Category Archives: politics


I use this prezi when I teach about research ethics.

This issue of Forum: Qualitative Social Research has an extensive special section on research ethics. Topics include: conceptual frameworks, ethics codes and research review practices, and ethical issues in many different particular research contexts (indeed, most of the issue focuses on ‘ethics in practice’).

The Introduction concludes with this coda:

The present collection of studies concerning ethics in qualitative research bears testimony that the research community has come a long way from where it still had been in the 1960s, when research was conducted that obviously harmed participants and bystanders. It is exciting to see that qualitative researchers tend to treat ethics not as a code but as a characteristic of the relation between researcher and researched. Once we consider the relation as an event (rather than thing), it is immediately apparent that ethical questions never are resolved with some formal institutional approval of the research. Instead, ethical questions are aspects of human life and relations and thus continuously pose themselves anew, remain for a while, and die away only to be reborn again in some other form.

embeddedness, truth & complexity

Fifteen years after the Iraq War began, Magnum photographers are reflecting on being embedded with the U.S. military and how it affected the work produced during the conflict. While the practice of embedding journalists is not new it very much came to the public’s attention during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, estimates are there were 700+ journalists and photographers embedded with American military troops.

There is much controversy about this practice, some of which is highlighted in the Magnum photographers reflections. A key issue is the sympathetic and dependent relationship with the military, one that lead to what some journalists referred to as propagandizing.

We were a propaganda arm of our governments. At the start the censors enforced that, but by the end we were our own censors. We were cheerleaders.   Charles Lynch

Primary issues are:

objectivity: embedding potentially makes journalists tools of the military whose access and message can be manipulated and controlled; provides an insider view of military life; doesn’t allow for access to life in the context, the life of those against whom war is waged

access: embedding provides journalists with access in otherwise unsafe contexts

What does this have to do with research?

The same embedding strategy was used for anthropologists and other social scientists. Since 2007, the Pentagon’s Human Terrain System (HTS) started placing social scientists in every Army combat brigade, regiment and Marine Corps regimental combat team in order to improve the Army’s cultural IQ. The HTS has now been phased out, not because of ethical issues but because there were insufficient on the ground troops to warrant the program. Indeed, the protests of professional associations had little impact on the existence of the HTS. This article is a good summary of the HTS.

It is important to note, collaborations between social scientists and the military did not begin with Iraq, but have always been controversial. For example, Project Camelot, a program intended to help the U.S. Army assist friendly Latin American governments in dealing with insurgency as well as influence social and economic development, didn’t survive once it became public.

Nonetheless, it is useful to ask what has been learned?

  1. The ethical dilemmas presented by embeddedness are significant. Basic premises of informed consent are by definition ignored and violated.
  2. It is critical to ask how the methodological and value traditions of social science might be compromised/affected by the invitation to participate by one side of the conflict in a military zone. Will cultural knowledge be used against those in the invaded country/region, for example? Is the work meant to create knowledge or intelligence? What is the relationship between social science and politics?
  3. What are likely consequences the work will be controlled by the military, in other words, what is the likelihood of becoming a legitimation of propaganda?

These questions remain relevant because, at least on the military side, a desire to use the knowledge and skills of social scientists is still deemed useful, and there is the possibility the HTS has been reinvented under a new name, the Global Cultural Knowledge Network.

Metaphors: how they help us to understand social life (and maybe make positive change)

I’ve written a few posts about metaphors  including their centrality to how knowledge about and action in the social world is constructed [The Power of Metaphors] and how to use a metaphoric lens during data analysis [Making Sense of Metaphors].

People use metaphors often as a short-hand, a way to capture complex ideas and relationships; to direct attention in a particular way; and often to present a moral view. In British Columbia where I live the province is in the midst of a fairly pitched battle between the teachers union and the government (ok so I’ve already tipped my hand in terms of the metaphor I use in talking about these labor relations). A rising chorus of voices have begun to use the metaphor of labor relations as marriage, not surprisingly since both the teachers union and the government claim to have the best interests of children at heart.

