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.

33 thoughts on “Ethics Case #2 ~ EPSE 595, October 10th

  1. Prohibition against harming subjects during research only suggests a larger responsibility for their well-being under certain conditions. These conditions might include: abuse, assault, and/or intent of personal or public harm. In these cases, researchers are required to intervene by seeking outside help in the form of psychiatrists, counselors, and/or the law. In the case of Clay and his family, the dilemma is more muddy because it does necessarily involve a clear breach of these conditions, rather a response to human suffering. The trouble with ethics is that once the research begins, particularly when it involves interviewing and observation, more often than other ethical issues are unearthed that leave researchers with moral dilemmas. Thus, researchers are left with the bystander dilemma and the response a personal/ ethical choice. In the case of Clay, the ethical responsibility is further complicated by the fact that the researcher agreed to go into both his home and the home of his grandmother. In my opinion, in taking this more personal step the researcher is morally obligated to try and help the family in any way she can. Especially given the fact that she and society as a whole are said to benefit from her research. Personally, I would have acted in a similar manner to the researcher in this case. I believe that the researcher has adopted a deontological ethical approach because of the duty she felt to help other people (beneficence) and to benefit Clay and Clay’s family for the helping her with her research (gratitude).

  2. Stephanie says “These conditions might include: abuse, assault, and/or intent of personal or public harm. In these cases, researchers are required to intervene by seeking outside help in the form of psychiatrists, counselors, and/or the law.”

    This is a common assumption that needs to be unpacked in the context of doing research. While there are many professionals who are required by law to report these conditions, is it the case that researchers have these same obligations to report or intervene? Researchers do not have a professional code or legal obligation like teachers or psychologists might have. In fact, isn’t it possible that the promise of confidentiality required by the institutional review board is akin to the patient-doctor or lawyer-client privilege?

  3. In my work as an adult ESL teacher and administrator working with immigrants and refugees, there are often cases where a person demonstrates personal needs, such as needing a job, childcare, adequate housing, legal advice, or even transportation and food. The teaching profession often attracts people who are very empathetic and compassionate. However, we are trained as teachers, not social workers – trying to help might inadvertently do more harm to the person than good if wrong advice or assistance is given. I do not think a researcher is obliged to respond to human suffering by becoming personally involved in the way described in this case, and in fact, could inadvertently do harm by trying to help (such as when Silk was accused of stealing the gift book). I think the researcher has undertaken to fully describe the situation only and perhaps offer direction for change that will benefit families like Clay’s (if doing critical research) in the future. I agree with Stephanie that the researcher adopted a deontological approach to ethics since it appears she felt a duty to help other people.

  4. Intervening with a participant may also change the results – as in Pascoe’s situation where she resolved not to act (a utilitarian approach).

    I think the decision whether or not to help or report would depend on the researcher’s individual values, and the situation the participant is in. The more dire the situation, the more a person (the researcher) would want to intervene to help out. But in the end, I have to wonder, did the researcher actually help the situation? In some cases, ‘helping’ just ends up facilitating dependency or in fact worsens the situation. Maybe instead the researcher should have donated money to an after-school program to prevent crime in the neighborhood.

    I know a teacher is not the same as a researcher, but when I used to ask my students to write in their journals I told them up front that if they wrote something that needed to be shared I would do so, and that what they wrote was not strictly private. This might have influenced what they wrote about, but I don’t think so. If you think you may be dealing with sensitive subject matter you need to make appropriate plans beforehand.

  5. Here is my thoughts on this dilemma;
    although there is no professional code of ethics for researchers and under the confidentiality promise they are required to keep information confidential, the bottom line is the researcher is a human being and as humans we do have some obligations according to our moral understandings. Regardless of believing in universal ethics or alternatives such as ethics of care (as I do), in such situations as given in this example, I believe the human role can easily (and if you ask my opinion) should overtake the researcher role, and an ethical decision needs to be made. Well, and the problem is human situations are messy and ethical/moral decisions are not easy to make.

  6. I am just curious, has there ever been an attempt to regulate research in a way that would make them accountable to report situations of abuse like teachers and heath care professionals must?

  7. In my opinion, the decision to try to protect someone from harm (unrelated to research) is an individual decision. Someone makes that decision not as a researcher, but as a person. Whereas “a researcher” does not have obligation to help, the person may want to try (while taking full responsibility for such decision…)

  8. @Stephanie… researchers are not bound in the same way as other professionals and not regulated to do so. Indeed, might this not be quite a dangerous precedent especially if one is doing research in ‘marginal’ or deviant contexts where the possibility of hearing about or seeing illegal or immoral behavior would be expected. For example, research with gangs or sex trade workers or even Wall Street CEOs! One needs to think about the balance between the value of research and the value of some other moral imperatives to behave as a human being in a particular way.

