Category Archives: researcher roles

Ethics

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.

Learning to be a better researcher… by being a research participant

section_volunteerResearchers are egocentric… the research they do stems from their interests and motivations. That’s a given. Within interpretive research methodologies this egocentric position is tempered by the interpersonal intersection of researchers’ interests with those of their research participants. Mostly I am a researcher, but I have also been a research participant and these different vantage points provide useful lessons for thinking about how we conceptualize research participants’ engagement with us and how we treat those who participate in our research.

In general, the interests of the researcher are more important, and procedures to protect research participants are institutionalized through research review boards. For example, research participants’ identities are anonymized to encourage them to participate and protect them from harm, embarrassment, possibly even legal sanctions should the details of their lives become known. (Whether this makes sense is debatable ~  for a good discussion see Jan Nespor’s article Anonymity and place in qualitative research.)

But, equally important is the shield anonymity provides the researcher, shielding them from research participants’ challenges if and when they see how their experiences, thoughts, and emotions are used as data, as well as shielding them from professional critique since data sources (and often data) are held in secret (this is, in part, the current criticism leveled against Alice Goffman). I was able to read the research report of the study I participated in because I know how to access research, cultural capital that researchers might safely assume (hope?) most research participants don’t have.

Narratives of Research Participant Reaction

Here are three sketches of research participant reaction to a published account of the research in which they were involved. All are real. There are a number of lessons to be learned, but I will draw out just a couple.

1. In an introductory doctoral level interpretive research course students read Lois Weis’ Working Class Without Work, a study of an upstate NY high school. A student in the course had been a student in that high school and felt Weiss had understood well some of the gender related occupational aspirational conflict, but demonstrated misunderstandings of the role of the school in students’ future aspirations.

2. I read the dissertation, the report of the research I participated in, and found conversations between myself and the researcher that were not about the research focus had been included as data to corroborate evidence of my behavior and motivations as a mother. I was unaware of this until I read the completed dissertation as neither the analysis nor final dissertation were shared with the research participants.

3. A doctoral student used narrative inquiry to investigate parental experiences dealing with adult children with mental illness. His decision to use a first person story telling strategy was seen as misrepresentation by one parental participant who withdrew consent for including their data in the study.

Involving Research Participants to Get It ‘Right’

As researchers we want to get it as ‘right’ as we can and there are a number of strategies often invoked to do so. The most common are developing a habit of self-reflexivity (often manifest in journal writing), member-checking (an unfortunate term introduced by Guba & Lincoln), using key informants, and peer debriefing. These strategies are of value only if we as researchers practice them seriously.

Member-checking or informant feedback (the term I’ll use) is when researchers share research data, analysis or reports with participants to ensure categories, constructs, explanations and interpretations “ring true” and to explore what might be missing. This is a much talked about and seldom used strategy.

I suspect most researchers avoid informant feedback because it entails: the possibility of creating more, new data (like in sketch #1 and #2); invites potential disagreements and conflict with research participants (like in all three sketches); and invites research participants to opt out of the research study should they not like what they see or how they are represented (like happened in sketch #3). I also suspect most researchers do not see the value in the iterative process of multiple engagements with research participants in the space of data making and interpretation, seeing them as worthy of one but not multiple viewings (like in sketch #1 and #2). Within any interpretivist or critical research methodology this is a contradictory stance, and in establishing respectful relationships with research participants this is a disrespectful stance.

I suspect most researchers worry about the purpose, conditions and consequences of seeking informant feedback ~ can research participants give informed, useful feedback? should I change what I’ve written? does the research participant have veto power? will I destroy the rapport I have if research participants don’t agree with my analysis? Informant feedback is more likely to lead to confusion and contradiction than confirmation and clarity ~ a situation, which I have argued in delineating the process of triangulation, that ought to be invited not avoided by researchers. This is critically important.  If researchers use informant feedback they should think in advance how feedback will be used and to be transparent with research participants about that.