The labor relations as marriage works on a number of levels and not on many others. But, it is dominant in the media, the rhetoric of the union and the government, school administrators, students, and analysts. So, it needs to be taken seriously to understand the impasse in negotiations (and indeed the now decade old acrimonious relationship between the two) and using this understanding to both think and then act differently.


Here’s a link to the article:  Does It Help to Say the BC Teachers and the Government are in a Bad Marriage?




confidentiality ~ the case of the Belfast Project

For years, the researchers painstakingly recorded and transcribed oral histories from many of the leaders of the factions caught up in the Troubles in Northern Ireland. They pledged absolute secrecy to their subjects until after their deaths.

This is not your typical and straightforward case of researchers’ data becoming embroiled in a legal battle, and I’ve no sense that I understand all the details, players, and consequences. In Secrets from Belfast: How Boston College’s oral history of the Troubles fell victim to an international murder investigation, Chronicle of Higher Ed reporter Beth McMurtrie gives a pretty full account of the matter. And CNN had a 2012 story, Secrets of the Belfast Project, and the text of a conference paper, The Belfast Project and the Boston College Subpoena Case about the initial subpoena was written by Anthony McIntyre. And, a good overview of the issues around resisting subpoena’s for research data can be found on the Institutional Review Blog.

That this was not a research project is apparent ~ it was not conducted by BC researchers, it was described as not your typical oral history, and there was no participation by BC institutional research review board.  Belfast Project’s organizers were: Thomas Hachey, BC’s head of Irish programs; Ed Moloney, project director and journalist; Anthony McIntyre, project interviewer, historian, and former IRA member; and Robert O’Neill, head of the Burns Library at BC.

One imagines that BC’s motivations were complex:

An Irish-American success story, BC has risen from a modest 19th-century college, founded to educate the children of poor Irish immigrants, into a prestigious institution with an endowment of nearly $2-billion. It has proudly maintained its connections to Ireland through its Irish collection at the Burns Library, its Irish-studies program, and its Irish Institute, which attempts to promote reconciliation in Ireland and Northern Ireland through professional-development programs.

Some have suggested that had there been IRB review and approval for the project, none of this would have happened. This is unlikely, as IRBs are relatively feeble guardians of confidentiality. And, this is a serious problem for research (oral history is certainly a prime example) where narrators, participants, and sources are necessarily named. Others have noted the chilling effect the successful subpoena will have on research on criminal, political and violent social phenomena.

This case is a mess and there is little reason to believe we understand all that is going on. However, researchers continue to do research and the legal and criminal battle around the Belfast Project should provide fodder for continued debate about how research can be done ethically, especially when the focus is something illegal or criminal. Just a few take aways:

  1. researchers should be more cautious about the promises of confidentiality they make… simply saying it isn’t much of a guarantee, but explicitly considering how and if indeed confidentiality is necessary is essential
  2. new strategies for protecting confidentiality are needed, so leaks to the press and police are avoided
  3. universities need to step up to the legal plate and defend researchers and all of the IRB hoops they ask researchers to jump through… if researchers are required by the university to promise confidentiality then the university is obligated to defend that promise

See also, my previous posts on the Luka Magnotta case in Ottawa, where the courts upheld the confidentiality of research interviews.

UPDATE: Boston College has agreed to return interview tapes and transcripts to interviewees who request them. It’s the least they can do, but the Belfast Project debacle illustrates how politics and lack of consideration for ethical issues might make very interesting research nearly impossible.

UPDATE: NBC News requested the release of the Belfast Project transcripts, and a federal court judge has ruled against that request.

on the rights of privacy in research that harvests social media for data

Following up on my previous post on the Frontiers of Psychology decision to retract a published paper that investigated conspiratorial ideation by analyzing blog posts, the most recent statement by the Frontiers group re-writes its reasons for the retraction:

Frontiers came to the conclusion that it could not continue to carry the paper, which does not sufficiently protect the rights of the studied subjects. Specifically, the article categorizes the behaviour of identifiable individuals within the context of psychopathological characteristics.