  9. This is a question that constantly pop ups when working with children in public schools. In order to work with them one build relationships whose boundaries are not as clear as I would like, or as it could be expected. In this case, as others have said, there is a dilemma between to be a researcher or a simple person who has built a relationship with someone who needs support. The kind of support could be in many different ways, but the point is how as a researcher and as a person I establish human relationships with research participants. I think I couldn’t keep myself from the established obligations as a researcher, tending to support in some ways to Clay and his family.

  10. I agree with Lisa’s comment about potentially doing more harm than good in this scenario. I can only imagine how difficult it was for the researcher to be in that situation which leads me to wonder who is there to protect the well-being of the researcher as well? If there are no governing bodies to help researchers with moral or ethical dilemmas such as these, could the researchers also be at risk? I found this quote from chapter 5 of the TCPS 2 “The ethical duty of confidentiality must, at times, be balanced against competing ethical considerations or legal or professional requirements that call for disclosure of information obtained or created in a research context. For example, in exceptional and compelling circumstances, researchers may be subject to obligations to report information to authorities to protect the health, life or safety of a participant or a third party. Researchers are expected to be aware of ethical codes (such as professional codes of conduct) or laws (e.g., those requiring the reporting of children in need of protection) that may require disclosure of information they obtain in a research context.” I’m not sure if this would have applied in this case study.

  11. Good observation Kate… this part of TCPS implies but doesn’t obligate researchers to act outside their role as a researcher. There’s probably good reason for the vagueness of the language!

    Your comment about who supports the researcher when serious ethical dilemmas arise is right on–it is in part what Dyck & Allen are try to get at in their reformulation. But it also points out the potential secondary trauma that can be created when researchers work in contexts that are marginal, unsafe, dangerous, illegal, and so on. Many of these contexts are easy to identify apriori, but that isn’t always the case… sometimes things get political, ethical when you least expect it.

  12. I’ve been wondering: does anyone know of any cases in which a researcher has been prosecuted for deciding NOT to intervene in the protection of a person/group? If such suits were constant and successful, then I think the nature of our conversation here would be very much different.

    I think this discussion is even more difficult for those who hold dual-roles: that of a registered professional (i.e. RN, R. Psych, &c.) AND researcher. Different certifying bodies and colleges deal with this issue differently; I know in my case, a duty-to-report/respond can be read to apply outside of my primary role within the profession.

    I’m curious, with your experience as a researcher in the States, if the nature of litigation (or fear of litigation) against researchers is perceived differently than in Canada?

  13. I also believe that the researcher was operating from a deontological ethical approach. However, when trying to determine which approach I kept looking at the phrase, “I avoided observing illegal behavior”. Might this include (potentially) observing Clay shoot a man? What is the researchers ethical duty to help people other than those directly involved with the research (e.g., Clay or his family)?

  14. I know of no such situation.

    On the other hand, there have been cases when researchers and/or their field notes have been subpoenaed. This is not a frequent occurrence and the cases I am aware of involved medical research (those medical anthropologists seem to invite controversy 🙂 ) and someone has died.

  15. It has been mentioned that there is not a researcher’s code of ethics as there is in medicine and teaching. If such a code were designed by a body of researchers, and potential researchers had to agree to it, I wonder if that would help researchers reflect on the situations that emerge in the field to deeply consider if they are acting ethically, rather than just rely on a Board to think ethically for them. Clearly IRBs do not prevent unethical situations in research from developing after approval for the project has been given, as in M’s personal example; I don’t think any process can entirely prevent such situations. But researchers need some way to evaluate both their obligations and boundaries in emerging situations and to be reminded to do so. In this case study, I don’t think the researcher had clear enough boundaries between herself and her participants which, as Nikki said, could affect the results of the research or even negatively affect the participants, as well as the health of the researcher as Kate mentioned.

  16. Who benefits?

    Other than the obvious short term benefits received by Clay and his family ($, tutoring, rides and a gift) there are potential far reaching benefits.

