Category Archives: ethics

Google Glass ~ a data collection tool?

Field work depends on researcher’s senses, maybe most especially their eyes and ears, and given the participant observer role we rely on our memory to reconstruct our experiences into field notes, the foundation for our analysis. Sometimes we are in contexts (like classrooms or meetings) where note taking is facilitated by computers or smart pens. One wonders if recording devices that just come along with us and record what is going on might be useful for researchers. For example, the GoPro, strapped to your head or chest, is now standard equipment for sports enthusiasts to capture their accomplishments or nature enthusiasts their surroundings. It might well be the means to record that ritual or interaction your research focuses on, but it might also be a bit intrusive. YouTube Preview Image

Google Glass is definitely more stylish, less obtrusive, and provides interactive capabilities. It’s in the beta stage, what Google is calling the Explorer Program and if a space is available you could be an early adopter for the cost $1500, that is if you live in the USA. In short you tell it what to do, take a picture or video, which you can share, send a message, look up information. The example below shows some of its capabilities. Imagine a research context that would allow you to record what you see, do and to share and connect that with other researchers and research participants. Video ethnography on the go?
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Google Glass has been controversial when people wear them as a matter of course in their daily lives creating exaggerated tensions in an already surveillance rich society (smart phones being the obvious device). But used in a research context, where people have accepted the researcher’s role as a recorder of events, interactions, and talk, these controversies might be obviated.

a blog post about whether I should be blogging: the case of the ISA

The International Studies Association (political science folks) is discussing a proposal to ban Association journal editors, editorial board members and anyone associated with its journals from blogging. Here is the language:

“No editor of any ISA journal or member of any editorial team of an ISA journal can create or actively manage a blog unless it is an official blog of the editor’s journal or the editorial team’s journal,” the proposal reads. “This policy requires that all editors and members of editorial teams to apply this aspect of the Code of Conduct to their ISA journal commitments. All editorial members, both the Editor in Chief(s) and the board of editors/editorial teams, should maintain a complete separation of their journal responsibilities and their blog associations.”

Singling out blogs, but no other social media or letters to the editor or op eds, the ISA asserts that blogging is some how unseemly, that it is a kind of discourse that is not proper professional behavior, and that if one blogs one is likely to sink into some abyss losing a grasp on one’s dignity and respectability.

At best this proposal is quaint, a desire for a past when professors stayed in their offices and wrote for and engaged with their peers through narrow publication channels (like the ISA journals). At worst, this is a draconian effort to challenge academic freedom, to squelch professors’ engagement in public life, and to control access to knowledge. The silliness of this proposal does little to obviate its threat to civic engagement of scholars, both the activist minded and those who understand the world is bigger than the university campus.

Legal ruling protects researcher’s relationships with research participants

Today’s ruling by Justice Sophie Bourque of the Quebec Superior Court affirmed the value of social research and provided arguments that reasonably protect researchers’ data from being used in court. Academic research, like investigative journalism, she ruled can provide “useful information on certain aspects of the human condition that are normally kept silent.” Further, she said, “this information is essential to understand and improve the social condition of vulnerable and marginalized communities.”

The salaciousness of this particular case (Luka Magnotta, accused of murdering and dismembering Lin Jun was also a stripper and porn actor and a participant in a research study with sex trade workers) is presumably what lead a research assistant, an undergraduate student who did an audio-taped interview with Magnotta, to contact the police after the alleged killer’s picture was made public.

I previously blogged about this matter, (Who is going to protect the researchers?) focusing on the lack of protection and support researchers Chris Bruckert & Colette Parent, received from their employer, the University of Ottawa. Even though Bruckert & Parent were required to seek approval for their research from the University’s research review board to get the stamp of ethical approval to conduct research with sex trade workers, the University washed their hands of the matter and of the researchers.

Blocking police access to the Magnotta interview does not give either researchers or participants an absolute right to privacy, but this ruling sets the bar high for those who ask researchers to violate their promises of confidentiality. And, indeed, puts the onus on those who seek access to demonstrate that violating rights to privacy are outweighed by some other principle. This court has laid the groundwork for taking researchers promises of confidentiality quite seriously.

On another note, not a legal matter perhaps, but what is to be done about the rogue research assistant who staked a claim as the ruling moral authority and reported the existence of interview to the Montreal police? What responsibility do RAs have to their employers (the researchers) and the institutionally sanctioned confidentiality requirements. I am guessing the University of Ottawa isn’t going to wade into that quagmire… but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t.