And, they continue: “we also must uphold the rights and privacy of the subjects included in a study or paper.”

A troubling feature of this revised retraction is that is contradicts the first, which asserts there were no ethical issues with the research, but now there are. This does not speak well for the journal, its editors and the umbrella Frontiers group. (See here for commentary about the media coverage of the journal.)

But the heart of the matter is whether the identity of  bloggers who made comments openly and publicly should be protected? The short answer is, no. The key here is that bloggers’ personal comments are public and so once made, bloggers give up their rights to privacy. And indeed, in the discourse one presumes these bloggers do not wish to be anonymous, but to own their viewpoints.  Blog comments are not responses to a researcher’s queries offered in the frame of most social science research, which does offer protection of privacy through confidentiality and anonymity. The blog comments are therefore a legitimate source of found data that support a range of analyses, including in this case what they might reveal about conspiratorial ideation.

I would note though that this matter is not straightforward and harvesting of social media (Facebook, Twitter, blogs) is still new territory for social scientists. There are essentially two positions:

  1. what is archived on the internet is public, and no consent is required from those who created the data
  2. what is archived is public, but the content creators imagined they were writing in private and so consent is required

(See here, for one discussion of both sides,  here for a discussion of the blogosphere as a source of data, here for a commentary on qualitative research blogs. And here for a legal opinion on the matter.)

power over publishing ~when special interest trumps scientific research

In 2012 Stephan Lewandowsky, University of Western Australia published an article in Psychological Science, which analyzed anti-climate change blog comments to explore the idea of conspiratorial ideation. He concludes people who believe in one unsubstantiated conspiracy theory are likely to believe in others. Amusing at times (people who believe Princess Diana was ordered to be murdered by the Royal Family are also likely to agree she faked her own death and is still alive ~ pay no attention to the contradiction) and decidedly not amusing at other times (people who endorse free market economics reject climate change, and a number of other scientific facts like HIV causes AIDS and smoking causes lung cancer ~ pay attention to the potential constraints on improving the quality of individual and collective human life).

This article outraged conspiracy theorists and a maelstrom of protest hit the blogosphere, which Lewandowsky also analyzed and published in a subsequent article in the Frontiers of Psychology, part of the Frontiers conglomerate publishing 45 open access journals in all. This paper was also challenged by the conspirators, and although no fault could be found with the quality or ethics of the research Frontiers has withdrawn the article from the journal with the vague legal issue (read, I think, fear of a lawsuit) as the reason.

But fear not, you can still read the paper, Recursive fury: Conspiracist ideation in the blogosphere in response to research on conspiracist ideation, thanks to academic freedom and the internet. Read more at I Fucking Love Science, here. And, there are no shortage of blogs that follow the climate change deniers (see, for example, Watching the Deniers).

Lewandowsky also talks at length about the controversy and issues.

Stephan Lewandowskay: In Whose Hands the Future? from Peter Sinclair on Vimeo.

What should trouble ALL researchers is that a powerful special interest group has threatened academic freedom, and especially an open access journal that although levying author fees does not likely have the resources to withstand legal challenge in the same way that a for-profit publisher does. Sage Publications, owners of the journal in which the original article was published, never buckled under protest to the original article now referred to as LOG12. Indeed, an investigation by the journal asserted no wrong doing and Lewandowsky’s own university supports him by posting the article on the UWA website, thus also affirming academic freedom. Even more important, this threat is based on deniers skeptics disliking the research topic and conclusions ~ not one based on poor quality research, unethical research practices or failure of the peer review process. This is a chilling prospect for all researchers, but especially so when research challenges powerful ideologies that effect rationale critique and potential positive social change.

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.