It is also critical to care about whether you are getting it as ‘right’ as possible, and that means not avoiding informant feedback because it may challenge your ideas. Regrettably, this avoidance is safeguarded by the conventions of anonymity and confidentiality that shield researchers from engagement with research participants who cede their right to engage publicly with the researcher by agreeing to those conventions ~ a Gordian knot.

Presentation of Self as Researcher

I suggest novice researchers develop a 30 second or so introduction of themselves as researchers to be used in the research context. A reminder to all that you are here as a researcher and what you are interested in… over the course of a research study it will be needed less and less but it should also be a reminder to self. Screen Shot 2015-07-07 at 12.49.20 PM If we have extended interactions with research participants it is easy to forget that we are researchers and not friends, neighbours, confidants, compatriots, lovers, and so on. We may become those things, but then we are no longer just researchers and the challenge of distinguishing what is within the parameters of the research becomes cloudy, and we may enter into a murky moral ambiguity of ethics and intimacy. (The classic example of this is Harry Wolcott’s relationship with Brad, summarized from his perspective in his book Sneaky Kid and It’s Aftermath.)

Researchers bear greater responsibility than research participants to maintain clarity about their role and their legitimate access to or defining what is data, what is within the boundaries of the research project. In sketch #2, some of my conversations with the researcher had nothing to do with the research topic. I gave this no thought at the time but implicitly assumed they were interactions between if not friends then perhaps a professor and doctoral student, the other most significant roles we played in relation to one another. Even as an experienced researcher, I was naive as a research participant and let the researcher in on too much of my life ~ even being ‘friends’ on Facebook during the research to then be unfriended upon completion of the research project. I mistook this gesture as ‘friendship’ when in hindsight it was data collection, albeit never negotiated as such with me.

Being clear that we are researchers should be ever present in our minds, but as researchers we need to insure it is ever present in research participants’ minds as well. “Anything you say [or do] can and will be used as data by me” might be more useful at protecting research participants than many of the promises institutionalized by research review boards.

We should remind ourselves…

narcissism should not prevail

and being a researcher is simply not a license to tell all.

 

 

publicity for research brings fame AND scrutiny

Two recent studies have captured the attention of the media and considerable publicity: Alice Goffman’s book On the Run and Michael LaCour’s now retracted Science article. In both cases, the researchers’ work garnered substantial attention in the popular media, and while each also has important possibilities for social change the primary focus has been on how the research was done, including the ethicality of the researchers.

9780226275406Goffman’s work is unusual in academe, research that has so captured the public attention that it has led to a TED talk, a speaking tour, possible TV and movie deals, and a trade paperback reprint. Stunning success for any assistant professor. The University of Chicago Press has had a hand in the promotion of the book, marketing it as one would a trade book including an NPR interview.

Her work has won accolades within academe as well ~ Goffman won the American Sociological Association dissertation award for her work, which is described as a major contribution to the study of U.S. poverty and racial inequality. It has also been favorably reviewed within the discipline ~ here, for example. This is a potentially important study in the wake of recent police violence against Black Americans that especially captured media attention when a white cop killed Michael Brown, a young black man in Ferguson, MO.
RetractionNoticeSSMstudy0515

LaCour’s study also won the attention of the popular media because of the incredible claim that people’s views about same sex marriage could be changed through a short conversation with someone who supported the position. Ground breaking findings in political science! This study appeared in a peer reviewed highly regarded journal, one that is directed to a very broad audience of scientists rather than a specific discipline.

The reasons for retracting the paper are as follows: (i) Survey incentives were misrepresented. To encourage participation in the survey, respondents were claimed to have been given cash payments to enroll, to refer family and friends, and to complete multiple surveys. In correspondence received from Michael J. LaCour‘s attorney, he confirmed that no such payments were made. (ii) The statement on sponsorship was false. In the Report, LaCour acknowledged funding from the Williams Institute, the Ford Foundation, and the Evelyn and Walter Haas Jr. Fund. Per correspondence from LaCour‘s attorney, this statement was not true. (ii) The statement on sponsorship was false. In the Report,LaCour acknowledged funding from the Williams Institute, the Ford Foundation, and the Evelyn and Walter Haas Jr. Fund. Per correspondence from LaCour‘s attorney, this statement was not true.

