Mertz on Studying Social Science Ethics

In recent months, prompted by media coverage of research by sociologist Alice Goffman, a number of law professors have stumbled upon a longstanding set of questions surrounding social science ethics.  These questions, which I first encountered during my Anthropology 101 class in the 1970s, are obvious concomitants of any form of deep, long-term observational research.  Anthropology has long been a leader in a form of that research known as participant observation, the results of which are generally reported in ethnographic writing.  One of the most striking aspects of the current exchanges — to this anthropologist/law professor’s ear — is the assumption made by some that a superficial glance at one high-profile case suffices to identify where key problems lie (see, for example, some of the exchanges on a well-respected law professors’ blog, The Faculty Lounge.) My esteemed former colleague Stephen Lubet even went so far as to comment that: “It seems that the field of ethnography ethics is seriously undertheorized,” without any citation to the voluminous literature involved, let alone any consultation with the many scholarly experts in this area.

He further promised to spend the summer researching this, in his view, previously untrod ground.  This led me to once again contemplate differences in research strategy between some (not all) trained in law, and most (not all) trained in social science.   My own training, and that of most I know who are trained social scientists, is to begin with an assumption that there is much to learn.  This assumption also carries with it a form of humility that is part of stringent method:  I don’t assume that I can quickly grasp a complex area.  In keeping with this approach, if I were going to study the ethics of ethnographers, I would not focus on the unusual high-profile case that grabbed media attention, but rather on standard practices.  I’d want to know about common ethical dilemmas facing all kinds of field researchers, and the history of how disciplines had dealt with them.  Of course, since observational researchers tend not to trust self-reports, I’d want to spend some time actually observing ethnographers over substantial periods of time.  I’d want to learn about ethics training for incipient fieldworkers.  And I’d excavate thoroughly what is already known, talking with experts from the field in question who know far more than I do about the current state of affairs.

The situation, mentioned above, that was described by my introductory anthropology course professor (all too many years ago now!), involved a mother about to give birth to twins in the village where my professor was conducting long-term ethnography.  The practice in that village, as she described it, was to kill one of the twins immediately after birth.  The villagers knew that this was frowned on in the Western-style colonial legal system that could formally be enforced against them.  My teacher described the dilemma she faced in deciding whether to intervene or not — a dilemma that was resolved when the family opted not to follow traditional practices (possibly because she was present as a potential witness).

The dilemmas surrounding these situations are as old as ethnography itself.  They have been discussed in nuanced ways throughout the histories of disciplines that require the demanding empirical methods that produce high-quality ethnography.  The American Anthropological Association, the American Sociological Association, and numerous eminent scholars expert in these fields have much to say, and I do hope that anyone wanting to “study” ethnographic ethics would take some time to immerse him- or herself in that world (with full understanding that different fields have different ideas about what constitutes good research).

If such immersion isn’t possible, I’d suggest that even a glancing look at issues surrounding fieldwork ethics could lead to worries far beyond those raised by the media furor around one lone fieldworker’s case.  These are participant observers’ equivalent of the ethical issues raised by the Manhattan Project.  What if systematically collected anthropological information is used on a broad scale to harm those studied by anthropologists — say, during a war, or through other government actions?  The American Anthropological Association recently faced this issue when the U.S. government employed anthropologists in its Human Terrain Project.  A recent post on the AAA website compares the responses of anthropology and psychology to pressures during the “war on terror.”

Whatever one’s view of this comparison, it opens just one window on the kind of systematic, structural questions faced by social science disciplines.  Another window would be opened by observing ethics training for graduate students in anthropology and sociology.   Any IRB board today would insist that researchers design studies in ways that protect their informants.  As Goffman’s case points out, this can get quite complicated.  Some years ago, the journal Law & Social Inquiry (24:4, 1999) in fact ran a special exchange focused on whether there should be an evidentiary privilege for social scientists in situations such as Goffman’s.  (One thoughtful journalist has concluded that Goffman is more concerned with protecting her informants than with defending herself, which would mean that she’s observing an ethical norm that is being blantantly violated by those who have sought to publicly uncover  her informants’ identities:).   We are certainly free to disagree with the way that these ethical duties are conceptualized and realized.  But any careful research on the topic will have to confront the fact that the answers are often more complex than simplistic accounts of these situations would allow.

