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Ecclectica - Ethical Standards in Research: Contextualizing Guidelines to Fit Ethnographic Needs

Ethical Standards in Research: Contextualizing Guidelines to Fit Ethnographic Needs Ethical Standards in Research: Contextualizing Guidelines to Fit Ethnographic Needs by Deatra Walsh The social sciences, like any field of research, have a history of change. It is only natural that as societies change around the world, so must the disciplines that attempt to understand them. However, as the history of the social sciences shows, there has always been debate on the best way to study societies and whether one should follow in the quantitative, positivist tradition or the qualitative, interpretavist tradition. Today, this debate continues, however a new debate has also emerged. How do we establish standards for conducting research and more specifically, what are our ethical guidelines? This paper addresses this question from an ethnographic inquiry perspective. Ethnography, because of its emphasis on intersubjectivity and giving voice to oneself and the other, is particularly vulnerable to the ethical debate. It is argued here that given the nature of changing research approaches, ethical guidelines established within the positivist tradition cannot and should not be applied to qualitative, ethnographic research methods. New guidelines need to be established that fit the nature of ethnographic research, and take into account the lack of boundaries that we face as researchers both in a physical and psychological sense. In order to discuss the inadequacy of current ethical guidelines for ethnographic research, several topics must first be introduced. This paper will begin with a brief explanation of the history of ethical guidelines and the case for ethics in research. Next, the ethnographic tradition, as well as its place in the social sciences’ qualitative-quantitative continuum will be discussed. This will be followed by a discussion on the case of ethical guidelines in ethnographic research. Finally, concluding remarks will be provided along with recommendations for alternative approaches to ethics in ethnography. Ethics comes from the Greek word ethos, meaning morals. It is a philosophical approach that explores the rights and wrongs of human conduct (The New Lexicon Webster’s Encyclopedic Dictionary of the English Language, 1988). Because research involves conduct and contact with other people, it is no surprise that researchers must be particularly in tune to ethical issues. However, this was not always the case. As Berg (1998) points out, concern over researcher conduct only began to surface around the mid-1940s when it was revealed that life-threatening, torturous biomedical research had been done on human subjects by Nazi scientists (Berg, 1998). Despite the development of the Nuremberg code in 1949, which outlined the necessity of file:///E|/Lit review & resources/Ethical Standards in Research, Walsh.htm (1 of 6)02/08/2007 10:14:03 PM


Ecclectica - Ethical Standards in Research: Contextualizing Guidelines to Fit Ethnographic Needs

voluntary participation, questionable research activities took place up until the 1960s (Berg, 1998). The chain of “unethical” practices outlined by Berg (1998) has led us to a time when more attention is paid to how research is conducted. As such, research today ensures that research subjects give informed consent, and that they are guaranteed either confidentiality or anonymity (Bailey, 1994; Berg, 1998; Jackson, 1988). The tenants of ethics appear to be relatively simplistic: to ensure that people understand what you are doing and to seek their approved participation. Once this is accomplished, make sure that they either remain anonymous, if their identity is not disclosed, or that their identity and individual information be kept in confidence. To ensure this process is undertaken, academic institutions and disciplinary associations have established ethical guidelines and standards adopted from the Tri-Council Policy Statement: Ethical Conduct for Research Involving Humans. [1] These guidelines include: respect for human dignity, respect for free and informed consent, respect for vulnerable persons, respect for privacy and confidentiality, respect for justice and inclusiveness, balancing harms and benefits, minimizing harm, and maximizing benefit. [2] As with other academic institutions, any research involving “human subjects” has to be approved by the committee before fieldwork can begin. Again, it appears as though the ethics process is painless; however, ethical guidelines as we know them are structured toward the positivist, quantitative tradition (Berg, 1998). This is particularly true in the case of survey research, where there is little contact between the researcher and the researched, the format for research is structured, and objectivity is assumed to be a given. In his ethical rules, Jackson (1988) states that one must be competent, impartial and neutral when conducting research. These are rules more conducive to scientific research and, in the social sciences, can be attributed to the work of Durkheim and Comte, whose epistemological belief was that the truth was out there and that it could be obtained empirically through research. Fortunately, or not, we know that this is not always the case. This realization has opened up the possibilities of alternate forms of research, which permit subjectivity. Postmodern ethnographic research is one area where subjectivity has been embraced. Rooted in the anthropological tradition, ethnography is a qualitative, interaction-based means to understand the other and ultimately oneself through reflexivity. As Altheide and Johnson (1998) argue, ethnography itself is a subjective approach to reality focusing on how people interpret their world and construct their own truths. Current ethnographic writing not only expresses the voice of others, it also gives privileged positioning to the ethnographer’s perspective, place and motivation for engaging in study (Altheide and Johnson, 1998:293). In other words, it is now acceptable for the researcher’s voice to be present in writing. While this may be viewed as researcher bias, Callaway (1992:30) argues that unloading one’s “personal and cultural components” before heading into the field is largely impossible and furthermore, counterproductive. She argues that the understanding and expression of oneself is a powerful resource to understanding the other in ethnography. However, this was not always a guiding principal to understand the other. file:///E|/Lit review & resources/Ethical Standards in Research, Walsh.htm (2 of 6)02/08/2007 10:14:03 PM


