Friday, April 25, 2008

Michael Rowe on Situational Ethics

Bill Hart kindly referred me to Michael Rowe, "Tripping Over Molehills: Ethics and the Ethnography of Police Work," International Journal of Social Research Methodology 10 (February 2007): 37-48. Rowe, a criminologist at Victoria University, New Zealand, explains the ethical challenges he faced as a participant observer with British police in 2004.

Rowe comes across as an unusually conscientious researcher. He writes, "while designing the project, and discussing it with academic colleagues and gatekeepers within the police service, I read many of the methodological texts on ethnography and accounts by previous researchers who had used similar methods with the police." (38) Some of this preparation was overkill, in that Rowe did not himself face some of the greatest challenges of previous researchers, like witnessing excessive force, false charges, or corruption. But it did sensitize him to some important issues about police work, and the result seems to have been a careful study, respectful at once of the police, the citizens with whom they interacted, and the scholarly pursuit of truth.

Rowe concludes that generic ethical advice and rigid rules are poor guides to researchers doing fieldwork:

It is the nature of ethnographic research that the principles contained in methodological textbooks or professional codes of conduct will be stretched and perhaps distorted as they are applied in dynamic situations. Since policing is unpredictable, the ethical dilemmas police researchers might face cannot be easily anticipated . . . If an absolute code of ethics is not feasible, researchers must be prepared to be reflexive in terms of ethical dilemmas and the methodological difficulties experienced in securing informed consent and meaningful access to research subjects. (48)

Though Rowe does not mention ethics committees in this article, it is striking how much his preparation diverged from the typical requirements of IRBs, at least in the United States. Rowe's experience points to the benefit of reading as specifically as possible in preparation for fieldwork. But the standardized training programs required by most IRBs, such as the CITI Program, present highly generic information about such topics as informed consent, and nothing about topics as specific as police ethnography. And while Rowe emphasizes the researcher's need to remain flexible, IRBs focus on protocol review. By making researchers pledge in advance what they will and will not do, protocol review reduces, rather than enhances, researchers' flexibility to adapt to unexpected situations. In other words, the IRB system is structured to hamper the kind of ethical preparation that Rowe recommends.

As I've mentioned before, the University of Pennsylvania's policy on evolving research promises to relieve the second part of this problem, since some researchers, at least, are spared the need to file a "fixed research protocol."

But Penn still requires its researchers to "have documented discipline-appropriate education regarding human subject protection, in accordance with certification standards defined by the Vice Provost for Research." While Penn staff have refused me permission to see the approved training modules, from corresponding with people at Penn, I get the sense that they are pretty generic. Rowe's article suggests that such programs are not helpful, and what is really needed is for each researcher to prepare an ethical bibliography, based on problems faced by researchers who have conducted similar work. That way, each researcher would be equipped with the ethical guidance most relevant to her particular case. And in assembling the bibliography she would exercise the very independent judgment she will need in the field.

(Thanks to Rebecca Tushnet for discussing with me the idea of an ethical bibliography.)

No comments: