[Air-l] ethnography and ethics

RGH rgh at rghoward.com
Wed May 5 17:49:37 PDT 2004

Hello All:

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
Assistant Professor

Department of Communication Arts
& Communication Technologies Research Cluster
University of Wisconsin - Madison
rgh at rghoward.com

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