Part 3: Ethical Issues of Virtual Ethnography

Go back to part 2 herefor references - see here

This section wants to summarize some typical issues concerning ethic problems during an ethnographic research in general. As discussed previously, the main tool set of ethnography are participative observation and ethnographic interviews, supplemented by various other methods, which reveal very personal information of our informants and research objects.
Research projects and data
The intentions of the researcher may be honestly good and in a scientific sense right, as well as helpful to the people involved in general. But the way and the outcome – I mean the data generated in a study – may be harmful to them too. During an ethnographic investigation we can discover unpleasant facts of our informants, which could bring them into troubles – with the law, the community, or the informant’s friends and families. In this situation, the researcher is in an ethical dilemma to decide what is more important or “right” to do: to protect the informant and to weaken the study (see Bar-On 1996), to prevent a potential crime and to risk the entire study, and so on. Due to the density of private and intimate data provided by these qualitative research methods, ethnography is always on a very thin red line to be in trouble itself (Cropley 2005:84)

Discussion in the scientific community
The ethnographic literature itself knows about and deals with these ethical issues. Clark and Sharf (2007) recently published a paper addressing the undesirable outcomes and effects of ethnographic studies, and many others did so years ago (Brettell 1993; Josselson 1996; Lieblich 1996; Mauthner 2000; Plummer 2001). The main message is: ethnographic studies will bring up ethical issues, and there is no standard way to deal with them.
The cases mentioned in the early discussions range from bad feelings within a family (Lieblich 1996; Mauthner 2000), the difficulty to maintain confidentiality and anonymity of the informants, or the reveal of unwanted, intimate information by an informant to the researcher (Kirsch, 1999). The common sense is that there is a need for a research community wide exchange to address this problem and to discuss solutions (Plummer 2001).

General ethical advices
Ethnographers formulated ethical advices for their practical work and research projects, mostly generated from their own field experience. Cropley (2005) notes that an ethical mindset is one of the key characteristics of a field researcher. As many other authors point out, ethnographical approaches and ethical behavior must suit to the researcher’s personality, project and the research environment (Girtler 2001).

The most plausible advices are (collected from Girtler 2001; Agar 1996):

  • + to see key informants as human beings and not data suppliers
  • + to inform the affected group or informant about the researcher itself and its matter
  • + to be confidential with intimate data and to make the names of informants anonymous
  • + to treat informants as equivalent partners
  • + not to betray informants about objectives and use of research data
  • + not to try to influence informants to change their behavior / norms
  • + to evaluate the political impact of the researcher’s participation in a research project

An additional and interesting point is made by Shaughnessy and Zechmeister (1997) regarding the risk and gain of a qualitative study. The authors stress the argument that every study involving informants includes some potential risk for them and should only be conducted if the possible outcome justifies the potential harm to others. That is, every ethnographic study needs a measurable and defined outcome to be pre-assessed.

National aspects of research ethics
As a potential answer to the question of ethical issue solving, national organizations of ethnographic associations created ethics working groups or committees and presented ethical codes or behavior guidelines for ethnographic research projects. In the next paragraphs, I will highlight some of these national ethical recommendations from Europe and North America.

United Kingdom
Scientific research in UK shows a lot of ethical considerations, but standards and quantity of ethical regulations vary a lot from one scientific discipline to another. Traditionally, medical and pharmaceutical research as well as psychological studies has the longest historical record of ethical guidelines among scientific research in UK. The most visible representations of this policy are so-called human subject forms, ethical guidelines and ethical statements of institutions. The National Patient Safety Agency with their sub-page on ethics at http://www.nres.npsa.nhs.uk/useful-links gives some very good examples for this type of inclusion of ethical thinking in research.
Although ethnography is widely used and historically almost a traditional research method in UK, the distribution and enforcement of ethical standards like in the field of medicine is not commonplace. Nevertheless, the Association of Social Anthropologists of the UK (ASA) and Commonwealth published a position paper (ASA, 2005) about this issue. Additionally, ethical guidelines were released on their website, but the ASA stresses the fact, that these are only the basics for further ethical considerations of everyone involved in ethnographic research.
The very informative and comprehensive ethical guidelines point out the following issues (shortened):

  • + Protecting research participants and honoring trust
  • + Anticipating harm
  • + Avoiding undue intrusion
  • + Negotiating informed consent
  • + Rights to confidentiality and anonymity
  • + Fair return for assistance
  • + Participants’ intellectual property rights
  • + Participants’ involvement in research
  • + Clarifying roles, rights and obligations (toward sponsors, financiers and employers)
  • + Responsibilities towards colleagues and the discipline
  • + Relations with own and host governments
  • + Responsibilities to the wider society

Another similar project to build an ethical fundament of ethnographic research is initialized by the Universities of York and Oxford Brookes. Their framework for social science research ethics (ESRC, 2005) is published and mandatory for all research projects funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC). (http://www.york.ac.uk/res/ref/kb.htm).

Europe
On a European level, the European Association of Social Anthropologists (EASA, http://www.easaonline.org/) states in their constitution, among others, the objective „to promote best practice among social anthropologists“. This includes ethical practices, which are consequently picked up by an internal team („network“) of researchers for ethical questions.

United States of America
In the United States, the discussion about ethical standards is very much colored by the implementation of Institutional Review Boards (IRBs) at universities and other research-relevant institutions. IRBs are boards which – generally spoken – decides about the approval and funding of a research project. One aspect of a funding hearing are also ethical considerations, made by the applicant and the IRB. The controversy begins when both sides have different views about what ‘ethical’ means and what standards are appropriate. In such a scenario of different point of views, IRBs can reject an application for research funds and can exercise a strong force how and what will be researched (see the AAA statement on this issue, 2004).
Beside this US-specific problem of institutional (means local) definition of research ethics, the American Anthropological Association (AAA, http://www.aaanet.org/) declared their own professional ethics including a statement (AAA, 1971), a committee and a resource for working with IRBs. Additionally, the AAA published a handbook on ethical issues in Anthropology (Cassell and Jacobs 1996). The handbook includes excellent articles about the history of ethical dilemmas, case studies and English-centric literature to the topic.

Part 4: Applied ethical standards in modern MMORPG research - continue here…

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