    There researcher states that he would like to see the relationship between schools and the juvenile justice system chance. Understanding the larger context of Clay’s criminal behaviour and other adolescents who engage in delinquent behaviour must be a piece in understanding this school/juvenile system interface. Hopefully this researcher and others like it could help to shed light on possible improvements/change. While it would be tempting to offer help to participants such as Clay (especially when one can do so so easily), as a researcher I would be wary of this. I would be more comfortable directing them to other potential sources of help. The point that getting involved at this level could lead to other much more tricky ethical questions is a good one.

  17. I think Adam and Ellen made good points. It is hard not to see ourselves as whole beings. We are not just researcher, just doctor, just Buddhist, etc. in isolated settings. We are whole beings that must act ethically within different contexts. However, as Maryam stated, life can be messy and sometimes it can be difficult water to navigate. I agree that a supportive ethics board would be helpful in instances such as this.

    @ Ellen, you are right that the researcher stated she turned a blind eye to illegal activity! What does that say about her ethical imperative? It is only present for some and not others?

  18. Most disciplines do have codes of ethics… but those are not always specifically about doing research although there are often clear extensions. Anthropologists, sociologists, educational researchers all have codes of ethics.

    The evolution of promoting ethical research practice has unfortunately been in response to egregious and outrageous research practices. (I note, that at a university I previously worked at a professor regularly submitted a proposal to investigate how oxygen deprivation effected learning [do we need to research that???] and was consistently denied by the IRB–so sometimes it works.) But this punitive history has resulted in a stance towards promoting ethical research practice that assumes researchers will act badly, that medical research is the appropriate model for considering how research should be done, and that a primary goal is to insure the institution is held as harmless as possible.

  19. I’m not sure that the researcher turned a blind eye to illegal activity… another way to think about this is that he carefully considered ahead of time how to be a researcher in the situation that would allow him to do the study and avoid some ethical dilemmas.

  20. It could certainly be the prerogative of a researcher to do this, and indeed when I work with younger children I usually do include something of this sort. Although I would likely think twice about doing so if the research participants were adolescents, although may still do the same. Not so much to protect me, as it is to protect children. But I would be very very cautious about using information and would engage in the habits of mind for ethical researchers before assuming that I ought to disclose information or identities.

  21. In terms of avoiding ethical dilemmas: How often is it that researchers propose “limited confidentiality agreement”, in which they state that danger to self or others, abuse, and such, will be reported if witnessed or disclosed? In certain contexts (where those phenomena are more likely, but not our primary interest) it could be a way to protect ourselves from the difficult dilemmas later…

  22. I can definitely see the ethical dilemma of the researcher in this example. I feel the researcher was acting with virtue ethics and acting in a charitable and kind way. The hard part is deciding whether it should be the role of the researcher to get involved in such a personal way. As previously mentioned by @Nikki, Pascoe maintained her role as a researcher, without getting too personally involved. She did this despite her true feelings to support certain students (ex. The GSA). I feel that researchers offer a glimpse or act as a window into the situations surrounding them. I wonder if crossing that line and acting in a charitable way changes the results or the researcher?s impartial lens? I?m not entirely sure how the research results would have changed based on the researcher?s desire to help; however, I still feel that the researcher crossed a line, working so closely with the participants. At that point it should be a choice, albeit a difficult one, to stop the research and provide charitable help or to continue on maintaining a researcher stance.

  23. Nikki mentioned that “intervening with a participant may also change the results – as in Pascoe’s situation where she resolved not to act”. Do you think the researcher’s intervention compromised the results of his research? Does the fact that “informal” observation and interaction took place outside of the limited list of participant/observation locations compromise findings?
    Pascoe decided that withholding intervention, though difficult at the time, would increase the validity and effectiveness of her research to effect change for a greater population in the future. Does helping Clay’s family diminish the capacity for this researcher’s work to influence larger populations in the future? I can’t see why this would be the case and can certainly empathize with the desire to intervene where one has the capacity to.

  24. I wasn’t sure that some of the researcher’s activities, such as buying a book for “Silk” or paying the water bill are necessary to answer the research interest on the relationship between schools and the juvenile justice system (though I don’t know the specific questions). Helping Clay with GED and giving him money can be understood as acts of “reciprocity.” However, in terms of an economic approach, which is about “only collecting those data and aspect that are really necessary to answer the research questions” (Flick, p. 43), I am wondering acquaintance with Clay’s family was a necessary part of collecting data, though it would have been very helpful to establish a good rapport with the participant (I guess).