The ethics & politics of research ~ Napoleon Chagnon will not go away

For decades now controversy and acrimony have swirled around Napoleon Chagnon, the anthropologist who studied the Yanomami living in the rainforests of northeastern South America’s Orinoco Basin. I read Chagnon’s work as an undergraduate and recall that the work was titillating, but even then understood his work as a reflection of an age old approach in cultural anthropology to see cultural groups through an evolutionary lens, progressing from simple (usually meaning hunting and gathering economies) to complex (industrial or us).

braz-yano-fw-32_screen What I didn’t quite appreciate at the time was the evolutionary biological and genetic conclusion Chagnon drew ~ that described the Yanomami as “the fierce people” who are the iconic example of the innate, natural state of humans ~ a state of chronic warfare and homicidal violence.

Among anthropologists, Chagnon’s conclusions have been discredited, a case of serious over-reaching from the data. (See, for example, the Survival for Tribal Peoples for much more detail about the discrediting of Chagnon’s conclusions.) His work has value primarily as an example of what not to do if you want to do good ethnography, a methodological counter-example if you will. Marshall Sahlins coined the term research and destroy to characterize situations where anthropologists are complicit with colonial, military interests and he describes how Chagnon’s work with the Yanomami falls into this category. More broadly the negative impact of anthropologists in South America has become an important ongoing controversy that pivots around Patrick Tierney’s book, Darkness in El Dorado: How Scientists and Journalists Devastated the Amazon.

In spite of a thorough critique within the discipline, Chagnon continues to hold sway. Those who continue to laud his work see the critics as anti-science. His competence as an anthropologist is questionable yet he rumbles on and his new book Noble Savages is being promoted in the mainstream media. This book is as much an attack on anthropology as a further elucidation of the Yanomami peoples, a point Elizabeth Povinelli makes in her review of the book. While Chagnon’s book fuels the flames of this decades old controversy, his election in 2012 to the National Academy of Sciences serves to exonerate him and celebrate his work. Chagnon’s election to the NAS has provoked a resignation from the NAS by Marshall Sahlins, also a prominent anthropologist.

Historically, academic disciplines go through periods of upheaval, intellectual dust ups that sometimes result in Kuhnian paradigm shifts. The Chagnon story may be a pivotal event around which anthropology makes such a shift… but this paradigm shift, if that’s what it is, continues to play out slowly and acrimoniously. Time may tell.

Who is going to protect the researchers?

IRBs require researchers to guarantee their research participants confidentiality. Leaving aside the obvious question of whether this is always necessary or desirable, we know that in some instances research requires this promise to gain access and to protect research participants from harm. Such is surely the case with Chris Bruckert & Colette Parent, criminologists at the University of Ottawa, who having conducted research with sex trade workers. Many contexts of the social world are accessible because researchers can promise participants they will not be harmed as a consequence of participating in that research, and when deviant, illegal, secret or elite activities are the research focus this is essential. Researchers and participants assume confidentiality means confidentiality!

Bruckert & Parent are finding out that promising confidentiality is an obligation, but that it may well not be respected. Police have demanded access to research interview transcripts with a sex trade worker who five years after the interview is charged with murder. Journalists face this situation with some frequency and their employers understand that quality journalism is sometimes dependent on confidential sources. When journalists rights to withhold their sources are challenged in court, their employers go to legal bat for them.

Not so for Bruckert & Parent. The University of Ottawa has refused to provide legal representation for the researchers (even though the UOttawa IRB demanded confidentiality be guaranteed) claiming that it isn’t their role to stand in the way of other’s desire to violate their demand for confidentiality. How peculiar and disingenuous! The Canadian Association of University Teachers is providing legal support for the researchers, and the case goes to court sometime in the summer of 2013.

This promises to be a serious test for researchers as the individual charged with murder is Luka Rocco Magnotta. Magnotta is charged with the brutal slaying and dismemberment in Montreal of Lin Jun, a Chinese student at Concordia University, then posting the gruesome video of the killing online.

Both Magnotta and the researchers have filed a motion to maintain the confidentiality of the interview contents. The researchers successfully defended research confidentiality in Quebec Superior Court, winning a qualified researcher-participant privilege in the process.