Ecclectica - Ethical Standards in Research: Contextualizing Guidelines to Fit Ethnographic Needs

The anthropological and arguably “ethnographic” writings of Evans-Pritchard or Malinowski in the early 1900s illustrated the researcher’s third person position, as well as a distance between the researcher and the researched. Berger (2001:506) writes that that although changes came about in the 1970s with regard to researcher positioning in the field, it was not until the 1980s, did “more ethnographers begin to concentrate on their own experiences of participation in their fieldwork.” She attributes this not only to post-modernism, but also to the growth of feminist theory that concentrated on the place and identity of the researcher (see Smith, 1990). What then are the implications of ethics on ethnography, given the fact that postmodern ethnographic research is qualitative, intersubjective and based on the researcher’s position in the field? The literature indicates that ethical guidelines are difficult to enforce when it comes to ethnographic research (Bailey, 1994; Berg, 1998). Richardson (2000:253) writes that “postmodernism awakens us to the problematics of collecting and reporting data, and challenges disciplinary rules and boundaries on ethical, aesthetic, theoretical and empirical grounds.” Lincoln (1998) argues that this is the case because established guidelines are based on certainty in the field, which she writes is impossible when doing ethnographic research. Likewise, Stewart (1998) argues that the context of research cannot really be specified prior to entering the field and even there, the circumstances are complex, varied and dynamic. One is never sure of what will occur when doing work in the field because ethnography is comprised of an ongoing and fluid, communicative process (Berger, 2001). Ethnographers are in constant interaction with their informants, assuming multiple roles at any given time and this focus on the self’s changing identities is what makes ethical boundaries so complex (Cloke, Cooke, Cursons, Milborne and Widdowfield, 2000). Berger (2001:515) writes that the dynamic, fluid nature of ethnography leads to a process where “understandings of ourselves and others slip through and around boundaries and definitions, coming together and moving apart.” Ethnography is neither formulaic, nor structured and this is particularly true for autoethnography. In this type of postmodern research, researchers share information and stories about themselves in the field with their informants. It is an exchange that occurs and aids in building relationships so that trust and rapport can be established (Berger, 2001). Because ethnography is focused on exploring the self and the other through observation and dialogue, it depends on flexibility. It is not a systematic, clear and distanced relationship between researcher and researched (Berg, 1998), where research subjects act as guinea pigs, picked on and poked for information. In fact, Cloke et al. (2000) argue that most of the ethical dilemmas that arise out of ethnographic research stem from the reality that in this type of research, people cannot be treated as objects. However, if guidelines promote objectivity as a means to retain ethics in research, then is the subjective and often personal experience of ethnography unethical? While objectivity, biasness, researcher positioning and fluid boundaries are all issues that may raise ethical concerns, perhaps an even bigger issue is that of informed consent. Informed consent “entails making the subject fully aware of the purpose of the study, its possible dangers and the credentials of the researcher” (Bailey, 1994:458). Again, this is relatively simple if one is file:///E|/Lit review & resources/Ethical Standards in Research, Walsh.htm (3 of 6)02/08/2007 10:14:03 PM


Ecclectica - Ethical Standards in Research: Contextualizing Guidelines to Fit Ethnographic Needs

