[Air-l] ethnography and ethics

Jonathan Marshall Jonathan.Marshall at uts.edu.au
Thu May 13 21:34:48 PDT 2004

Ok this is just random.

Ethical debates always seem somewhat unsatisfactory - perhaps because if any positions are incommeasureable those are ethical positions.  Everything always comes back to a value statement which is contestable, and not in anyway testable or refutable.  There seems no way out of an ethical debate into something which can be agreed upon.  As hume argues somewhere, there is no necessary transition from an is statement to an ought statement.  That value statements cannot always be clearly separated from fact statements makes things more, not less, complex or undecideable.

Even if we succeed in showing an ethical possition is incoherent then it does not prove it wrong.  Incoherence might be an ethical virtue after all (I've heard it argued by some religious people). Perhaps we should try and live with the incoherence etc.  My suspicion is that given the world is vague and slipping, then any attempt to be be strict about morals leads people to contradict those morals.  Ie when George Bush declares life in the womb is sacred and has unborn children bombed to bits...

Even if the ethical position comes from God then the problem is not resolved.  Should we actually follow something simply because it is commanded, or because not doing so will ultimately result in discomfort?

Even if we decide on human 'goods' then there is nothing absolutely compelling about arguments which appeal to them.  Thus for instance we could appeal to Eero to announce his doing research to his subjects in many ways, but he could not be forced by the arguments into accepting them.  I give arguments i find persuasive below, while admitting they are not really persuasive to everyone.

thus I could appeal to 'fact':

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.

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 could appeal to a 'love of truth':

When research is announced, you are then able to immerse yourself in the world, feel everything, *and* ask the kinds of questions you would not be able to ask other than as a researcher.  Likewise the more people are inclined to trust you (and have tested that trust over a long period), the better will be the information they give you, the more they are able to criticise your work the better it will be, the deeper your understanding will be.

I could appeal to 'empathy':

You are less likely to hurt people.

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.

To repeat: there is no particular reason why these rhetorical arguments should be persuasive to anyone - i'm not sure why they are persuasive to me. Are all ethical arguments rhetorical? (nothing bad is implied about rhetoric here)

Others could, and have, said that sometimes we have to do research into what we consider objectionable behaviour, and that by announcing our position we will cause the people we want to observe to be quiet. Thus our ethics is not 'practical' and must be bent. The same happens when studying an elite. As suggested above any sufficiently coherent ethics will be faced with contradiction.  Mind you, I have known people to do ethnography with very violent subgroups and be quite overt about their dislike....
However, if an ethics is bendable when faced with what it declares to be bad, is it an ethics? I guess that too is an ethical question with no resolution that i can see.

Merely saying one position is ethical and another is not, avoids any kind of encounter with otherness.  And otherness is more overt in ethics than almost anywhere else. But saying its worthwhile encountering or engaging with othernesses might also be an ethical position.

To say that this position (or something else called ethical relativsim) is uncomfortable and does not make it easy to decide what is good or bad, is not a refutation of it, however much such an argument might help retain people's comfort levels.  Think of extreme cold, that is not refuted by its discomfort.  If one thinks that not being able to make blanket moral statments is to be unethical, then we are back to where we started, with an unresolvable moral question, and the hint of later inconsistencies.

however Eero's argument that good people will be good and thus we don't need directives would lead to the same conclusion about laws, and laws are often useful as I think people would agree. So are customs - without them you cannot build much of a person :) However that does not mean we can choose customs souly by ethics as the customs make the kind of ethics that will appeal to us.

Similarly if people find violation of privacy objectionable in one situation, that is not necessarilly an argument that that privacy should be violated in another situation.

Ultimately the ethics that allow you to do research are similar to those ethics that allow you to survive in any sub-group.  There may be no abstract non ethical 'rationality' behind it - other than force :)  Researchers have the problem that they may have to deal with several incompatible ethical or legal systems, which makes life harder.  That AOIR approves something will not necessarily make it ethical to the group you are studying. But again, the fact that something is uncomfortable is not a refutation of its existence or validity.  This is a 'social fact', but yes you can try and change what is acceptable ethics - no you won't always succeed....  That people always argue over ethics is also a social fact as well.

I don't see easy answers here.


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