Retraction Watch has chronicled the events around the retraction and responses of the two authors.

Research Issues 

It is a good thing when research findings become part of the public discourse about important issues… that is a critical role for researchers and research in contemporary society. With that publicity (whether fostered by a publisher or a researcher) comes a level of scrutiny perhaps with a spoonful of envy from other researchers. In both these cases, it was other researchers who are calling Goffman and LaCour out.

So what might we learn from these two cases. Here are some initial thoughts.

The Data Record ~ Goffman destroyed her data claiming she needed to protect her research participants and LaCour destroyed his claiming that was standard protocol. Neither position is tenable nor standard practice. While protecting research participants is of critical importance (and too often researchers blithely make a promise they may not be able to keep) but Goffman should be prepared to stand behind her promise and retain her data. And, it would seem now that LaCour may never have had data to destroy, he just said he destroyed it.

Triangulation ~ Goffman was either naive or is depending on the naiveté of her readers. Many of the critiques are reasonable requests for either corroboration, explanation or clarification. One example is her claim that, “The officers told me they had come to the hospital with a shooting victim who was in custody, and as was their custom, they ran the names of the men on the visitors’ list” has been challenged on many levels, including the unlikelihood that hospitals would release this information and that no one (and several researchers have tried) has been able to find hospitals, police departments or officers who actually do this. There are several other examples of this sort.

The onus on any researcher is to ask how to provide the best explanation of their data and this requires looking at those data in different ways, often collecting more data to clarify and test veracity.

Ethics ~ There are two contexts for thinking about research ethics: the ethics of the research practice and then ethics within the research practice. Destroying data isn’t acceptable and the ethics of research practice dictate how and for how long data ought to be kept, how to best maintain confidentiality and anonymity of research participants, honesty about sponsorship, and so on. Both Goffman and LaCour made major mistakes, and one can safely assume they acted purposefully and wrongly. In other words, there is no reason to believe they didn’t know better. LaCour’s fabrications are most egregious and his response has served only to confirm his unethical research practice.

But there is also the ethics within research practice, a much murkier gray area. Researchers, especially those doing the kind of fieldwork Goffman conducted, will necessarily encounter ethical dilemmas that arise as a result of being in the field. Her decision to live in the community she studied, and to live with some of her research participants isn’t a wrong choice (for all the critics that claim this is so, they would deny years of ethnographic research??) but it does inevitably challenge the researcher to make difficult choices. Likewise the criticism that she was not like the research participants (young black men) is an old irrelevant criticism ~ as Brian Fay has argued, “you don’t have to be one to know one.”

A number of critiques of Goffman’s work center on the ethics within research practice and are good fodder for discussions about how to do research well, in ways that respect research participants, and that leave room for researchers to explore areas of social life that may involve the illegal, immoral and unconventional fabric of human existence. These discussions are healthy for research, and the issues raised reinforce the importance of educating novice researchers about ethics beyond the ethics of research practice dictated by institutional conventions, like research review boards.

Grounded Theory ~ a brief note

grounded-theory-new-4-638Few research methodologies have been so beguiling as grounded theory. Even when researchers are not working squarely within this methodology, many strategies for data analysis are liberally borrowed from the work of grounded theory methodologists. For those who claim to be doing grounded theory, the ground on which they stand has and continues to shift from the original positions proffered by Glaser & Strauss in the mid 60s. Most especially Glaser’s realist ontology has been left behind.

Certainly, Juliet Corbin pushed that process along in her 9780857029140collaborations with Anselm Strauss and more recently Kathy Charmaz has offered what she calls a constructivist grounded theory approach. On the latter, you can watch this interview with Charmaz that clarifies her view, one that I think captures the emerging contemporary stance on grounded theory.

