Field notes on disturbing ethical questions, part 1
I’m eating lunch and reading one of my methodology books and scaring myself. It’s Feminist Research Practice: A Primer, 2nd edition. Sharlene Nagy Hesse-Biber is the editor. Don’t get me wrong — it’s an excellent book full of really well-written articles on precisely the things I should be considering in order to write a good dissertation proposal and, later, a really useful and productive dissertation. Also, it’s not like I didn’t already know some of this, going into this dog-and-pony show. Ethics, for example — I’ve taken good sociology courses where the professors (rightly) emphasized repeatedly that the First Commandment of Sociology was “Thou shalt do no harm!” That being said… it’s one thing to know there are ethical issues I may have to face — and another entirely to realize they could potentially entirely derail my research.
Ethics are huge for me for a simple reason: as a member of academia, what I write will to some degree define my subject. If the subject were inanimate I wouldn’t worry so much — but it’s not. These will be real, live, breathing, joy- and pain-feeling people that I will be interviewing. What if I decide what they’re saying means one thing… but what they meant was something else entirely? My work will fail or succeed due as much to their efforts and kindness as due to my work. How can I properly thank them? What responsibility do I owe them in my writings?
Here’s an example which I wish were entirely fictional, though it’s not — it is based somewhat on reality (and yes, things are somewhat better than this today; and yes, not all male researchers are like this example… but unfortunately some still are). Let’s say the male ethnographer goes to another city and wishes to research how a subaltern culture there lives. Let’s say also that the woman who leads that subaltern culture courteously welcomes him, showing him around and introducing him to everyone there so he can interview and observe them — because they all wish for their subaltern culture to be known to the world. They’re all very helpful and friendly, opening their homes and hearts to the male ethnographer.
Now let’s say the researcher returns to his university and writes up his notes, then publishes a book on the research. He gets quite a few bennies for this, of course: potentially he becomes the expert to go to regarding this subaltern culture, his book makes some nice royalties for him, the university is pleased to have such a respected name teaching there… maybe he even makes tenure on the basis of his research on this subaltern culture. All seems well, yes?
However, when the book reaches the members of the subaltern culture, they are shocked and horrified at what was written. Since the male ethnographer comes from an androcentric culture, the concept of a woman leader has never occurred to him — and so not only does he emphatically not treat his female research participant with the respect she is properly due, he also somewhat disparages the men of the subaltern culture for being such wimps, to his biased way of seeing things. Further, he reports only the men’s rituals which he observed, since he believes that whatever females do really isn’t interesting. Finally, in his conclusion he explains that men make all the decisions in this culture — and he comes to this astonishingly incorrect conclusion because he is incapable of noticing that it is women who are dealing with all the day-to-day issues of life.
What are the likely results of such research? The male ethnographer has pretty much bastardized reality for the subaltern culture, and violated the trust of its members. He may sincerely believe he’s done a truly exceptional job of reportage, when in fact he has harmed those people. Further, by continuing to accept all the accolades he is receiving from the university and the reading public (both of which have no idea of what a terrible job he’s done), he continues to damage his research subjects — because that’s all they are, to him: experimental subjects — not real people. Further, even if their anger and dismay manages to reach him, it’s not like he’ll feel like he needs to change any of his research conclusions — or, god forbid, issue an apology — or attempt to share any of the wealth he’s accrued at their expense. They’re not “trained professionals,” after all — what do they know about reality? It took his supposedly discerning eye to uncover the real truth.
That is, of course, a worst-case scenario for me — one I don’t think I’ll face simply because of the realities of both my research subject and my gender. Women who study women’s subaltern cultures are not as scholastically rewarded and revered as men who study the things men find interesting — which predominantly and emphatically do not include women or their issues. However, as the book I’m reading points out, there are issues I will potentially face. I’m a middle-aged white woman: deliberately childless, comfortably middle class, rather privileged for my gender. I will probably be interviewing women whose lives have been much more challenging than mine: women of color, lesbians, young women living in poverty and/or trying to raise a family, women who have faced or are facing structural violence or domestic violence or other possibilities I’m nervously not yet imagining…
It is my intention to work very hard to not be yet another colonizing researcher, yes… and yes, I’ll freely confess I’m a bit scared of the stories I may hear. But if I’m going to do anything of worth with this dissertation, I figure I have to be ready to face that possibility as well, you know? *Someone* has to tell the stories, and if I can help get those stories out so things get better for these women… then they win and I’ve done good.
I have to agree with Lou here on all his points. I don’t see you running into any ethics issues in your research. I think, if anything, you going into this forewarned (and a bit paranoid, which I think what both your soc teacher and this book have accomplished more than adequately!) will make it less likely that you’ll do that.
Your worst-case reminds me of several things I’ve seen happen to subcultures I was part of or have followed, except that the people doing the reporting deliberately went on to twist things to make the subculture seem as weird as possible to get better ratings…
I can’t imagine you’ll do these things. You’re better trained in more modern ways, to listen better and to ask more questions. And you care about people – I’m assuming you’ll care about the people you interview – so that if you have reached a conclusion they disagree with, you’ll engage with them to find out more and correct what you’ve said and how they’re portrayed in the academic world.
Honestly, I’d be more concerned that hearing their stories of their day-to-day struggles will be incredibly hard for you, because you are a comfortably middle class white woman. I don’t worry you’ll demean them in any way, but that they’ll break your heart.