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Lederman: No universal guidelines for subject privacy

By Wang Youran | 2015-07-24 | Hits:
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)

Rena Lederman is an anthropology professor at Princeton University. Her research interests include the politics of methodology in ethnography as well as disciplines as moral orders, especially in historiography, sociology, psychology and anthropology. She is the author of several works and journal articles, including What Gifts Engender.


Through Goffman’s book, the influence of mass incarceration and policing on young urban African-American men has attracted public attention.


On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City, published by University of Wisconsin-Madison assistant professor Alice Goffman in May 2014, is based on findings gleaned from the six years spent observing an African-American community in Philadelphia. In her study, Goffman built a close rapport with some young African-American men and their families. However, recently she came under fire from media and academics who questioned the credibility of her findings. A CSST reporter talked with Lederman at Princeton University to discuss challenges facing ethnography.

CSST: Is ethnographic research more vulnerable to criticism than other disciplines because it uses anonymous sources?


Lederman: Credibility standards differ for different kinds of research because each kind of research has a distinctive set of strengths and weaknesses. For example, it makes no sense to judge opinion polls by the standard of depth, because polls are not designed to produce contextually detailed results. Surveys and polls rely on interviews, in which the researcher controls the topics, the order of questions, the degree of detail, and so forth.

Like experimental research, in which participants perform researcher-designed tasks in a researcher-controlled space, polls and surveys are designed to abstract quantifiable variables, to be amenable to statistical analysis, and to maximize reliability and replication. Survey and experimental studies nearly always anonymize their sources. Because personal identities are generally not relevant in these kinds of studies, anonymization doesn’t undermine the credibility of survey and experimental research.

To answer questions about the credibility of ethnographic research, we need to understand what ethnography is designed to achieve. Ethnographic research usually refers to fieldwork, which is long-term, taking place over many months or years. It entails rich involvement and relationship building with some set of people in those people’s normal environments, in which the researcher joins those people in some of their normal activities and engages them in conversation. Ethnographic research is designed to maximize depth, or contextual detail, and realism. Despite its contextual detail—its specificity and concreteness—ethnographic writing often, though not always, anonymizes persons and places by means of pseudonyms and some altered details.

Full disclosure, which violates the privacy of field communities, might serve the interests of science better than anonymization but only in the short term. In the long term, respecting the privacy of ethnographic sources is the better choice. Ethical research and writing preserves the ethnographer's credibility with his or her field community at the same time as it strengthens the credibility of ethnographic knowledge because ethical behavior improves the quality of the fieldworker's access to his or her sources.

Unlike all other types of social research, the quality and true value of ethnography is dependent on the quality of the ethnographers' relationships with their hosts and sources. Excellent relationships give ethnographers wide-ranging, holistic and profound access to people's lives. Consequently, competent ethnographers understand that their contributions to the growth of knowledge (science) depend on cultivating an ethical, responsible relationship with their field communities.

The credibility of Goffman's ethnography has been challenged in this public controversy because of her use of pseudonyms. Ironically, anonymization hasn't prevented journalists from tracking down Goffman's sources and confirming the accuracy of both her core claims as well as many of her specific descriptions, and the quality of her relationships with her sources. What is more, Goffman never hid her sources from her graduate school mentors, who also cross-checked her claims.

CSST: Are current institutional review boards, or IRBs, and other ethical standards in academia, which demand total privacy of human subjects in social science research, overly restrictive, making it hard to verify the work and posing a challenge to academic freedom? 


Lederman: IRBs can be overly restrictive. I and others have been publicly critical of IRBs for applying a one-size-fits-all standard of ethical practice on an increasingly diverse array of research methods and delaying or obstructing the conducting of research, especially research on sensitive topics. However, the constraints that IRBs impose on research do not prevent research from being verified. Goffman's work was cross-checked both by journalists and fellow sociologists.

Be aware that "privacy protection" is not the main IRB concern. The overall mandate of IRBs is to ensure that persons be "fully informed" prior to consenting to participate in research and that research plans be evaluated prospectively to balance the likelihood and degree of harm to participants against benefits to society. Good IRBs don't take absolutist stands on privacy violations or any other potential harm. They are supposed to balance possible harms to individuals against the potential social benefits of the research. Anxious IRBs that limit research for no good reason are a challenge to academic freedom. However, academic freedom doesn't exist in a social vacuum. Journalists, sociologists, and other researchers strive to act in accordance with professional ethical standards and community values.

CSST: Researchers who conduct field studies of criminal activities, deviant behavior and marginalized populations can easily find themselves in situations similar to Goffman's. What guidelines and codes of practice exist to prevent them from overstepping legal and ethical boundaries without compromising the authenticity of their work? 


Lederman: There are no generalized guidelines or codes for researchers. Professional academic associations each have their own ethics codes, and nations each have their own regulatory guidelines, although many countries have copied US research ethics guidelines in recent years. Despite their differences, formal codes and regulations cannot ensure that boundaries aren't breached. These systems are only as good as the available formal and informal means for socializing practitioners to the ideals of their disciplines and professions.

Among disciplines that use ethnographic research methods, the various professional associations each have their own expectations. In the US, the American Sociological Association and the American Anthropological Association have ethics codes that differ significantly in emphases. Behavior that is typical or valued in one field may be untypical and even devalued in the other.


Wang Youran is a reporter at the Chinese Social Sciences Today.