Ethics and Ethnography

I’ve been having some interesting conversations over at OrgTheory with Victor Tan Chen about the ethical dilemmas that ethnographers face in their research practices. This is closely related to the issues that Benson picked up on in his recent post, noting that our Code of Ehics requires us “to preserve and protect the privacy, dignity, well-being, and freedom of [our] research participants.” In this post, I’d like to bring out to important dimensions which we might distinguish into a concern with our “scientific” and our “professional” integrity.

As scientists, we are concerned with the truth. So, when we observe something in our fieldwork we feel a duty to report those events as they actually happened. But sometimes we have to modify our description of those events, leave them out, or even outright fictionalize them, in order to protect our research subjects from the consequences of making their actions public. (This is not always, but sometimes, because they are themselves involved in unethical or illegal activities, which raises an additional dilemma.) Once we do this, of course, we have made a compromise, we have sacrificed a little bit of truth for the sake of a, presumably, greater bit of justice.

But at the next level of analysis, we now have to ask ourselves whether we are inadvertently circulating falsehoods. Will our readers begin to tell certain anecdotes to their peers and students as though they are “true stories” even though the actual events are very different? What for us might merely be slight embellishment for the sake of concealing an identity or a location, might for our readers become an illuminating “fact” about how the world works.

Consider an analogy to medical science. Obviously, you don’t want to end up claiming that a pill has effects it doesn’t actually have or doesn’t have effects it actually does. That’s why you don’t leave out information about the population that you have tested it on. If you’ve only tested the pill on healthy men in their thirties, you don’t hide this fact in your write up because it’s important to know that its effects on seventy year-old women with high blood pressure are largely unknown. Similarly, if you’ve done your ethnographic research in rural China, you don’t “anonymize it” by saying it was done in India or the US. The context matters, and it is often very difficult to know how to characterize the context while also making it non-specific enough not to reveal who your actual research subjects were.

The broader professional issue has to do with preserving our collective to access to the communities that we want to remain knowledgeable about. If Wall Street bankers always find themselves written about by ethnographers as greedy sociopaths (and assuming they don’t self-identify as greedy sociopaths) or citizens of low-income neighborhoods always find themselves described as criminals, they will slowly develop a (not entirely unfounded) distrust of ethnographers and will, therefore, be less likely to open up their practices to our fieldwork. As Victor points out, these are issues that journalists also face, and which they have a variety of means to deal with. Many of these means can be sorted under “ethics”.

Let me emphasize that these are issues we must face collectively, i.e., as a profession. Losing access to empirical data is not just a risk you face personally in your own work. If your peers don’t enforce disciplinary standards then we’ll all lose credibility when engaging with practitioners. For this reason I also agree with the anonymous commenter on my last post: we must lead by example and, unfortunately, every now and then we must make examples of each other.

Practicalities

It’s been a while since I’ve posted here, and I had better get my act together again. I thought a good way to get going would be say a few words about the practical work of the Ethics Education Committee in the year to come, very much in the hopes that some of our readers here at the Ethicist will see an angle in it that they might find engaging. In addition to attracting Academy members who might like to work directly with the committee, I’m also looking for ways that the committee might make a contribution to the work of the various divisions.

Let me begin with the blog, which we’re hoping will become a major site of activity in the months to come. This is a place where we can discuss the sorts of ethical issues that are faced by Academy members, both as scholars and as professionals. It is also a place where we can can develop the form and content of the materials we contribute to ethics education throughout the Academy. Currently, I’m very focused on the contribution we can make to the doctoral and early-career researcher consortia over the coming years. I will have some news about that soon.

My hope is that the blog can be a place where the Academy’s members can have some influence on what we mean by ethics and how we teach it.  This is the sort of question I tried to raise in my post about the two major approaches to ethics education we tried out in Vancouver.

