Category Archives: Uncategorized

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.

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.

Social constructivism explained… as a basic life skill

Social order is not part of the “nature of things,” and it cannot be derived from the “laws of nature.” Social order exists only as a product of human activity.
~ Berger & Luckmann

In a short blog post offering sociological advice for recent college graduates, Peter Kaufman provides a succinct, clear description of social constructivism, and illustrates how understanding some basic sociological theoretical ideas you might be better equipped for life in the social world. There are four key ideas:

  1. the world is created by people just like you
  2. change is inevitable, but it’s not automatic
  3. you have the capability to act otherwise
  4. two I’s are better than one (interdependence and intersectionality)… and these are the counterpoint to the other I (individualism)


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.

Using aerial photographs

Aerial photography has been around for a long time ~ indeed there was a time living on the Canadian prairies where aerial photographers took pictures and then sold them to farmers, a sort of self-portrait of their homestead. My grandparents proudly displayed such a photograph in their living room and as a child I found it a fascinating perspective.

Google Maps provides an interesting resource for using the aerial perspective to examine constructs such as land use and housing patterns. For example, John Hill in this blog post looks at housing patterns, particularly suburban housing patterns that show an evolution from the sterile grids of suburbia characteristic of early suburban development, a pattern Thomas Jefferson laid down in the 18th century. His analysis of housing patterns illustrates an evolution that considers issues of density, community, and aesthetics based on the housing patterns (grids, fairway housing, fly-in homes, canal homes, cul-de-sacs, gated communities, tract mansions (what some folks call McMansions) and so on) we see in aerial photographs. This analysis clearly illustrates changes over time, concluding with suburban planning that reflects a contemporary interest in being ‘green,’ developments that encourage transit use, walkability, mixed-use spaces, and energy efficient construction.

See also Context and Perspective

Clever visual representation of FB data

While I’m not sure exactly how this translates to research or evaluation, this display of the spread of an ‘idea’ (more accurately a Facebook post of Marvin the Martian) is interesting and compelling. Having recently struggled with meaningful ways to present social network data to project staff this makes me wonder if there are similar animated ways to illustrate the nature and evolution of SNA maps.

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.

Perspectives & context

As interpretive researchers we observe in order to make sense. And we know that our perspective matters in what we see. The kind of perspective I am talking about here is not so much our personal lenses, but the circumstances that allow (or don’t allow) us to see. If I am in an airplane I see in a particular way… I get the big macro picture. The patterns that are apparent from 30,000 feet up are not so easily discernible if I am on the ground. From the air one gets a sense, for example, of the nature of land sharing and use for agriculture. It is also possible to enjoy a joke that is accessible only from this same perspective.

When one is driving or walking in that same space, the perspective changes and one gets a micro view, but necessarily loses sight of the bigger aerial perspective picture. What might have been a solid mass of colour or shape from the air now is discernable as individual plants and flowers. What seemed like lines drawn between fields become roads.

In both cases we see something valuable, indeed something complete from that perspective. But only one perspective gives us just that… a complete picture from one vantage point. In doing research we want to capture social phenomena from as many perspectives as possible, to give as thorough an account of the phenomenon as we are able. Knowing that there are always other perspectives as yet unexplored.

To illustrate just a couple more perspectives for this example, consider a GPS map or a road map.

Being aware of the possibilities of multiple perspectives should not be seen as a limitation, but rather an opportunity to think outside a single researcher, research framework, or methodology when we strive to understand social phenomena as fully as we are able.