  25. Reciprocity is a slippery idea… most research situations privilege the researcher over the participants. There is sometimes guilt about that and researchers are drawn into situations where they feel they can make compensation by helping and be respectful of participants as human beings. Sometimes what seems like reasonable compensation creates problems (in my research on the effects of testing on children I gave them movie passes and some of the kids had them taken away by other family members, creating tensions within families), not unlike giving Silk the book. Being aware that this is a complex part of the research relationship helps and using some ‘thought experiments’ to consider what the impact of compensation and actions will be is a good strategy.

  26. I think a researcher is always responsible to respond to human suffering because in the end we are humans dealing with other humans in the context of research and it does not make sense to turn a blind eye to others’ suffering, even if it did not originate from the research context. I think how the researcher behaved in this instance is admirable: they chose to provide compensation that is relevant to the needs of the family and I don’t see it as jeopardizing the integrity of the research.

    I think such research is beneficial in conveying an insider view on the lives of those who are deemed by society as criminals or outlaws without attempting to understand their circumstance. The researcher also tried to help the family by providing relevant compensation and additional forms of support

    I think the researcher here adopted a deontological approach, seeing that being kind and helpful is good and beneficial, regardless of its consequences or who is on the receiving end.

  27. I have to disagree with Shathel that the researcher is always responsible to respond to human suffering – I think if that were the case, no research could ever get done. I also think suffering does not mean the same thing to everyone – I might be quite resentful if someone tried to intervene on my behalf without my permission.

  28. @ Lisa: Agree that there is an issue of boundaries that the researcher needs to address when he goes into the field, and that the IRB guidelines and any additional professional code of practice provide something concrete from which he can evaluate obligations and boundaries in unanticipated situations.

    I think, as what many have alluded to here, the impetus to protect the well-being goes over and beyond what is expected as a researcher, but may resonate with us as humans who can empathise with another’s suffering. I guess this reminds us that as researchers, we are fundamentally human, but we also need our own personal set of guidelines however we may construct them to guide our actions. Personal boundaries are also not bad – it reminds us that we are not “saviours” and that we may be in fact imposing on another because our own perspective of what “help” looks like which may not be congruent to the participant’s perspective. So it seems to me that apart from the research aims (and the related effect of the research on participants) which we as researchers are responsible for, we are however, not ultimately responsible for the participant’s lives, no matter how “un-caring” that may be – but it’s accepting the roles that we play.

  29. It is a dangerous road to navigate when it comes to becoming personally involved in a research situation. By assisting the family financially, the researcher has put himself in a different role as benefactor and as researcher. Would Clay have another motivation to participate in the study? It is understandable to become attached and invested in research participants, as found in relationships with teachers and students. Teachers are trained to be teachers but, in some cases, the profession does delve into the realm of social work and counselling. Could the researcher put Clay’s family in touch with social services? (Yes, this is an incredibly naive statement, given Clay’s family’s circumstances, including where they live.)
    I agree with the comment that there has to be a form of non-judgemental support for the researcher. As a teacher, I have definitely become audience to information that lead for me to fear for a student’s safety, leading me to ask permission to share the information with the school counselor, or the option to go and share the information with the counselor. My guess is that a researcher would not go back to the ethics board for support, simply due to the fear that the study could be shut down. Do researchers have any other avenues of support and advice, such as a researcher support group?

  30. @ Lisa, response to suffering does not mean disempowering or intervening on someone’s behalf. I guess what I meant was that there are instances where researchers might focus on the contribution of their research and its value to them and others and look at human suffering as data in the process. by responding to suffering I mean that researchers should strive to fulfill a compassionate a role to research participants as peers in humanity and that should be given a higher consideration that what contribution the research will deliver.

  31. That is a good point Christine. Would the researcher still pay for Clay’s family to have water if Clay suddenly refused to be a part of the study? Is Clay now giving socially desirable answers because he wants running water?

  32. This idea of compensation and reciprocity is interesting to me. I think that over-compensation can be problematic and that it is challenging to find appropriate compensation. In this instance, I believe that the researcher made a personal (rather than professional) choice to help the family that he became involved with. I appreciated Sandra’s idea of “thought experiments” to help anticipate the possible reactions/implications of the researcher’s actions. Both Nikki and Christine noted that the participant’s motivation to be a part of the study may have changed as a result of him helping the family. I think it is also important to consider what kind of help or compensation you are providing. When I was working on a project which included youth on probation there was debate around what was appropriate compensation; it was decided that cash was not appropriate and gift cards to malls/movies/itunes were provided instead. It is interesting to consider that sometimes our compensation/reciprocity may result in unintended harm to the participant.

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