[Air-l] ethics of recording publicly observed interactions

Beverly Trayner btrayner at esce.ips.pt
Tue May 11 07:49:04 PDT 2004

I agree with Eero about keeping life simple. But I also think that what
looks simple is often, in fact, an elegant manifestation of deep
consideration about complex issues!

There are clearly power issues involved in recording people's interactions,
be they private or public. And this discussion has reminded me of one of
them - Foucault's metaphor of the panoptican.

(In case someone doesn't know the image, the panoptican is a circular
building with a guard tower in the middle and the prisoner's cells arranged
round the outside. With this design guards can always be observing the
prisoners without being seen. As the prisoner is never sure when he's being
observed, he becomes his own guardian. Whereas in the past we needed
monarchies to control "the people", we now live in times where people never
know if and when they are being observed (or for what purposes) so people
start subconsciously policing themselves.)  

Observing and recording people's interactions for research purposes without
their permission conjures up images for me of a prison guard in a
panoptican; a guard regardless of whether "the prisoner" is talking loudly
or softly on their mobile phone, or writing in public discussion forums.  

I don't see ethical guidelines as being only specific to the people
involved in a piece of research that I'm carrying out. I see the guidelines
as part of my own personal manifesto that says that I won't be part of any
process that could be contributing to an increasingly panoptical system of
coercion and which could be contributing to people becoming the principle
of their own subjection. (Foucault, 1979)

So for me, ethical guidelines are a way of taking and showing a position on
power relations; the power relations between me and my informants and also
power relations in broader societal (and political) terms. I may not agree
with or understand everything in the guidelines, but will align myself to
the principles behind them while I negotiate the changes. 


Ref: Foucault, M (1979) Discipline and punish: the birth of the prison. New

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