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The Ethnographic Bias of Positive Research Ethics

In terms of relations between the researcher and research subjects in the social sciences, there are two main aspects to research ethics. "Negative" research ethics is the Hippocratic element, and the focus of human subjects review boards -- avoiding harm to one's subjects and obtaining informed consent. "Postive" research ethics, which has been highlighted by researchers in the more "critical" or leftist schools of thought, demands that we go farther. Positive research ethics asserts that academic research is potentially exploitative, in that researchers get lots of information from their subjects, which they convert into power, prestige, and wealth for themselves, but usually give their subjects little more than token payments (sometimes) and vague promises that the research will help change the general understanding of the issues and eventually have some trickle-down benefits. (Ironically, this trickle-down-ness may sometimes be stronger for critical/leftist research than for traditional/mainstream research, since c/l research often produces deep critiques of entire socioeconomic and cultural systems which are correspondingly unlikely to be directly put into practice, as well as simply endorsing the critiques that the research subjects are making of those systems. T/m research, on the other hand, may say things that the subjects didn't already think, and is better able to produce concrete point-to-able outcomes such as changes in policy.)

I raise the issue of positive research ethics because some calls for such ethics that I read recently made me realize there's often what I'll call an "ethnographic bias" in the proposed solutions. That is, they assume an ethnographic or quasi-ethnographic research setting.

The typical solution to the problem of positive research ethics is for the researcher to engage in some sort of "project" (either an existing one or one created for the occasion) that gives back to the community of research subjects. Organizing a community theater is a (inordinately?) popular way of doing this*, as is doing some sort of work for some social movement organization based in the community. What's notable about this kind of giving-back is that it assumes an ethnographic research context. That is, it assumes that the research is being done in a single community, centered on some (physical or sometimes virtual) place/institution/organization, in which there are thick networks of relationships among the research subjects.

But ethnography and locality/community-focused case studies is not the only valid type of social science research. Research may draw on a set of strangers, selected because of some shared characteristic or situation but lacking any direct interactive relationship between them. This would include both things such as lab psychology experiments and large-n surveys that c/l researchers sometimes frown on, as well as qualitative interview or focus group research in which participants do not know each other. My own dissertation would fall into this category. I worked with people based on the shared characteristic of being residents of the urban-wildland interface in either southern New Jersey or the outer suburbs of Sydney. It would have made no sense for me to organize a community theater or any other such community-based type of giving back when my research subjects were scattered over 1500 square kilometers in each study area.

The ethnographic setting also explains a secondary "participatory bias." Typical solutions to the problem of positive research ethics are activities which require additional participation from the research subjects. For a researcher to give back to their subjects by organizing a community theater production requires the recipients of this giving-back to invest more of their time in acting in, or at least coming to see, the production. Contrast this with giving back through a cash payment or intervention on the subjects' behalf with some other powerful actor -- activities which, for all their other flaws, don't demand that the recipients do additional work. An ethnographic context is more likely to produce the collective interest in and commitment to such particpiatory forms of giving back.

To be clear, I am not saying that there is anything wrong with ethnographic research or the kinds of giving-back that are suited to it. What I'm saying is that focusing on one kind of research leaves out discussion of the full breadth of research forms. This post recognizes the generality of the issue of positive research ethics, and the specificity of the way that the issue has been addressed heretofore (due to the specific situation of the research school that first raised the general issue). The next step is for those of us with different specific situations to figure out ways to address the positive research ethics issue in our own ways. I unfortunately don't have any good answers to that question at the moment. In my own research mentioned above, my positive giving-back was minimal -- a token cash payment (in the first phase, US$30/AU$40 for 1-2 hours of participation, in the second phase US$2/AU$5 for filling out a survey that usually took about a half hour) and whatever intrinsic satisfaction they got from telling me what they think.

* There's a sometimes-spoken assumption in much of this literature that language-based ways of expressing and sharing ideas are subject to various barriers with respect to jargon, articulateness, hegemonic discourses etc., but non-linguistic forms of expression/communication do not. This seems clearly not true. Performance, visual art, music, etc. are different ways of expressing oneself, and individuals or groups who find one such way difficult may be more "fluent" in another, but all of them can potentially experience the same sorts of expression/communication barriers as language.


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