throughout the research process. This section was a bit confusing for me at first, but then I realized that it was only in the current model that these three moments exist as distinct points in time. Simpson’s critique is actually to challenge the notion that the planning, fieldwork, and writing stages of ethnography have clearly delineated ethical moments. With regard to ethical review at the start of the fieldwork process, Simpson emphasizes that ethical choices are an iterative process and that facing them requires a recognition of the “skill of the ethnographer as a moral being capable of reflexive awareness and an anticipation of the consequences of action and inaction.” Ethical dilemmas cannot be headed off at the outset by fiat.

With regard to the second moment, that of fieldwork, Simpson argues that “the possibilities for communication before, during, and after fieldwork are radically altering foundational tropes such as ‘field’, ‘immersion’, and ‘informant.’” As such, he sees ethics as something that should be the basis of continual dialog throughout the research process and advocates a process whereby ethnographers engage in an ongoing discussion of ethical issues with mentors rather than a one-time review.

The third moment is the writing process:

Confronted with this large and complex cloth, decisions must be made (alone or in consultation with informants) regarding what cuts to make: what goes into the text and what is to be left out; who gets named and who doesn’t; what it is legitimate to expose on ethical grounds and what must be concealed on ethical grounds. This is the moment at which an anthropologist’s judgements about just what is the appropriate relationship between informants, truths, and publics is laid open to challenge. Yet, just as fieldwork itself was once a ‘black box’, the ethics and politics of selection that underpin the writing of ethnography are rarely made explicit.

This last part is of particular interest to me, as I am currently writing a paper about how the process of collaborating on Please Don’t Beat Me, Sir! led to certain topics being left out of the film at the request of the community. In doing so, I argue that these ethical decisions can only be understood with the benefit of a historical and ethnographic analysis of the community (which I then proceed to provide in the paper). Thus an understanding of the ethical issues emerged as the result of the ethnographic process, not as something prior to it, although a commitment to a collaborative ethnographic process allowed for these issues to emerge in the first place.

Finally, to Simpsons argument that ethics are not something which can be followed programmatically, but a “skill of the ethnographer as a moral being” I would add that skill an ethnographer is also necessary. Creating a multivocal text (visual or written) is not easy and requires a degree of skill and training. A deep knowledge of the genre and the “tricks of the trade” is necessary to know how to handle ethical dilemmas in an elegant way rather than simply shying away from difficult topics. It is perhaps this, more than anything, which makes me wary of a formulaic review process, as I worry that they leave little room for creative solutions to ethical problems, preferring instead bureaucratic ones.

UPDATE: Edited for clarity.

3 thoughts on “Thinking About Research Ethics

  1. @Kerim: This is a really important topic, and I wish there was a lot more discussion about these sorts of things. For me, the IRB process has always been somewhat difficult to deal with–mostly because it’s all so formulaic and geared toward dealing with situations in advance. The model that is typically used really does not fit well at all with the way that ethnography actually works in practice (which is your point as I read it).

    Anyway, a lot of the questions that IRB wants seem impossible to answer at certain points in time, before actually getting data and establishing relationships within communities. So I like your idea (following Simpson) of viewing these ethical questions as an ongoing dialog, rather than just a form to be signed and then filed away. Now we just have to figure a way to work that into the process…in the past I have had a hard enough time explaining that “participant observation” is not simply a quantitative exercise that can be laid out in advance (one reviewer at a former institution wanted me to tell them how often, how long, and with who I would be conducting these observations).

    Also, I think you make a good point about having a deep knowledge of the histories of ethnography. Viewing that knowledge as an important tool for dealing with these kinds of tough ethical questions is really productive. Thanks.

  2. A very important issue! Some IRBs are more understanding than others. I’ve thought for a long time that institutions (including the US government that mandates IRBs) should create social science IRBs separate from medical IRBs. The main problem here, though, is that some social science research includes medical research, and vice versa. Certainly IRBs should have a balanced membership of social scientists, including ethnographers, with medical researchers. One great problem with IRBs is the question “What has changed in your research?” We have learned to reply, “Nothing” — a lie, of course, if you’re doing ethnography, but if you describe any changes, your whole research project may be threatened.

    Your idea, Kerim, of an ongoing process is quite interesting. The process, however, would depend on the relationship between researcher and mentor (advisor?), and the time (quantity and quality) that the mentor could devote to the process. Some advisors are better mentors and have more time for such processes than others.

    I am now embarking on research without the oversight of an IRB, a seemingly liberating idea, until I realize that I am wholly responsible for the ethics of my research. How do I convince my subjects (many are natural sciences researchers) that I will conduct my research ethically, sensitive to confidentiality and anonymity? It will be an on-going process. Thank you for the reference to Simpson.

  3. I have not seen much written yet about the difficulties in coordinating or translating trans-national IRB approvals. I speak as someone currently doing fieldwork in a country (Papua New Guinea) with its own institutions and procedures for ethics approval that have been shaped by a particular history of “extractive” research (not least in anthropology). At least within research communities here, the standards for “ethical research” are quite different from either the US medical ethics model and the more open-ended (?) US anthropological envisioning of ethical practice.

    Bringing the ethical approvals I got from institutions in the US into alignment with standards and protocols here has taken up much of the time (I’m talking years, not weeks or months) I would have otherwise spent, like, doing research. When all is said and done I don’t think the two sets of ethical procedures–both the official IRB protocols and the backstage work of engagement, consultation, and negotiation–are commensurable. They have different aims and different objects.

    I bring this up because it always seems to me that anthropological critiques of IRBs presume that “negotiating access” and getting IRB approval are separate processes (one taking place in the real world, the other one some sort of institutional smokescreen), when in my experience they are fundamentally linked.

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