It has been standard practice in anthropology to change the names of the people and places we analyze, but recently scholars have been questioning the necessity and even possibility of keeping participants anonymous, especially when they already have a social media presence. In this post, I share what I did to anonymize my research site and participants, and I do my best to start a discussion about the broader issue of anonymization now that detective work can be as simple as plugging a few search terms into Google.
When anthropologist Cathy Small enrolled as an undergraduate in her own university ten years ago to do the fieldwork that resulted in My Freshman Year: What a Professor Learned by Becoming a Student (2005), she knew that she wanted to protect the identities of her participants and institution by referring to them using pseudonyms. She called herself “Rebekah Nathan” (an excellent choice of pseudonym if you ask me) and Northern Arizona University “AnyU” (a play on its initials, NAU).
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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.”
“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 Continue reading →