In Vancouver I was also given the “keys” to the Ethicist’s Twitter account, which I will be trying to promote in the weeks to come. Do please help me help its future followers find it by retweeting the stuff you think is interesting. This, of course, will also give us a better sense of what you do, in fact, find interesting to talk about.

As a general framework for thinking about what the Committee can contribute, I want to propose we think about the ideal presentation, centered on the contents of the Academy of Management’s Code of Ethics, that might be delivered in 5, 15, 30, 45 and 60 minutes. What would be the most important topics and principles to cover? What would be the best way to engage an audience of the Academy’s members (usually doctoral students or early-career researchers)? What’s a sure-fire way to lose them?

To my mind, ethics is a practice by which we form our moral characters. It is both individual and social. It’s the means by which we help each other become better people, and remain good in the face of life’s many pressures. It is a very practical business.

How should we treat each other as scientific subjects?

At the Academy meeting in Vancouver this year, it was brought to my attention that there were PDW’s collecting research data on participating members – without a clear ethics approval or apparent ethics protocol. That is, there was no informed consent, yet data appeared to be collected.

This was not the first time I observed our collective avoidance of Ethics Review Board (ERB) or Institutional Review Board (IRB) protocol when surveying ourselves.  As previous chair of AOM’s ethics education committee, I was tasked with repeating the ethics survey that we had administered to our entire membership some years before. The first thing that I did was to ask for the ethics review board protocol, in order to be sure I was following accepted procedures.

After a few weeks of embarrassing emails and back and forth confirmations, it was eventually clear that we had never submitted our own ethics survey to any kind of ethics review board. I was told that when the AOM board met to discuss this issue there was some hesitancy to constrain the activities of divisions surveying their membership – and no clear path to indicate who would serve as an accepted IRB for Academy research. My own decision was to obtain ERB approval and protocols from my own university, and proceed with the survey in that manner.

Many of us feel IRB’s are a burden. However, it is worth noting how many of these regulations came about.  For one, experiments on concentration camp victims horrified the scientific community, leading to the Nuremberg code. Much later, the experiments by Stanley Milgrom attempted to understand how people willingly agreed to do terrible acts to each other. His work, as well as famous Zimbardo prison simulation study, have led to tighter constraints on how to approach research, what is acceptable, and when ‘the line is crossed”.

One of my very first sociology professors was Laud Humphreys. He was famous for studying homosexual activities in public toilets, where he acted as the “watchqueen”. Later, he surreptitiously followed participants to their cars, identified their license plates, and showed up at their home disguised as a surveying health worker. This was done in 1960’s before IRB’s were mandated by the US federal government.

In fact, we have Academy members who come from countries where there is little of any oversight regarding research, particularly social science research.  However, I would argue we have a collective responsibility to observe the highest standards of research protocol, despite the burden, for our entire membership.

Our own code of ethics addresses this issue, although not as stridently as one might expect, as there is no specific mention of IRB procedures:

Participants. It is the duty of AOM members to preserve and protect the privacy, dignity, well-being,and freedom of research participants.

1.7. Informed Consent: When AOM members conduct research, including on behalf of the AOM or its divisions, they obtain the informed consent of the individual or individuals, using language that is reasonably understandable to that person or persons. Written or oral consent, permission, and assent are documented appropriately.

2.4. Anticipation of Possible Uses of Information:

2.4.1. When maintaining or accessing personal identifiers in databases or systems of records, such as division rosters, annual meeting submissions, or manuscript review systems, AOM members delete such identifiers before the information is made publicly available or employ other techniques that mask or control disclosure of individual identities.

