[Air-l] ethnography and ethics
rgh at rghoward.com
Wed May 5 17:49:37 PDT 2004
I would go a full step further than did Mark (I think) when talking
about doing online "ethnography" or "interviews." I think this is
something in which we must be very careful about keeping the highest
standards. Lots of people do "online research," but here in AIR I
think that we should be vocal about setting the bar for how to do
There are almost no situations in social/behavioral research where
"covert" methods are ethical. (Let's remember the
faking-shocking-people-hay-day of what-not-to-do-in-experiments
The only situations where deception (as in hiding of any sort) should
even be considered must meet two basic conditions.
First, there must be a significant benefit to society and/or the participants.
The second condition is that the actual research intentions and
methods must be fully disclosed after the necessary data is
discovered. This means that you cannot tell people you are selling
them software and then later tell them you are actually testing their
IQ. Instead, it means that you can tell them you are testing their
IQ and then later tell them you are actually testing their ability to
buy software. That is a big difference.
But again--that sort of research really only should be done when it
significantly benefits society. And those kind of benefits do not
typically come under social science research projects about social
norms and such. The best counter argument to this I have heard is,
of course, social scientists don't risk much when they do research .
. . . but I would argue that "secretly" observing people online makes
all online research harder to do because when people feel spied on
they tend to be less interested in working with researchers. Take the
real world case of some native American groups who now tightly
control (and for very good reason) researchers among them precisely
because of the failures in ethics on the part of some academics.
And, of course, there is the further point that concessions made to
spying do damage to research in different but sometimes significant
ways than would the concession of being honest. Take _When Prophecy
Fails_ as a good example of that. But openness in online research is
a particularly serious issue because its so easy to "lurk."
I do agree with Mark (If I didn't read into his short reply too far .
. .) "Lurking" is itself distinctly problematic because "secret"
observation like that is not just basically rude, but it also fails
to force the ethnographer to fully engage in the community. A lot of
the real value in ethnography is, of course, gained from the
experience of actually "being there." And lurking isn't really
"being there" in a on-line community in particular because the silent
member of a discourse-based world is really only "half" there already.
To start, I would look at some basic ethics stuff in anthro. to get a
good handle on it. Just off the top of my head, you could look at:
Fluehr-Lobban, Carolyn.. 1998. "Ethics." Handbook of Methods in
Cultural Anthropology, H. Russell Bernard, Ed. Walnut Creek,
California: AltaMira Press. 173 - 201.
Anyway--I can't seem to access the air ethics statement right now,
but, of course, these issues are hugely important for us to keep in
mind particularly because a lot of not-so-great (in my mind anyway)
research is done in online communities (esp. by my undergraduates!)
and we of AIR should be in the forefront of insisting on the highest
standards of ethics and rigor in online research.
All that said, if somebody posts it in netnews or on the WWW, isn't
that actually a public statement? So . . . citing a public statement
is very different than citing a private conversation (as in email
say) . . . but I guess the issue gets sticky when someone says
something online under the assumption that its to a small audience
and then a researcher cites it widely--for example citing a blog that
only a few people seem to ever access. I agree with Eero on that
point for sure--online stuff makes the distinction between public and
private a little blurry sometimes . . . so I guess I try to error on
the side of politeness.
Robert Glenn Howard
Department of Communication Arts
& Communication Technologies Research Cluster
University of Wisconsin - Madison
rgh at rghoward.com
More information about the Air-L