[Air-l] ethnography and ethics

Jonathan Marshall Jonathan.Marshall at uts.edu.au
Thu May 20 18:24:24 PDT 2004

Thomas writes:

> >I must admit that i'm not clear what kind of 'fact' the public private 
> >division could be other than perceptual and conventional.
> "Perception" and "convention" are two different things. Those domains of 
> the Internet that I mentioned below, are public by convention, however any 
> single individual perceives them. The technique that makes the data on 
> www/usenet available does not allow for effectively concealing the data 
> from the general public, once a URI has been published or a posting has 
> been posted.

That is simply not the case. Much stuff can be hidden. Some groups have archives which cannot be searched via google. Sometimes archives disappear or posts disappear.  

And besides, simply because you can do something does not make it ethical - whatever that is... Invading iraq etc - although i have heard right wingers argue the case that it should have been done because it was possible. 

As i was arguing ethical tropes are not inherently persuasive, but depend on rehetorical and personal factors.  Ethics are ultimately undecideable. That you don't find the arguments i said more or less persuased me, is not inherently surprising, and indeed I know of know way to make those ethical arguments persuasive.

> If some people think their blogs or usenet discussion enjoy privacy 
> protection, they are mistaken, their *perception* does not reflect the 
> actual technical and institutional arrangements.

Again, because you can shoot people does not make it always ethical - even if the law allows it.

However, perceptions, do reflect social facts and processes, as such they cannot be assumed, and it may not be ethical to violate them by fiat.
> If you just fell off Mars and would not know, what kind of technique TV is, 
> you might conceivably think, that the news anchor on TV could watch you 
> watching the news, your *perception* of the lack of privacy would be false, 
> you still would watch TV in private.

If I was studying martians I would find this interesting, and not something to dismiss as ignorance or stupidity.

> >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.
> There may be different concepts, about what *belongs* into the public 
> realm, but as long as you are making any distinction between public and 
> private, it will be hard to make an argument that Usenet and www are *not* 
> public(ly available).

This sounds like you believe that humans are consitantly rational or something, and that everyone will draw the same conclusions from the same 'facts'.  I'm not sure this is the case - again to be repetitive - this is an ethnographic question.  Not simply a transition from one kind of fact to another.

> >  They may even play with the ambiguities for its frisson - as they play 
> > with other ambiguities like that of presence and absence.
> And they might very well, but that does not mean that I or anybody else 
> have to adhere to their rules of the game. Those rules should be set by the 
> appropriate legal authorities or follow from basic human rights, not by 
> those involved in the game.

I was trying to argue that law and ethics are not the same thing.  Because you can legally do something does not mean that it is ethical.  Law is, however, like ethics, in that it is a matter of argument - trying to get complex situations to be framed within a set of propositions.  Sometimes this is easy. Sometimes it is not.  I believe juries (in britain and the US) have the right to proclaim someone not guilty if they think the law is wrong. If so then the law is also undecideable at a certain level.

I understand that you imply there are circumstances in which one person's rights should be violated in favour of another's?  If so, this is a not uncontroversial position.

> > > Public: Usenet, (most of the) WWW, Unmoderated Listserv, gopher
> > > Private: email, non-anonymous ftp
> > > Ambiguous: Moderated Listeserv, IRC
> >
> >who is is making these assumptions?
> Common sense? The actual technical configuration and its institutional 
> underpinnings, if you'd prefer the fancy answer.

Common sense, is something to be investigated not assumed.  (Amusingly that statement is in the form of a moral imperative, even though i think of it as a scientific imperative:)  The technical configurations have nothing necessarily to do with social conceptions and conventions - they may have, they may not. They also have little to do with ethics unless the ethical position is that if something is the case then it should be done. 

I'm still arguing the Humean point there is no necessary transition between an is statement and an ought statement.

> >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.
> If they are password protected or the relevant URIs have not been 
> published, that's a different story. In fact, if there are no links to your 
> private website parts, it is debatable, if they are even part of the www.

That is the point is it not: "it is debatable"!
Not "it is certain" to me the investigator.

> >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.
> Well, too late. Sorry. If you choose to publish something that in hindsight 
> is embarrassing, then tough luck, indeed. You might apologize/distance 
> yourself from a posting, you might even cancel it. But if someone has 
> accessed it freely before your cancel, then he or she has all the right to 
> quote you.

What right is this?, Again is it an ethical right?
or just the right of possibility?

> >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".
> It is not me or you who defines it as "public," but it follows 
> straightforward from the technical setup and the institutional configuration.

