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.