carrying out scientific or survey research, however, in the case of covert ethnographic methods whereby people are observed in their natural environments, this type of consent cannot be applied (Bailey, 1994). Furthermore, there is also the issue of whether consent is signed or implied. In the case of signed consent, participants are required, along with the researcher, to sign an informed consent slip detailing the nature of the study, including its potential risks and benefits. In the latter, consent is a verbal agreement whereby the participant understands all the study details (Berg, 1998). Bailey (1994) indicates that we are moving towards a more bureaucratic stance on informed consent such that signed consent forms will be the norm. If this is the case, the approval of ethnographic research based on standard ethical guidelines will be even more difficult to achieve. Ethnography is also about practicing cultural relativism (Prattis, 1997). This refers to the notion that informants’ beliefs and practices must be respected and not be impinged with preconceived ideologies that could affect their self-expression. For example, in working with the Western Apache, Basso (1999) realized that silence is a large part of their culture. As a western Anglophone accustomed to extensive verbal communication, he found it difficult to adjust to the Apache way of being, but soon realized that he must respect silence and use its presence to better understand their culture. Respecting cultural norms is therefore a part of the ethnographic research process, and is equally important to establishing trust with informants. What will be the implications if signed consent forms are imposed on groups where verbal agreements are the norm? In such societies, surely people will not want to be bombarded by explanatory letters and papers that must be signed. In fact, practices such as this might do more harm than good because they may create suspicion. Futhermore, how will this be possible if illiterate groups are being studied? As long as informants are aware of the researcher’s intent, credentials, and all other details about the study, then verbal agreements or “implied consent” should be sufficient. Clearly, ethnography is a flexible research approach (Cloke et al., 2000). If this is the case, then ethical guidelines should evolve and be flexible as well. It is my opinion that currently, the ethical guidelines applied to most social research are not flexible. I am not suggesting that we disregard ethical guidelines. We must uphold our ethical commitments to the people we study, and ensure that as participants, they are not harmed in any way in the research process. This involves ensuring confidentiality to the best of our ability, although this can be difficult when doing ethnographic research in small communities (Lincoln, 1998) or qualitative research among small groups (Bowman and Jevne, 2000). While ethical guidelines often call for anonymity as well, the nature of ethnographic research makes this nearly impossible. With the exception of naturalistic observation where random “anonymous” people are weaved into the ethnography, ethnographers usually develop long and deep relationships with their informants. Again, this makes it difficult to follow positivist ethical guidelines. What I am calling for is a revisitation of ethical guidelines as they apply to postmodern research. Positivist, scientific-based guidelines cannot be applied to interpretivist research methods.

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Ecclectica - Ethical Standards in Research: Contextualizing Guidelines to Fit Ethnographic Needs

Although I have not dealt with all the ethical issues associated with ethnographic research, I have illustrated some of the more problematic ones when considering standard ethical guidelines. Just as one broad research approach cannot be applied to all studies, standard ethical guidelines should not be applied to all research methods. Guidelines must be contextualized, not standardized, and applied on a case-by-case basis. This way, fairness to all research can be achieved and we can continue to do relevant and important work in our respective disciplines.

Footnotes [1] The tri-council policy can be found at http://www.nserc.ca/programs/ethics/english/policy.htm [2] The guidelines and their adoption into the BUREC policy can be found at http://www. brandonu.ca/administration/vpacademic/research/BUREC_Human_guidelines.htm

References Altheide, David L. and John M. Johnson. 1998. “Criteria for Assessing Interpretative Validity in Qualitative Research.” Pp. 283-312 in Collecting and Interpreting Qualitative Materials, edited by N. K. Denzin and Y.S. Lincoln. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications. Bailey, K.D. 1994. Methods in Social Research, 4th ed. New York: The Free Press. Basso, K.H. 1999. “‘To Give up on Words’:Silence in Western Apache Culture.” Pp. 154-163 in Applying Anthropology, edited by A Podolefsky and P.J. Brown. London: Mayfield. Berg, B. 1988. Qualitative Research Methods for the Social Sciences, 3rd ed. Boston: Allyn and Bacon. Berger, L. 2001. “Inside Out: Narrative Autoethnography as a Path Toward Rapport.” Qualitative Inquiry 7(4): 504-518. Bowman, J. and R. Jevne. 2000. “Ethical Evaluation in Qualitative Research.” Qualitative Health Research 10(4): 547-554. Callaway, H. 1992. “Ethnography and Experience: Gender Implications in Fieldwork and Texts,” Pp 29-45 in Anthropology and Autobiography, edited by J. Okely and H. Callaway. London: Routeledge.

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Ecclectica - Ethical Standards in Research: Contextualizing Guidelines to Fit Ethnographic Needs

Cloke, P., P. Cooke, J. Cursons, P. Milbourne and R. Widdowfield. 2000. “Ethics, Reflexivity and Research: Encounters with Homeless People.” Ethics, Place and Environment 3(2): 133154. Jackson, W. 1988. Research Methods for Survey Research and Design. Scarborough: Prentice Hall Canada. Lincoln, Y. S. 1998. “The Ethics of Teaching in Qualitative Research.” Qualitative Inquiry 4 (3): 315-327. The New Lexicon Webster’s Encyclopedic Dictionary of the English Language. (1988). New York: Lexicon Publications, Inc. Prattis, J. I. 1997. “Opening Ourselves Up to the Voyage of Anthropological Practice.” Pp. 99126 in Anthropology at the Edge, Lanham: University Press of America. Richardson, L. 2000. “Evaluating Ethnography.” Qualitative Inquiry 6(2): 253-255. Smith, D. 1990. The Conceptual Practices of Power. Toronto: University of Toronto Press. Stewart, A. 1998. The Ethnographer’s Method. Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications. About Ecclectica | Current issue | Issue archive | Links | The editorial team | Contact us ISSN 1708-721X

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