It is easy, and even fun, to limit our thinking about complicated issues by jumping on bandwagons in high-profile cases.  It’s harder — but important — to find out about the general practices within disciplines, to investigate thoroughly the common structural features of social science fields and methodologies, and to confront the truly difficult policy and ethical issues involved.  Every method, every form of science, has its weaknesses.   Labs performing cancer research, paleontologists digging up bones, statisticians working over data bases — no form of research has gone unscathed in terms of ethical scandals or questioning over the years.   Similarly, the headlines that summarize verdicts or court opinions can correctly or incorrectly cast doubt on the processes that went into the decisions.  Our best corrective is deeper and more careful understanding, taking the full contexts (whether of law or social science) into consideration.  Social science done well can generate that sort of understanding.  (Another former colleague, Bob Burns, has made a wonderful case for the idea that trials, well-done, can generate similarly deep contextual comprehension.)   I hope that any further consideration of social science ethics in the public domain will aim for the more complicated and informed vision that is needed.

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4 responses to “Mertz on Studying Social Science Ethics

  1. Fantastic piece in light of where we now find ourselves! Law’s social scientific ‘turn‘ has long embraced the scientistic disciplines to the relative exclusion of humanistic anthropology and sociology. Ethnography’s interpretivist (meaning centered) and textualist (writing oriented) currents have only promoted this. But that doesn’t mean they have less to offer, only that there is greater need for better translation. And that’s the irony: as Beth describes it, Lubet’s lament for absent ethnographic theory seems more the result of law’s refusal to grapple with recent anthropological thought rather than the absence of such thought in the first place.

    I cite for example the blossoming subfield of moral anthropology—itself immanently concerned with both the study of ethics, and the ethics of study. And as Beth acknowledges here, ethical scandals have gripped quite a few of the disciplines in recent years. A Fall 2014 incident saw political scientists from Dartmouth and Stanford embroiled in a controversy when their election study flyer actually disseminated information on judicial candidate ideologies in a way that influenced a State Supreme Court election. (see Then earlier this year, we heard the sordid tale of Michael LaCour, politics grad student from UCLA who’s experimental research into political attitudes on sexuality had been so groundbreaking it earned him a pre-defense tenure-line job at Princeton. Sadly, much of that work—including entire data sets–was later discovered to have been fabricated (see Finally, the recent APA torture scandal raises ethical shenanigans to a higher systematic level.

    Beth’s call here is for what one might read as an ethnography of ethnography—something that can actually best be attempted by non-ethnographers (!) I think she’s spot on: this entails humility. Inhabiting the kind of position of social contrition (and discomfort) that we trained anthropologists had to occupy when we set foot onto faraway, complex, or otherwise ‘alien’ field sites. But that’s the thing: trained attorneys (exclusively trained attorneys) chose a different habitus. As we lawyers know, law school learning and success does not cultivate humility. If anything, the opposite. So it makes sense to me that the battleground/meeting place might be on this specific psychosocial state.