An analysis of the legal ruling  draws conclusions that can inform universities and researchers in navigating ethics expectations, including:

  • “researchers’ institutions must be ready to provide legal support to their researchers in order to fulfill their ethical obligations to protect research participants and contractual obligations to the granting agencies to abide by the TCPS
  • reaffirms the Wigmore criteria are the appropriate vehicle for the court to adjudicate claims to privilege for the researcher-participant relationship
  • The Parent decision also shows the high value courts place on the research enterprise and the role of academic freedom
  • involvement in criminal activity per se does not vitiate a claim of privilege
  • researchers should walk their talk, i.e., if research confidentiality is important, then their behaviour should be consistent with that importance in every respect
  • a preferred strategy [for ascribing pseudonyms] would be for the researcher to supply one, such that the link between a specific person and a specific interview would be known only to the principal investigator in any project”

Researching the virtual world

The explosion of social media has opened a new space in which human interaction and social life unfold, and perhaps are differently constructed. As the social world goes digital, social scientists are challenged to adapt research methodologies and methods to this new space, one where thousands and possibly millions of people interact.

A literature that provides guidance on how to do research in growing and includes books like:

Netnography: Doing Ethnographic Research Online by Robert V Kozinets
Internet Inquiry: Conversations About Method, edited by Annette N. Markham & Nancy K. Baym

And journals devoted especially to the topic:

A key consideration in research in this new space are ethical issues of privacy, consent, and research participants’ rights. Some references that deal with these issues are:

Banks, W. and M. Eble, 2007, Digital Spaces, Online Environments, and Human Participant Research: Interfacing with Institutional Review Boards, in Digital Writing Research: Technologies, Methodologies, and Ethical Issues, H. McKee and D. DeVoss (eds.), Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press, pp. 27–47.
Brown, R. & Gregg, M. (2012). The pedagogy of regret: Facebook, binge drinking and young women. Continuum: Journal of Media and Cultural Studies, 26 (3): 357-369.
Buchanan, E. A. and Zimmer, M., Internet Research Ethics, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2012 Edition).
Burden, K., Shuck, S., & Aubusson, P. (2012). M-Research: Ethical issues in researching young people’s use of mobile devices. Youth Studies Australia, 31 (3): 17-26.
Morrow, V. (2008). Ethical dilemmas in research with children and young people about their social environments, Children’s Geographies, 6 (1): 49-61.
Zimmer, M. (2010). “But the data is already public”: On the ethics of research in Facebook. Ethics and Information Technology, 12 (4): 313-325.

What is the most appropriate role of institutional review boards? (discussion for EPSE 595 ~ October 10th)

From the assigned readings you should have a good sense of the history and context for the manifestation of institutional review boards as they now exist (@ UBC, the Behavioral Research Ethics Board or BREB). In large part, contemporary IRBs result from a few well known and egregious cases of unethical treatment of people (like the Tuskegee Syphilis study, Mengele’s experiments in Nazi concentration camps, Milgram’s obedience experiments, Zimbardo’s Stanford University prison experiment, and Humphrey’s Tea Room Trade). In general, the response to unethical research practices might be described as a panic response that has resulted in a rigid system of reviewing ALL research prior to its conduct using a one-size-fits most approach (although there is usually a distinction made between lower and higher risk research).

However, Dyck & Allen argue that…

Review boards responsible for vetting the ethical conduct of research have been criticised for their costliness, unreliability and inappropriate standards when evaluating some non-medical research, but the basic value of mandatory ethical review has not been questioned. When the standards that review boards use to evaluate research proposals are applied to review board practices, it is clear that review boards do not respect researchers or each other, lack merit and integrity, are not just and are not beneficent. The few benefits of mandatory ethical review come at a much greater, but mainly hidden, social cost. It is time that responsibility for the ethical conduct of research is clearly transferred to researchers, except possibly in that small proportion of cases where prospective research participants may be so intrinsically vulnerable that their well-being may need to be overseen.

[Murray Dyck and Gary Allen. “Is Mandatory Research Ethics Reviewing Ethical?” Journal of Medical Ethics (August 3, 2012), DOI: 10.1136/medethics-2011-100274.]

Within some disciplines (like history) there are questions about the relevance of IRBs to research, there are examples of ways in which the onerous task of obtaining IRB approval has truncated research efforts (such as during the SARS epidemic), and an unclear but no doubt significant influence on whether or not research is even considered.

