In the course of our interactions with students at the summer school, the topic human subjects research procedures came up as having constrained the possibilities of fieldwork. Because of the procedures that had to be followed under the ‘human subjects research’ regime, any shift in the research became unfeasible. The ramifications of any additional interactions were such, in terms of having to obtain additional informed consent, anonymity and so forth, that students were at times extremely self-limiting as to what they would do in terms of fieldwork activities as well as to the presentation of data and communication about their research.
If one’s field is to be constructed, it seems that human subjects research procedures at U. of Washington (and I have a sense that it is not so different elsewhere in US universities) means that you have to construct it with both hands tied behind your back.
So what is this teaching these students about ethics? First, that doing something ‘ethically’ means jumping through the hoops of the human research subjects process of the university. Of all the groups in the summer school, only the wayfinders took this on (no small achievement!). Second, that ethical consideration consists of an a priori articulation of ethical issues. The research situation is meant to be fully formulated before the research begins. Any change that might be felt to be necessary for the conduct of the research (including asking different questions in the follow-up interviews) requires approval of these modifications by the said ethical authorities.
‘Ethics’, these students have learned, is a tedious, rigorous bureaucratic procedure that constrains research activities (fieldwork, use of data, presentation of research) into predetermined scripts. That is a pretty impoverished version of research ethics, and comes down to American medical-style ass-covering in a litigious context. I hope it’s clear that I’m pointing to the conditions created by the institution here, not to any shortcomings of the students or their summerschool teachers.
In discussions with the wayfinder group, we raised some issues that were not covered under this regime. For example, if the issue really to protect people from harm under this U of W regime, then why isn’t there any attention to the harm the research can do to the researcher? And that is only one of the many blindspots of this approach to ethics. In the same week as we were having these discussions, I was reading the papers that will be appearing in FQS in a few weeks, in a special issue on virtual ethnography, spearheaded by Daniel Dominguez. In several of these papers, issues of research ethics are addressed in a much richer way, and present ethical concerns as part of the research process and as an important component of a relationship between researcher and subjects–not as contractual/legal occasion that fetishes forms.
I couldn’t help but feeling grateful to be working in a context where ethics could be discussed and reflected upon rather than ‘implemented’. The way responsibility changes over the course of research, and the possibility and limitations of controlling ethical repercussions are especially important to discuss (as in the paper by Ardevol and Estalella), and I couldn’t help feeling that in an American context, it might have been difficult to even consider, let alone publish, about the possibility of covert research (paper by Isabella).
ps I’ll provide the links as soon as the papers are available.