The use of prior empirical and theoretical literature is a key idea in contemporary grounded theory… the old school notion of avoiding all prior knowledge has been largely set aside in favor of abductive reasoning that sees the researcher traveling back and forth between their empirical data and relevant literature.

Grounded theory has also taken a more narrative turn, emphasizing more literary writing and more acknowledgement of the centrality of the researcher to the analysis. Nonetheless, grounded theory remains unique in the search for a core category, that theoretical idea that integrates the various aspects of the theoretical explanation. (See, for example, this recent article The San Miguel Project.)

 

The role of empathy in research

Our ability to empathize is key to our success as researchers. To understand the human conditions, social relations, cultural meanings we must first understand and only after that to engage in the conversations of what if.imgres I recently came across a FB post by Kirstie Elgersma. I’ve extracted some parts of her post to illustrate what empathy is and, more importantly, is not:

A monologue on Empathy:
If someone said to me today,’Holy crap, Kristie. Life freakin’ sucks. I’m so broke. And I feel so scared. I’ve never been this far down before. I don’t know how I’m going to make it…’

– I would rarely say:
‘Well where do you live? I can help you find a job….’
That’s fixing it. And no one needs to be ‘fixed’.

– I would rarely IF EVER say:
‘I think you should figure out your life and get your shit together!’
That’s advising and unless they specifically asked for it, they aren’t needing that from me.

– I would rarely IF EVER say:
‘Ohhh shit! How could you let that happen?!?’
That’s interrogating… And they didn’t come looking for the Spanish Inquisition.

– I would rarely IF EVER say:
‘It’s only that way because you aren’t being positive or you aren’t trying hard enough…. You did this to yourself.’
They aren’t looking for an explanation.

– I would rarely IF EVER say:
‘Hey, you shouldn’t see it that way! There are many things in life to be thankful for.’
That would be me correcting them and they are not needing ‘correction’.

– I would rarely IF EVER say:
‘Well, there is much to be learned from this…’
They don’t need an education on what the fuck is happening to them.

– I would rarely say:
‘None of this is your fault.’
They don’t need me to console them.

– I would rarely IF EVER say:
‘Wellllll if you hadn’t quit that job you had then none if this shit might be happening right now…’
They don’t need me to evaluate their lives. And most people hate hearing,’I told you so’.

– I would rarely say:
‘Those FUCKERZ. The 1%. Fuck I wish they would die so we can all be free.’
They don’t need me to commiserate with them as much as I would want to. That serves no one.

– I would rarely IF EVER say:
‘Oh fuck you think you got it bad! You should hear what happened to this one guy I met… etc etc.’
That’s ‘one upping’ them. They don’t need to hear who has it worse than them. I could imagine that that would make people feel shitty for how they feel or feel shitty that they even shared anything with me in the first place.

– I would rarely say:
‘Hey, that reminds me of the time when I was in my early twenties….’
Telling tales distracts people from what is alive in them. And although that may be a great stall tactic it still serves nothing or no one but my furiously ‘telling tales’ thumbs.

– I would rarely say:
‘Omg! That’s so fucking awful!! I feel so bad for you!! What are you going to do?!?’
They don’t need sympathy from me either. Sympathy can dis-able a person further…..

empathy2

None of these responses is empathetic, although these responses are frequently confused with empathy. To use our capacity for empathy in research and in everyday life what is called for is to listen, to be curious, to try our very best to understand, and of course to care. Demonstrating empathy is never about telling anyone anything, it is about asking and seeking understanding. This is the first step researchers need to take before presuming they know both what the problem and its solution are.

Carl-Rogers-quotes-psychology-quotes-

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?
YouTube Preview Image

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.

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.

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.

DISCUSS WHAT YOU THINK THE ADVANTAGES AND/OR DISADVANTAGES OF FOLLOWING DYCK & ALLEN’S SUGGESTION MIGHT BE FOR YOU AS A RESEARCHER.