[Air-l] ethnography and ethics

Jonathan Marshall Jonathan.Marshall at uts.edu.au
Sun May 16 19:27:04 PDT 2004

Thanks for your response Thomas.  Let's see if i can be a bit clearer - lots of random snipping :)

Jonathan Marshall wrote:

>>For many people the internet *is* ambiguous as to whether it is private or 
>>public, (so is much non-internet space for that matter). Saying that one 
>>part is really public and another is really private may be possible on 
>>occasions but most things are not clearly marked, and cannot be 
>>marked.  There are many different kinds of public, which for many will not 
>>include the public of research.  Privacy and public are social constructs 
>>and vague and often contradictory.  This is simply a 'fact' as far as i'm 
>>concerned, and i'm a bit surprised that some people don't percieve it - 
>>which opens up other questions i guess.
> Sorry, but your "simple fact" is about the *perception* of Internet users, 

I must admit that i'm not clear what kind of 'fact' the public private division could be other than perceptual and conventional.  

As such, different people, in different social positions if you will, are going to bring different social conventions to a field - especially when it is relatively new to them.  They may even play with the ambiguities for its frisson - as they play with other ambiguities like that of presence and absence.

> the point others made here is about the actual institutional arrangements. 
> These are AFAIS it:

sorry i've no idea what an AFAIS is.

> Public: Usenet, (most of the) WWW, Unmoderated Listserv, gopher
> Private: email, non-anonymous ftp
> Ambiguous: Moderated Listeserv, IRC

who is is making these assumptions?  For me the classification is not by fiat but by the way people use the things and what they say about them.  It is, if you will, an ethnographic question - and i've seen a number of discussions with different points of view - you could think of this as one of them :)  I have private parts of my web site -which you might find hard to access.  I've certainly seen people say things on usenet which they probably worried about in calmer moments (I would anyway). There are tales of people in discussion groups stored areas deleting past posts and so on - they obviously changed their minds about public and private later on.  

There are large numbers of anecdotes illustrating the ambiguity and uncertain state of the public / private division online (and offline for that matter).  Many people probably treat usenet as public but not *always*, and not in the sense of being expected to be quoted in research.

There is an argument that new communication technologies change the areas which are offstage and thus private, and therefore there will be a transitional learning period.

> If you are unaware of the public  nature of these domains, then, 
> special cases aside (minors, etc.), that's bad luck for you, in case you 
> published something you'd rather would not want to be associated with.

hmm i'm not really sure that an ethical position (assuming someone knows what such a thing might be) can be justified by "tough luck, I've just defined your post as public".
> Of course, "privacy and public are social constructs." What else should 
> they be? However, that does not mean that their meaning is infinitely 
> malleable. 

I don't think ambiguity means things are infintely malleable either - but it does mean things are uncertain in many situations for many people.

>Almost any court in the world would consider *publishing* on the 
>web *not* as a private act. If some people really do not understand that 
>publishing on the Internet does give you a potentially enormous audience, 
>they still cannot be relieved of their *responsibilities* of making their 
>work available to almost anyone with an Internet access.

Courts are not about ethics anyway, but about laws :)
I suspect that the court might decide based upon the use of the data and the situation.  Copyright could come in for example.  You are simply not free to quote anything you want all the time.  

This may not be a public private division, but it adds to ambiguity which is the point. 

But as i wrote earlier, the fact that some situations may be relatively clear is not an argument in support of the contention that all situations are totaly clear.

> >I could appeal to 'self interest':
> >
>>you are much less likely to get sued, your work is likely to be more 
>>acceptable to colleagues, or your work will be allowed by your university 
>>ethics committee.
> I hope that most colleagues still apply different criteria, when evaluating 
> my research. If they think that "overt" research yields *in all 
> circumstances* the best data, then I would challenge them to back up their 
> claim with some evidence that contradicts that the large 
> social-psychological literature that warns against experimenter effects and 
> the like. Nobody says that "covered" research is in all circumstances 
> better than "overt" research. But I would like to leave the judgement, 
> which of the two strategies is advisable in *public* settings, to 
> methodological rather than overly restrictive ethical considerations.

I think you are misreading my attitude towards ethics here, but the point is that it might be in your self interest, it might not - that's the thing about ethics and ethics comittees :)

I am not sure that hiding the researcher avoids the 'researcher effect' either.  

And if you don't participate then often you won't get what is going one - no access to the hidden life for example/

Aplication of method probably is a matter of ethics, and probably vice versa as well.

> Nobody on this listserv has argued that interviews are off-limits and that 
> any research should be covert. There are good reasons to conduct "overt" 
> research and interviews. Rather, some argued that *as a rule* you should 
> "reveal" your researching activities.

I would have thought that if you conduct interviews you are being overt.

My argument, in part, rests on the assumption that ethical issues are undecideable.
I still hold that revealed work will, in general (and that's a caveat), give you better results and make things easier.

> I believe this is part of the in my view *problematic* tendency to 
> empathize with the people one researches, a "passionate participation" 
> (Lincoln 2002: 337), which leads to the assumption that "hiding the 
> inquirer's intent is destructive of the aim of uncovering and  improving 
> constructions." (Guba & Lincoln 1994: 115).

there are plenty of ethnographies in which passionate participation has lead people to dislike the people they have been with and to be highly critical of them and their self represenations.  
But i'm not sure why the alternative to hidden study is passionate participation.

> At least in sociology, economics, and political science, I believe, that 
> such proceeding is counterproductive, as (unconditional) empathy also risks 
> the absorption of hegemony into one's theories. In fact, I would argue, 
> that in order to perform a "critical" analysis of everyday life,  it is 
> imperative to "break" with everyday life categories (Bourdieu et al. [1973] 
> 1991), which in most cases runs counter the experiences of those researched.

Again there is no reason why participation has to result in 'seduction'.  A good ethnographer would explore the concepts of the people involved rather than assume in advance they are useless, but would be sensitive to differences in local analysis as well.  There is rarely a monolithic world view.  

All views are biased by some social hegemony, i would have thought - no escape by hiding.

I guess the success of Bordieu in breaking with everyday life categories is debateable :)

> >I could appeal to 'benefit to society':
> >
>>But what is considered to be of benefit to society is an ethical position 
>>in itself, and hardly persuasive *by* itself. Even if the ideas espoused 
>> do not produce the results claimed for them (as with 'free enterprise'), 
>>then that is not a proof that those are ideas are not ethical.  Perhaps 
>>struggling hard against fate is an ethical position.
> I agree with you here more or less, but I cannot see any connection to the 
> question, if covert research is ethically justified or not. I  would reckon 
> in most cases it is, but in many cases, it might still not be the  best 
> methodological strategy to conduct one's research.

That was because in another letter someone made an argument about social utility, i decided to borrow it, but cast doubt on it as well, as another technique of persuasion, granted that ethics seems to be about persuasion and difference.


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