[Air-l] ethics of recording publicly observed interactions

Ed Lamoureux ell at bradley.edu
Tue May 11 06:34:50 PDT 2004

On May 11, 2004, at 8:15 AM, Jennifer Stromer-Galley wrote:

> A letter to the editor in the NYTimes, a post on Newsgroup, and a loud
> cell phone conversation are not analogous.

I agree

> A person talking loudly on a cellphone on a train may experience his or
> her phone conversation as a private act, even though the people in the
> immediate vicinity hear one side of the conversation. Unlike a letter 
> to
> the NYTimes, there is not a culturally-shared agreement, nor is their 
> an
> individual-level perception, that such cell phone talk is public.

I'm not very motivated by how a person "talking loudly" in the 
immediate vicinity of others "perceives themselves."

I'm sure that there are MANY things that qualitative research subjects 
do (or do not do) over which the researcher and the subject would 
disagree concerning "their individual-level perception" about what is 
going on in the scene. That's pretty much a given in qualitative 

>  I challenge an assumption that they know and feel that their 
> conversations
> are public, and therefore open to structiny and public comment.

This would imply that one can't do qualitative research, in the field, 
unless subjects know that they are being observed. This assumption 
violates many fundamental tenets of high quality observational 
research. If an observer is NOT effecting subjects and if the subjects 
are random and anonymous (both on tape and in subsequent reports) and 
if their behavior is in a public place in the plain view of in-view 
others . . .  qualitative researchers have the right to observe and 
make records.
> So, before we academics start declaring that "those people" should know
> that their communication is public because we can hear it need to
> recognize the difference between academic "objective" observations of
> public communication (i.e. "Newsgroup posts ARE public") and the
> observeds own perceptions of publicness.

I'm not sure many qualitative field researchers would claim that their 
observations are "objective." I sure don't. And yes, there is quite a 
difference between my experience and interpretation of the social scene 
and that of the subject. I'm doing research about everyday life; they 
are living it. But that difference in perception/interpretation/stance 
does not mean that I'm not allowed to do the research.
> As academics, we have a moral obligation to respect the boundaries our
> potential research participants establish.

Ah. And what boundaries does a person talking loudly enough for others 
to hear, in public, establish? If that person takes the call over to 
the corner of the room, or speaks in whispers when in public, or uses a 
headset, etc. . . . IF they act as though they are in a private 
conversation, my protocols would join with their actions to make their 
talk "private" and therefore off limits to research. But if the 
"boundaries" that they "establish" force their talk on me (make it 
available without my taking ANY extra effort to listen) . . . my 
protocols do not need to further protect a sense of boundary that they 
have not themselves asserted (assuming previously mentioned aspects of 
anonymity, public display, etc).

>  As academics, we are held to
> a higher standard of research approaches than, say, our journalist
> colleagues (although, I wish journalists were held to a higher
> standard). We ought not record and analyze for research purposes online
> communication unless we are certain that the participants engaged in 
> the
> communication recognize the publicness of their communication, or 
> unless
> we acquire some level of informed consent from those participants.

You started this by drawing our attention to non-comparable cases. But 
here, you fall into the same behavior. Much of the discussion has been 
about OFF-LINE behavior (people talking loudly in public while 
researchers listen). That's not the same as ONLINE behavior 
(researchers observing communication behavior within a mediated 

I cannot, legally OR morally, tap into those phone conversations (get 
two-sided, online data) without meeting a ton of 
permissions/protections, etc. Likewise, there are standards (often 
discussed in this group) regarding ethics and practices for studying 
online behaviors carried by computer mediated communication.

My comments are NOT about on-line research. I've been following (and 
commenting on) a discussion about qualitative techniques used in 
OFF-LINE, public settings where the "data" consists of that which a 
subject says, out-loud, in the knowing presence of others. Direct 
observation of such behavior has long been protected as a research 
practice EXCLUDED from most human subjects constraints (again, within 
the aforementioned parameters----legality of recording devices by 
state/municipality, random and anonymous 
observation/notation/recording, etc.).

I'm not trying to get the last word here. But this group is most 
interested in online research (Internet). I get defensive/protective 
over/during discussions of field protocol . . . but I think I'll 
probably lay off now. My points are made about as well as I can make 
them and I think this is something of a tangent for the central 
(online) thrust of the group.

Edward Lee Lamoureux, Ph. D.
Director, Multimedia Program and New Media Center
Associate Professor, Speech Communication
1501 W. Bradley
Bradley University
Peoria IL  61625

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