Wednesday, December 22, 2010

First, Do Some Harm, Part I: Denzin's Qualitative Manifesto

Three recent documents demonstrate the confusion that arises when people try to apply medical ethics to non-medical fields. I will describe them in individual entries.

In June 2010, Norman Denzin, Research Professor of Communications at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, published The Qualitative Manifesto: A Call to Arms (Left Coast Press). Chapter five seeks

to outline a code of ethics, a set of ethical principles for the global community of qualitative researchers. I want a large tent, one that extends across disciplines and professions, from anthropologists to archeologists, sociologists to social workers, health care to education, communications to history, performance studies to queer and disability studies.

Part of the impetus for this effort is Denzin's recognition that IRB guidelines may not match "guidelines grounded in human rights, social justice considerations" or disciplinary codes. He is familiar with the debate concerning IRBs, having read the Illinois White Paper, the AAUP reports, and "even a humanities and IRB blog where complaints are aired."

Denzin is also familiar with oral historians' concerns that IRBs impose inappropriate requirements, as well as statements of ethics from other qualititative researchers. He seeks to synthesize what he has learned in a footnoted dialogue, part of a "one-act play" entitled "Ethical Practices":

SCENE FOUR: Oral Historians

. . .

Speaker Two:: We do not want IRBs constraining critical inquiry, or our ethical conduct. Our commitment to professional integrity requires awareness of one's own biases and a readiness to follow a story, wherever it may lead. We are committed to telling the truth, even when it may harm people (Shopes, 2007a, p.4).

Speaker One:: When publishing about other people, my ethics require that I subject my writing to a fine-mesh filter: do no harm (Richardson, 2007, p. 170).

Speaker Two:: So there we have it. A set of methodological guidelines. (83)

No. What we have is a debate between Linda Shopes, a historian, and Laurel Richardson, a sociologist, about the ethical responsibility of an interviewer to a narrator. Their perspectives reflect important differences between their professions. They also refelct the particulars of the book in which Richardson's statement appears, an account of the last months of a dying friend--hardly the typical oral history or sociological study.

Denzin turns a blind eye to this debate, instead seeming to endorse both sides. In the play, Speaker Two states that "Beneficience, do no harm, is challenged in the oral history interview, for interviews may discuss painful topics, and they [sic] have the right to walk away at any time." That seems to endorse Shopes's position. But they book closes with a proposed ethical code that leans toward Richardson, calling on all qualitative researchers to "strive to never do harm." (122)

How can Denzin read and reprint historians' arguments, then reject them without even realizing he is doing so? Is the historians' position so hard to understand? Or is the lure of innocuity so powerful?

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