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.

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