Discussion questions, comments etc. for ARM week 10


Ahhh, I love the smell of ethics in the morning... it smells like... victory!  This week’s readings were very engaging for me.  I went through an interesting journey from annoyance and frustration to appreciation and tolerance (not quite acceptance).  “Being Fair” just made me mad; as a former musician (pianist, band-geek), the idea of staging situations so as to rip off performers came across as vile.  

  Horwitz’s “Just Stories” raised questions for me and created an odd likeness between researchers and tabloid reporters (this before I read “Airing Dirty Laundry”, much to my later amusement).  I was glad to see Horwitz honestly noting how review committees get more concerned when the subjects are people “in an office tower with their own legal department.” (p14)   It reminds me of earlier discussions we’ve had about how IRBs seem mostly concerned with legal ass-covering rather than with ethics (as most ethical oversight bodies seem to be).  “Collaborative editing” seems inherently problematic unless you are dealing with someone who has comparable writing skills and an understanding of the research context; there are still power differentials, and the negotiations sound a lot like the wheedling you’d hear on a bad date with a guy who has boundary issues...

  The norm of trying to use real names where possible irks me because I have been in many situations where identity and information were classified (military) or highly sensitive (health/med research, politics), and the assumption that subjects should be identified by default is troubling.  Story time: I was involved in a case of civil disobedience against an unjust policy that resulted in my short-term arrest and detention.  The issue was negotiated and I was cleared of all charges and allowed to go home.  After some reflection and discussion with my advocates, I decided to speak to a local newspaper reporter to share my story.  The only reason I did this was because this reporter had anonymously interviewed several other people in similar situations as mine, but they were unable to act or protest as I did because they had families and were more vulnerable career-wise.  Without a face or a name, the reporter could not run this story exposing the unjust policy.  Thus, I allowed them to plaster my face and name on the front page so that they could do this story; we explicitly agreed that the article would focus as much as possible on the policy and not on me, and I felt that they were as good to their word as possible. I received mostly positive feedback in person (online was a different story, naturally), and I am proud to have made that decision.  But I would have felt extremely violated if 1) the story had been poorly written and focused on me as a human-interest story, 2) the product was not of the quality I expected from our interview, or 3) I had been coerced into giving, or worse, assumed to have given consent.  I know that journalistic standards are different from research standards, and I’m interested in learning more about what the differences are.  It seems that journalism, at least on face, has more explicit protections for informants that are legally codified.  Perhaps there is something to learn here?

  The Thorne piece on informed consent was interesting, but in the interests of time, I’ll keep this part short and sweet.  Interesting contrast between biomedical research and social science research - coming from bioethics where we talked a lot about explicit consent forms, there were interesting insights brought up contrasting “going to a lab” vs. “being observed in your natural habitat” that make the process muddy.  Kantian ethics is frequently misinterpreted into a straw man - you’re not supposed to use people merely as a means to your ends; it is understandable that we all use people as means in ways (vendors, parents, teachers, servers, etc), but we must always appreciate them first and foremost as morally important beings.  The use of “partial truths” to gain access resonated with me since it reminds me of my genderbending Troll character.  Again, the lack of explicit consent/refusal not being a confounding point reminds me of bad date (potential date rape) scenarios and creeps me out.

  I really liked “Airing Dirty Laundry” because of the... humility shown in the reflection and discussion.  The thoughtful discussion of how to ethically involve oneself in a participant-observer experience was done well and redeemed researchers in my eyes.  The reflection on how feminist researchers are caught between being respectful of subjects and fighting stereotypes that women are "especially ethical and caring", consideration, uncomfortable "exercising interpretive power on their own and others' behalf" resonated with me as well.  

  The way the focus was put not on "whether power is operating but what kind of power is operating, how it is wielded, and to what use it is put" demonstrates rigorous ethical thinking that I like to see.  There will always be power dynamics, but what impact will they have?  One angle I see is the issue of “voice” - how much potential do you have to communicate your findings/observations to others in powerful/influential positions?  A researcher is presumed to have a lot of voice because they will be publishing their work for many others to see; additionally, they (ought to) have good writing skills and can express themselves coherently and authoritatively.  Sometimes subjects have a good voice too - I felt that I had a comparable level of voice as the reporter doing my story - and as was noted, the subjects are observing you just as you’re observing them.  

  I am still chewing on the ethics of signing on to a job or position that is considered “low level” (like an intern, or a McDonald’s worker) to become a participant-observer.  I take less issue with misleading information being used if there is more focus on the structures and environment than on individuals - social structures don’t have feelings, people do.  Also, I agree somewhat with the idea of public access - if someone off the street or an “average Joe/Jane” could apply for and get this job, then there is a pretty low barrier to entry overall.  If someone like one of us fell on hard times and applied for a low-level job, are we obligated to disclose that we used to work with high-level politicians or were active in the journalism community (and thus have more “voice”)?  If you are there and doing your job up to expectations and not being more invasively nosy than an average curious person would be, then I don’t see much harm until you look at the voice impacts afterwards.  

  How about that CITI training? Whee!

David B.

Privacy is an evolving idea that may also be radically different for every community. Privacy is tied to agency.

