Friday, March 23, 2007

institutional review boards have no jurisdiction over the dead

Three people in the past month or so, independent of one another and with various degrees of committment to the idea, have mentioned to me the possibility of doing an ethnographic study of funeral homes. If you, too, are working on this topic, I guess I would urge you not to dally.

Is this social science having a late-blooming Six Feet Under effect? Have funeral homes always been an attractive topic for ethnographers but something about the topic has prevented their from being (to my knowledge) The Great American Funeral Home Ethnography?

As a different matter regarding ethnography, I was having a conversation with an acquaintance recently about a prominent sociology ethnography in which the author, with the consent of the research participants (members of a minority group living in poverty), used their real names. The acquaintance was of the position that this was definitely wrong and asserted that their view was the consensus among people who do ethnographic research. I have to admit I don't really understand this as a general position. I do understand it in the obvious, but special, case in which naming an informant would allow one to determine the identities other people who don't want their names used. Otherwise, it seems like newspaper editors have the right idea in fretting about negative consequences of anonymous sourcing; namely, that there is basically no accountability for the writer to represent the source accurately rather than tweaking statements in ways that suit the author's argument. I recognize that people who do interview-based studies get very cross when someone says "I think you're just choosing quotes that fit your argument" or, worse, "How do we know you aren't just making this up?" But, irritation is not quite the same thing as counterargument. I can understand the idea that confidentiality is unfortunately what must be offered to get interviewees to provide honest participation, but the idea of swaddling it in ethicky goodness even for participants who express no reluctance about speaking on the record--this I don't buy.


Ang said...

Interestingly, I've found that suggesting the existence of fudged data or data analysis (notwithstanding the assumed occasional crackpot or evildoer) as being at least somewhat common, is met with either blank stares or defensive statements questioning my integrity.

But isn't it actually kind of reasonable to assume that there's at least some decent-but-unspecified amount of fudging going on, in both qual and quant work? Not just because people are desperate for success, but also because humans like to find things they're looking for? Some of it's bound to be inadvertent.

Anyway, this is an interesting topic. I'll be interested to hear what the JFW readers think.

Anonymous said...

I'm with you Jeremy. For example, in Sidewalk Mitch Duneier he argues that changing names of subjects is often more about protecting the ethnographer than it is protecting the subjects. I think he's right about this.

Also, arguing that subjects can't consent to having their names revealed strikes me at best, as odd. At worst it is a form of infantalizing paternalism (the researcher knows what's best for you). And it makes me think, what exactly is the RESEARCHER trying to hide?

Keep in mind, my ethnographic work is on elites. And no one is very concerned about protecting elites; as the thinking goes: they seem to be doing a pretty good job protecting themselves. I do not protect the name of my site, though I do some of my subjects (as many are workers, they say less than flattering things about bosses, and could be fired). In the writing process I have found that this has made me MORE accountable (and a little scared). But this kind of intellectual accountability demands a degree of honesty that I believe is often missing in social science work. This is most pronounced in ethnographic work where others cannot possibly replicate the study. But it strikes me as being alleviated if ethnographers are more honest about who and what they're studying (provided the subjects consent, and are in a position where they can consent).

I am reminded here of Duneier's reply to Wacquant in the great AJS ethnography fight of 2003 when Duneier says (to paraphrase), "If Wacquant is willing to fabricate information from publicly available sources [books] then one wonders how it is possible to even begin to trust what he says about sources that only he has access to".

I'm not saying there are NEVER situations where ethnographers should protect their sources by obscuring identity and/or place. But I am saying that I think the practice is far too common. And that the justification of "protecting subjects" can be paternalistic and can be a weak justification for protecting the ethnographer himself.

And I think if ethnographers DID reveal their sites/subjects (with consent) they would be taken more seriously, overall, as social scientists.

As for fudging data: I think it's widespread.

-Shamus Khan (for some reason, blogger won't let me sign in!)

Anonymous said...

Fudging of data, seeing what you want to see, selectively representing data -- problematic, sure, but just as possible with quantitative work (at least/especially if you're the one actually collecting the data).

And it's not like there isn't a record (at least in interview research) -- I have handwritten notes, typed transcripts, and recordings. If anyone wanted to replicate my analysis, they could (no, my data isn't publicly available -- that's another issue). Yeah, I could have made it all up, the same way a survey researcher could make it all up.

As to anonymity, I had some respondents expressly ask that I use their real names. In those cases, I did -- because to not do so seemed the paternalism Shamus suggests (and yes, it is scarier that way). In the other cases, I did use pseudonyms, and I'm not entirely sure why this is an "unfortunate" need -- I think you can make a case for using real names (especially when the respondents don't care or prefer it), but otherwise, that's not where I'd call for greater accountability.

Ang said...

Fudging of data, seeing what you want to see, selectively representing data -- problematic, sure, but just as possible with quantitative work

Right. That's what I said.

Anonymous said...

Oh yeah -- I was agreeing with you, Ang.

shakha said...

Point of clarification: by "fudging" I DO NOT mean "fabricating". I agree with Ang and the processes she outlined and she and Andrea agree on.

jeremy said...

I hope to God no one who reads this thinks that I don't believe there is a lot of fudging around the edges (and something even less around the edges) in quantitative social science. It's precisely the reason that I'm such a big advocate of data sharing and code sharing.