    Finally, I want to acknowledge one dilemma that Beth doesn’t explicitly mention, but does address. And that is the always-troubling question of time or temporality. Whether we like it or not, time is a precious resource and one that can –for better and worse—be converted back and forth into money. The time taken to conduct ethnographic fieldwork is conjured up in one of two ways: it is either purchased among established scholars in the form of grants, sabbatical leaves, course releases, and so forth; or it is simply borrowed among advanced graduate students (they also apply for grants but less for time buyouts than for direct costs like travel). Lawyers, on the other hand, may not consider themselves eligible to, or may not know to access the resources that liberate their time for “depth” studies. This might partly explain the empirical legal studies preference for numbers over narratives. And so, while the call to ‘get to know’ ethnography is so vital, we have to acknowledge the resources this will demand. But, as I say, I love this post because it suggests what to do in the meantime: defer moral high groundsmanship. While the questions of resources, time, and long term commitment are being worked out, we should first remember to know what we don’t know

  2. This is such an important discussion, I’m really glad to see it happening here. As a sociologist, I have been surprised by some of the criticisms I’ve read of ethnographic ethics; You might want to read this very thoughtful discussion by Laura Clawson, a sociologist and journalist writing at Daily Kos. She does a great job explaining that Alice’s work fits in a long tradition of ethnographers’ efforts to protect their respondents. She also raises some very pointed (and I think very valid) questions about some of the criticisms that have been leveled:


    My valued friend and former colleague Beth Mertz – who is both a lawyer and an anthropologist – has generously invited me to respond to her recent post, which took issue with some of my comments about ethics in ethnography.

    Mertz’s main point is that I showed a lawyer’s typical lack of humility by assuming that I could “quickly grasp a complex area” in only a summer of study, as I promised in a comment to one of my own posts on The Faculty Lounge. “If I were going to study the ethics of ethnographers,” she continued, “I would not focus on the unusual high-profile case that grabbed media attention, but rather on standard practices.”

    Well, all I can say is that you have to start somewhere. My interest in the ethics of ethnography was spurred by the extraordinary ethical problems I discerned in Alice Goffman’s On the Run, which prompted first a book review and my subsequent research in the field. I agree with Mertz that it is now time for me to turn to “standard practices,” but I do not think that rules out using OTR as an example, and not only because of the media attention. Goffman won the best dissertation of the year award from the American Sociological Association, and an excerpt was published as the lead article in the flagship journal American Sociological Review. The book was widely touted by academic luminaries as the best work of sociology in years.

    Beginning the survey of a discipline with its most highly acclaimed publication is not unfair, or even unusual, especially when using it as an entry point for further exploration. Let’s call it a case study, along the lines of Howard Becker’s suggested approach in What About Mozart? What About Murder? Reasoning From Cases.

    A second point in Mertz’s blog was that, “Lubet even went so far as to comment that: ‘It seems that the field of ethnography ethics is seriously undertheorized,’ without any citation to the voluminous literature involved, let alone any consultation with the many scholarly experts in this area.”

    To this, I must plead guilty as charged. I did indeed reply to a blog comment without including citations or consulting experts. I will try to do better in the future.

    As to the underlying question, my observation was in response to a statement by UCLA’s Jack Katz, in which he excused Goffman’s agreement to join a murder conspiracy for the purpose of avenging a friend. For those unfamiliar with the scenario, here is what she wrote:

    On a few of these nights, Mike had nobody to ride along with him, so I volunteered. We started out around 3:00 a.m., with Mike in the passenger seat, his hand on his Glock as he directed me around the area. We peered into dark houses and looked at license plates and car models as Mike spoke on the phone with others who had information about the 4th Street Boys’ whereabouts.

    She did this, wrote Goffman, not because she wanted to learn firsthand about violence, but because she “wanted Chuck’s killer to die.” Then,

    One night Mike thought he saw a 4th Street guy walk into a Chinese restaurant. He tucked his gun in his jeans, got out of the car, and hid in the adjacent alleyway. I waited in the car with the engine running read to speed off as soon as Mike ran back and got inside.

    By any reasonable standard, voluntary participation in an armed manhunt is illegal, unethical, and profoundly wrong. Katz, however, had said that the only “ethical line she crossed, in a way, was honesty.” It was in response to that highly amoral viewpoint – it’s okay to act as the driver for a gunman, but perhaps unethical to write about it – that I made my comment about undertheorization. It was meant to be ironic. Perhaps I should have said that ethnography ethics have been under-practiced, at least in that one instance. (Goffman has since revised her account of the events, which is a subject for another time.)