Most of the authors made some (what I considered to be) awkward metaphors and analogies that didn’t really make sense. For instance, in “Being Fair” I don’t think he jumps back and forth between contemporary examples of popular music copyright and folklore work done with indigenous societies. In the beginning he makes an interesting analogy that goes Land : colonists :: stories/songs : ethnographers or social scientists. It isn’t enough to just switch over the deed/copyright. It has to do with the fact that a new order has been imposed where there was none in the past. But then he goes on to talk about collecting stories and then disseminating them for some sort of gain. He says,  “the ethics have to be worked through anew every time (P.262).” I don’t think its quite that murky. If you can understand one basic component of the meaning of music (can it be shared at a fee, is it a currency in and of itself) you can act in accordance with that culturally situated stance. If songs and stories are currency (which we’ve talked about occurring) then repeating them might act more like counterfeiting than stealing. While this doesn’t answer all of our questions, I think it shows that the “figuring out” is less unorganized as Jackson claimed.

I actually liked Jackson’s straightforward approach to releases. “ It was simple and direct, it said what wewere doing, and their signatures said they understood what we were doing. That's all a release has to do (P.274).” But I don’t see that working very well in a society radically different from that of the ethnographer’s. It assumes a certain level of shared understanding between researcher and participant about what exactly is going on. I also can’t imagine that flying for protected groups, especially children.

I appreciated the Horowitz piece because I think it got at some debates we’ve been having about the researcher’s roll in changing power relations between oppressed/subaltern/marginalized and dominant/elite/hegemonic/ groups. The (systematic perhaps?) trend of ethnographers to ally with “ignoramuses and oppressors” (P.131) can be investigated through the two discrete bodies of literature he labels as “ethics” and “theory.” My reading of Horowitz was not that the ethnographer simply inverts the power relations of the situation, or performs some sort of thought experiment in which the ideology of the oppressed is thrust into the dominant position and problems disappear, rather ethnographers must chart dangerous waters in which they weigh the ability of every participant to avert negative consequences of an ethnography, while at the same time critically analyzing those abilities. Another way to put it is this: the reflexivity of the author is focused on recognizing relationships of power, not changing the relations of power. The quote from Clifford on page 276 is especially poignant- the ethnographer is in a state of invention, not just representation. Therefore, one must be careful when making interventions.


I found the readings to contain a lot of interesting anecdotes reiterating a lot of, as I see it, obvious ethical conclusions and a few ones new to me. Clearly one should not seek out to deceive or manipulate their subjects or make money off of someone else's work without their permission and attempting to give credit and/or share of the earnings. The readings, like "Dirty Laundry" (cue the Don Henley song), do mention many ethical gray areas that arise in taking non-standard approaches to inserting oneself into an institution or public.

One thing that I did find interesting in the Thorne piece (I think) was the mention of passing a clipboard with an informed consent form down a row of prison cells and collecting it at the end. The investigator found that even those with a legal conflict which should deter or prevent them from consenting still did so. So really how informed can someone be when handed a strange form (lacking the advice of an attorney). I could imagine the inmate getting the form handed to them for next door and not really understanding his or her right or ability to not sign or perhaps not reflecting very much upon the implications. Who really reads these things carefully or thinks about them (software licence agreements come to mind)? A researcher aiming to come out of the field with something really interesting and/or novel to say, in a way, may be  relying on the fact that nobody will be questioning their presence or the agenda implicit in their study too carefully or perhaps not being upfront about one's agenda unless directly asked. It's all for the academic greater good, right? Like much of life, there is probably no way of getting through fieldwork ethically clean.

I really liked the Jackson piece as well. Especially in his willingness to questions subjects who give him the "X happened to me...err well to a buddy of mine." I think this points to the importance of thinking about the psychology of one's subjects. They may maintain stories or viewpoints in conflict with fact (cognitive dissonance) because it resonates with them due to their current situation/worldview. I think a well developed Bullshit Detector would be asset to anyone interviewing people. However, it is easy to see how Jackson was sucked in by the "perfect subject" because his frustrations in working other ones not giving him anything juicy. This is probably an affliction that can strike any researcher but, like any resource, people need to be fact-checked for reliability.  


In the article “Being fair” , the author says that social researchers ‘ “ own instinct “ may not be sufficient to let them know what does and does not harm the subjects of study . This statement made me ponder what are my roles as a social researcher within a field. I came to this conclusion that social researches should construct a new environment in the fields of study. Within these fields, social researchers play multiple roles.  Social researchers became both as “strangers” and “friends”, as insiders and outsiders, in order to get data for their research with no harmful consequences for their subjects of study . However, in some occasions, ethical conflicts relevant to this “duality “may be produced.

One of the ethical conflicts, I think is related to the informed consent. My question is that to what extend should the informed consent empower the informants? .  As social researchers, we should respect the autonomy and independency of our subjects of study . They are the final decision makes who decide whether to participate in an ethnographic work or not. Or whether or not agree the conditions of the consent .Accepting independency and autonomy of the informants is not just restricted to their choice; informants are also autonomous in their action. Informants should be independent and free to take action and leave the field of study whenever they think participating in the research is a threat to their well being.