What i'm suggesting is that it deletes the complexities and the realities of online social life, its uncertainties and multiplicities..
It favours the quoter over the subject.
This may be ethical, it may not.  Its undecideable.  

> >Courts are not about ethics anyway, but about laws :)
> I am unsure, what the smiley means (sarcasm?), 

No.  But even these remarks are obviously undecideable. 
It mitigates against assumptions that text is easy to read and that a quotation has only one particular meaning... And that meaning can always be found without interaction and out of context.

> but that his been my point 
> throughout the discussion: That questions of ethics should be decided by 
> universal human rights plus legal arrangements, provided that the latter 
> are legitimized through some sort of democratic process.

What are universal human rights?  I thought that was up to considerable dispute at the moment?

Are the current legal positions on the internet (in the US say), legitimised through any democratic process involving consultation with all internet users?
If not, are they the sole source of legitimacy?

> >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.
> Most of the time, I am, provided I observe some rules. 
> I should declare the 
> source, and the length of the quotation should be in a sensible relation to 
> the length of my own word.  Copyright, as the name suggests, protects your 
> intellectual rights to a document, but does not exempt that document from 
> criticism or analysis.

Sadly, the reality is there have been many attempts to use copyright and trademarking, and so on to prevent criticism of documents and of corporate action.  Quite a few have been successful.
Of course this is an argument of the form "because it is possible to sue, it is ethical to do so"....
> For instance, the sentence in "Not to be downloaded or quoted without the 
> author's permission" 
> http://www.otago.ac.nz/Anthropology/asaanz/abstracts.html is legally void. 

I've no idea why they put that on that web page, after all it was a public conference, within the academic understanding of such things :)

> If an author starts a web manuscript with "draft - do not quote", it is 
> understood that out of professional *courtesy* you do not quote that paper, 
> unless you have been granted permission by the author. 

I guess the 'courtesy' is considered to be the ethical thing to do...

It also allows a degree of freedom in putting forward unfinished arguments, without having those taken as your final form.

If the courtesy was violated often enough because it could be done then it might have bad effects on the idea of free communiation between academics.  Just as taking anyone's words because you can, might lead to consequences you might not like.

> But, let's say, for 
> the argument's sake, that that draft is an elaborate racist theory. Then, 
> of course, you are free to jettison professional courtesy in favor of more 
> important norms.

As an academic i don't expect my words to be protected, that is part of the job description as far as i'm concerned - so I oppose the whole take over of academic life by corporatisation, copyright and silence.  But that is a different argument - although i support what you call 'courtesy'.  That something 'should be' the case for academics, does not imply that it sould be the same for everyone.

> Now, when it comes to "X-No-Archive: yes"-postings outside academia, you 
> are not even bound by professional courtesy, if you want to quote  or 
> archive that material. You may extend that courtesy, but there frequently 
> might be very good reasons to ignore such requests.

Taking other people's words without permision could even be seen as exploiting power differentials - academic lording it over public etc. Academic elitism etc.
Now that is not necessarily good or bad again - that's an ethical/political issue.
> [...]
> >I am not sure that hiding the researcher avoids the 'researcher effect' 
> >either.
> Of course it does. It may create different or even similar problems, but it 
> sure does avoid such effects.

Well lack of participation means that communication will be even more ambiguous, it means you won't fully understand the workings of the group. you don't know how the group would react to you for one. you just assume you do.  Lots of assumptions because you have never participated.  You distort your report because in many ways you don't know the group. If you can't fit in then it could be argued you don't know anything about how the group really works.

> >Aplication of method probably is a matter of ethics, and probably vice 
> >versa as well.
> I am unsure, what you mean here, but IMO the application of a certain 
> method should depend on the theory within the limits of ethical norms.

what I mean is that it seems dubious whether you can split methodology and ethics easily.  Application of a method to a field, or even the consititution of a field itself, involves ethics, aesthetics, practicalities, social conventions and so on. To your habitus if you will.  Theory is not disembodied or asocial.

> >I guess the success of Bordieu in breaking with everyday life categories 
> >is debateable :)
> What makes you think that way? I think most of his categories, like 
> "habitus" or the forms of capital are fairly theoretical -- and  good ones 
> at that.

That would be a whole other debate, but it is true that i don't regard bourdieu as "non everyday".  His concepts often seem fairly distorted by the pressures of conventional social ideas. Habitus and social capital being prime examples in my view.

I've never managed to see what is so exciting about his work, so i'm sorry.  I'm open to persuasion, being the kind of person who even has spent lots of time listening to bob dylan trying to find out why he is supposed to be important as well :)


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