Dyck & Allen suggest that today’s ethics review boards could be replaced by ethics boards that provide guidance and support to researchers…

Instead of promoting rote compliance with inflexible and universal rules, the role of an IRB should be to facilitate and resource the reflective practice of researchers. A simple, but significant, shift would be to move ethical review from approving a proposed project to providing guidance and feedback on submitted projects. An IRB may play a useful role in identifying ethical issues and suggesting how to deal with them, but otherwise, responsibility for research ethics needs to return to the researchers who use the feedback they receive in a reflective and project-appropriate way. Rather than policing compliance with standards that can have limited usefulness for some methods, participant populations and contexts, such an advisory review would aim to assist researchers in reflecting on the specific ethical challenges of their research.


Ethics Case #1 ~ EPSE 595 October 10

Changing research plans and ethics

A doctoral student is preparing for her dissertation defense in a medical anthropology program. Her research on family relationships and child treatment discusses the borderlands of medical anthropology, child abuse and neglect. She has important theoretical contributions to make in the area of evolving cultural definitions of parent-child relationships among the subpopulation she studied. The student plans to publish her work, complete with many of the candid black-and-white photos she took of the children and families she studied. She is stunned by the evocative power of these photographs, but:

1. when she began her research, she did not include photographic methods as part of her application to the Research Ethics Board;
2. consequently, she has no signed permission from any of the individuals pictured in the photographs to use these identifying images in research or publication; and
3. some of the photographs portray evidence of physical violence with children that might be considered child abuse by professionals outside the study community.

• What might the researcher have done differently so as not to be confronted with these dilemmas upon completion of the research?
• Did the researcher do anything wrong by using data collection methods not included in the original proposal? Why or why not?
• How can the dissemination of this student’s work be facilitated? How can the research participants be protected?
Does the researcher adopt a utilitarian, deontological or virtues approach to ethics? Explain why.


Ethics Case #2 ~ EPSE 595, October 10th

One Hundred Dollars and a Dead Man: Ethical Decision Making in Ethnographic Fieldwork
Steven L. Vanderstaay Journal of Contemporary Ethnography 2005 34: 371 DOI: 10.1177/0891241605275478
Click here for the full article.

I was interested in the changing nature of the relationship between schools and the juvenile justice system. Clay, a small and muscular 17-year-old whose detention hearing I happened to have observed was the focus of my research. Clay was accused of stealing a car and threatening a witness. Clay and I lived in a city renowned for its street gangs, teenage murder rate, and cocaine trade.

My participant/observation was limited to the youth court, its detention facility, Clay’s home, or his great grandmother’s home, and interviews were done in my office. In appreciation of his participation in the research, I offered to help Clay study for his GED and place a letter in his court file describing his participation in my project. I avoided observing illegal behavior.

Acquaintance with Clay’s family complicated the research experience. Serena, Clay’s mother, lived a desperate life, plagued in equal parts by poverty and her addictions. On my first visit to her apartment, I found that she and Clay’s third-grade sister, “Silk,” had been living without water for a month. The families situation lead me to offer help of various kinds—driving Serena where she need to go, giving a book as a gift to Silk (which was taken away by a school teacher who accused her of stealing it), paying the water bill, eventually trying to help Clay get a GED. Clay’s original conviction required him to pay restitution of $25/month and as a way of helping I paid him $10/hour for interviews with the understanding that the money would go directly to the court.

Throughout the research, Clay lied to others (judges, social workers, police) and continued to be involved in drug dealing and theft. His mother told me that Clay shot another boy, and he was subsequently convicted for murder.

• Does the prohibition against harming subjects during research suggest a larger responsibility for their well-being? If so, does this responsibility extend to protecting subjects from risks that “do not originate with and are not the direct consequence of participation in research?” What is a researcher’s obligation to respond to human suffering?
• Who benefits and how from researching experiences like Clay’s and his family’s?
Does the researcher adopt a utilitarian, deontological or virtues approach to ethics? Explain why.

Institutional Review Blog

The Institutional Review Blog focuses on news and analyses related to ethics in social sciences.

Here is a sample of recent posts:
Fredericton to Host Summit on Research-Ethics Review Alternatives – Monday, September 17, 2012
Could Guidance and Feedback Replace Rote Compliance? – Sunday, September 16, 2012
I Review van den Hoonaard, The Seduction of Ethics – Wednesday, September 12, 2012
OHRP Calls for 2013 SACHRP Nominations Without Announcing 2012 Appointments – Sunday, September 09, 2012
Can an IRB Ban a Researcher? – Friday, September 07, 2012