The principle of “no harm for informants” is somehow controversial. It is undeniable that the subjects of study have this right to withdraw from research whenever they desire, but what about the future situation of the research? Consider that the ethnographer is , for example, a PhD student and the subjects in the middle of research decide not to contribute anymore despite their initial consent. Who does guarantee that the subjects of study do not leave the research without providing an acceptable excuse?

Ethnographers should also realize that however some informants such as children and mental patients have unequal level of maturity, or women in some countries have unequal legal rights, they should not be excluded from the process of informed consent or further informed consent. Informed consent is a universal principle which should be practiced regardless of the socio-political contexts of the fields of study.


I got wrapped up in reading the packet of readings, so I actually read BOTH Jackson Pieces (Being Fair, The Perfect Informant) which I see as being great pieces to have together because the point out a lot of good ideas about practice as well as presenting some nuanced ethnographic concerns that can make us reflect on our roles as researcher/powerful. I will try to limit my written responses to the first article, however.

        In it, Jacobson does a lot to point out some of the conflicts I’ve had about both the history of the way we’ve done science and some of the current practices of doing science. What I sense he is getting at is that previous understandings of role/value of stories has changed dramatically and that presents new kinds of considerations where they might not have existed before and where it might simply be frustrating to confront. What we do, especially in this world where we are increasingly interconnected, carries value and we can pollute sources of knowledge by focusing on our informants as mere objects. I suspect that this has happened in a much broader trend that Jacobson is writing about here and that stepping back, science with the people or for the people will be harder and harder to do. The CITI training, for example, seems to reflect some changes in that regard, but still focused around dealing with people who think in that mode. We lift so many of our ideas about how to ‘protect’ the people from our own involvement from the biomedical community, that it’s hard to find a place to insert this social relationship dynamic into a discussion about how you are supposed to conduct yourself with people fairly.

        Informed Consent as told by Horwitz seems to function on this level. his approach seems to argue that while we go along doing the contractual work that our IRBs require of us, our real responsibility goes deeper and that will be frustrating in a situation where it is convenient to be excused of all wrong doing or dirty pool because of a sheet of paper. Someone like me, who thrives on that dynamic give and take relationship with people will likely only be seriously frustrated by this. What about people who come into the social sphere through an interdisciplinary program? What will happen as we see a growing number of people who may have a more biomedical understanding of harm or for whom the idea that we can do harm that is not of a physical or financial type? I saw no part of the CITI training that addressed the international damage that can take place as a part of research. I suppose they hope that this is covered by mentorship.

        “Airing Dirty Laundry” does an adequate job of addressing what the Jacobson “Perfect Informant” piece does better: Addressing how the process of negotiation inside of the field takes place while at the same time examining the way in which the particular of their approach work or don’t’ work. I am troubled by her willingness for deception, this being a serious criticism of mine of science in general and psychology in particular (often a domain reached out for by talk shows). By Jacob’s account, Grinstaff might be polluting the well, but Grinstaff seems to suggest that field of talk shows is self reflective or powerful enough to not be worried by her. I think she does a great job of talking about her process and experience and I might be getting hung up on the fact that she had to lie to get there. Maybe I’m making too harsh of a distinction between researcher and human being.


Most of us, with the exception of Sonia perhaps who is well along on her research, are still formulating what it is we hope to achieve in the field or at least in our studies with interlocutors of some sort. As we begin to throw ourselves out of the proverbial nest of the classroom and into the world we need to face the fact that we might not know at this point exactly what it is we are looking to discover. We have encountered this idea already in our readings on ethnography, data collection, etc. But when the rubber hits the road (i.e. when you are talking with people in the field and with people in your discipline, with IRB) a more specific sense of what you are up to is needed.

Interviews – I think the readings do allow for enough room to interpret open questions while remaining ethically sound. “I don’t know” is shown as a legitimate explanation for how your data might later be interpreted. That said, as junior scholars I think it’s also important to reiterate the point that we should anticipate our potential interpretations and uses as we formulate our IRBs and consent forms.

Consent form – I am partial to having two kinds of consent forms that leave room for different levels of interpretation. For interlocutors you expect having regular access to it might suffice to have a simple open-ended consent form that can be renegotiated at future points once the ‘useful’ data is culled from the funneling process. A second, more specific consent form might then cover interactions with people you might never come in contact with again for example.

IRB – I’m having a tough time with this at the moment. How does one write an IRB (or go through all the logistical bullshit) as a junior researcher who anticipates your questioning and potential data collection and interpretation methods changing in the near-term? IRB review boards want specifics but are we able to provide them to the degree they expect from laboratory research projects? The readings talk about this as a constant problem in general but how do we both accommodate a need for details while giving ourselves interpretive maneuverability? I suppose one solution is to wait as long as possible and hide from the IRB board until the last possible moment. But from what I gather they also reserve the right to refuse data collected prior to their approval – is this the case?

Explaining your work - on a final note, how much is lost in the translation of our work to laypersons? In other words, how limited are we in being able to truthfully represent our intentions when our theories and methods require some degree of interpretive telling to be understood?