    Finally, I readily concede that it will take more than one summer for me to explore the ethics of ethnography, but I don’t think that I need to become an anthropologist in order to do it. Professions are notoriously poor at investigating themselves – police, physicians, lawyers, and academics come to mind – and can almost always benefit from outside examination. I have on my desk, by the way, The Urban Ethnography Reader by Duneier, Krasinetz, and Murphy, which is almost 900 pages long. There are 52 essays in the book, not one of which is dedicated to the discussion of ethics. The word “ethics” itself appears only ten times, mostly in reference to someone other than an ethnographer. (The word “ethical” appears another eight times.”)

    On the Run was in print for more than a year before I pointed out the ethical problems with Goffman’s vigilantism. In that entire time, not one single sociologist or anthropologist said a word about it in public. Instead, they lauded the book as “an ethnographic classic” and “sociology at its best.” Goffman’s dissertation advisor now agrees that she “crossed an ethical line.” Would he have done that if I had not stepped in?

    I appreciate the feedback received on my post. I agree with Riaz that it may be difficult for legal academics to come up with the time and resources to do the kind of in-depth work required of social scientists. So what to do? I actually think that the new legal realism project invites precisely this kind of thinking about possible hybrid methodologies, methods that take both law and social science seriously (rather than subsuming one to another). This may mean coming up with new approaches that aim at meeting high standards for knowledge while admitting that “knowledge” itself means something different in the two fields. But still, then, one would ask of each field some serious revamping of accustomed assumptions. One of my favorite law professor examples is the work of my Wisconsin colleague Lisa Alexander, who steeps herself in the empirical literature, supplements (not supplants!) what she finds out there with interviewing of her own, and then comes up with realistic assessments of law on the ground in situations of urban renewal where poverty and race are often poorly recognized in legal reform efforts. I agree fully with Riaz’s point that all fields have ethical dilemmas, and that no field can avoid struggles on difficult ethical terrains.

    Gay’s invocation of Clawson is also welcome, as it provides a different contextual account of the demands of fieldwork ethics in fraught situations. As Gay notes, immersion in these settings at a level that permits accurate accounts of what is happening always raises very tough questions about how to balance the demands of deep ethnography and ethics requiring the protection of informants. As noted above, an earlier Law & Social Inquiry exchange (24:4, 1999) considered some of these issues — which journalists have also faced for many years. I myself have noticed a growing split between demands for archiving data and transparency, on the one hand, and IRB-driven demands for hyper-protection of informants even in far less dangerous situations. Ethnographers, as the researchers most aware of the tenuous situations of their subjects, will increasingly be caught in often impossible double-binds as this split progresses.

    I appreciate Steve’s response to my post, and in the spirit of brisk discussion to which he and I are both accustomed, I have just a few comments. First, I would not look in Atiyah’s edited volume of essays on contract law if I wanted to understand the ethics guiding attorneys (or scholars) working on contracts. I’d look in books focused on ethics. There are lots of books on ethics for fieldworkers, and I’d commend them. Second, my concern wasn’t that Steve didn’t add a lot of cites to his blog post, but that he was generalizing about fieldwork ethics without attention to the relevant literature. It would be as if I read about a particular controversy in the newspapers surrounding one lawyer (or law professor), and felt that I had done enough research to talk about the whole field of legal ethics. Finally, I really do hope that Steve will feast his obviously searching and hungry intellect on the whole range of issues involved here — which, as I tried to point out, urgently include the wider ethics dominating entire fields of social science inquiry as they come under pressure from the society/politics/economy surrounding them. To that end, I again point to the current debates swirling around how the APA and AAA handled various ethical demands in a society struggling with both a “war on terror” and a limited job market. (If lawyers have a tough job market, you should look at the market for some of the social sciences….)

    Thanks to all commentators for an interesting and thought-provoking exchange!

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