2.4.2. When deletion of personal identifiers is not feasible, AOM members take reasonable steps to determine that the appropriate consent of personally identifiable individuals has been obtained before they transfer such data to others or review such data collected by others

Most North American universities are under strict IRB procedures.  They are virtually unanimous in stating that all surveys involving human subjects should be subjected to ERB committees. Here are a few statements from the Canadian “Tri Counsel” that governs Canadian universities:

If the primary purpose, design, content and/or function of such surveys is to conduct “research”2 involving humans, then it would generally require REB review, under TCPS Article 1.1(a):

Very similar statements appear at the Cornell Univ. website:

At the end of the day, each of us, no matter where we do our scholarly work, have a responsibility to protect the respondent as much as possible, in every conceivable way. The distance between our own behavior, and the 16 German doctors convicted of experimenting on human beings without their consent, is an essential red line that we cannot allow to become a ‘slippery slope’. Thus, even when we decide to research ourselves, as professors, and colleagues, I believe we should commit to the highest standards of scientific ethical inquiry. Even if IRB’s are a ‘burden’.

 

 

 

Who Needs Ethics Education?

At this year’s Academy meeting we had some interesting conversations in the Ethics Education Committee about our approach to teaching the Code. The traditional approach is to assume that our audiences need resources to help them to reflect on what is right and wrong in their professional practices. This can involve everything from from helping them to clarify their underlying values  to helping them decide whether to credit a particular author in a particular circumstance. The presumption is that people want to learn how to become, for lack of a better word, better people. They want to learn what is right. We’re certainly willing and able to provide such support, even if we often approach it by telling them what is wrong, what not to do.

But I had the opportunity to talk a few consortium organizers in the divisions this year and I got the sense that not all our audiences feel that this is the right approach. An alternative, and one for which I’ve been arguing lately every chance I get, is to educate people about what to do when they run into ethically questionable behavior in others. Sometimes it is just that: merely “questionable”, and when the questions are answered everything turns out to be fine. But sometimes there is a need to take action, either to protect yourself from harm or to mitigate the harm that may have been done to someone else. Even when you’re blameless, you need ethics to help guide you towards a constructive resolution of the conflict.

That’s why we’ve been working to incorporate a sense of the various processes and procedures within the Academy of Management in our educational initiatives. In a sense, we want to shift the focus from the “bad guys”, who need to be told what not to do, to the “good guys”, who need to be told what can be done when bad things happen. And it’s even more hopeful than that, in fact. Sometimes, a robustly ethical perspective can give us the hope we need to discover that an apparent wrong was actually not as harmful as we thought, perhaps not a wrong at all.

Let me offer a simple example. One topic that came up a few times was the increasing problem of “coercive citation”. This is the practice of requiring someone to cite your favorite paper (perhaps even one you’ve written yourself) before you’ll publish them. Such power can be exerted by both editors and reviewers, though most of the focus these days is on the editors who do it to boost their impact factors. Now, on the traditional approach we’d try to encourage editors not to be coercive in this way. But do we really think that the Ethics Education Committee will reach the hearts and minds of senior scholars who have become editors of important journals? I’m not very hopeful about this at all.

Instead, therefore, we can try to instruct authors in how to interpret and respond to what appears to be an attempt to coerce a citation. The first rule would be to assume good faith. At first pass, a suggested citation is just that: a suggestion to read a particular paper because including it may strengthen your own. The problem arises after you read it and deem it to be either deeply flawed or simply irrelevant to your aims. At this point, a cynical author might decide to cite the paper anyway, on the understanding that it is required for publication. But a less cynical one–one that has been ethically educated, let’s say–might simply thank the editor or the reviewer for the suggestion and explain that the paper is not, in the author’s judgment, appropriate to include. If the suggestion was indeed intended to be coercive, it just ran into an obstacle (and then we can talk about what might happen next), but if it wasn’t, it would have been tragic to let it harm the quality of the original argument and corrupt the author’s integrity.

I think this sort of instruction in what our options are when something appears to be amiss but might not actually be is too often left out of ethics education. Ethics education is not really for bad people who need to become better. It’s for good people who need strategies and support for maintaining their goodness in the face all sorts of mixed signals and strange incentives. Ethics education is about telling people that there is a community in place to support their attempts to be good, not a surveillance state to thwart their attempts to cheat. In this way, ethics education might even be edifying.