Monday, August 25, 2014

Bell: Ethnography Shouldn't Be Like Victorian Sex

Writing in American Anthropologist, Kirsten Bell argues that ethnography should not be seen as a violation to which an informant must consent, and "although the concept of informed consent has now been enshrined in the AAA Code of Ethics for more than 15 years, the reality is that it is not an appropriate standard with which to judge ethnographic fieldwork."

[Bell, Kirsten. "Resisting Commensurability: Against Informed Consent as an Anthropological Virtue." American Anthropologist, July 21, 2014, doi:10.1111/aman.12122.]

The need for informed consent, Bell argues, is premised on the idea that research is "an intrinsically risky enterprise."

Research is often quite explicitly configured as a violation or invasion: biomedical research violates the physical integrity of the body, and social science research violates the individual' s privacy. Thus, one textbook on ethical issues in behavioral research warns: "The central ethical issues in field research are likely to revolve around potential invasions of privacy." This constitution of research as a "violation" or "invasion" helps to explain why informed consent is deemed so central to contemporary conceptions of research ethics. After all, to consent is quite literally to acquiesce to being "done to." In this framing, research is a violation to which, like sex, one must willingly consent (but presumably not actively participate in, like the Victorian bride counseled to "lie back and think of England"). Informed consent to research participation, like conceptions of consent to sexual intercourse, is thus based on certain underlying assumptions about the nature of the protagonists in this encounter.

Bell would prefer a view of ethnography that acknowledges that "ethnographic research can proceed ethically in the absence of a mutually agreed-upon understanding of its aims and that this absence is to a certain extent unavoidable." She finds such acknowledgement not in recent versions of the American Anthropological Association's Statement on Ethics, but rather in its 1971 Principles of Professional Responsibility, which state merely that "the aims of the investigation should be communicated as well as possible to the informant."

As Bell notes, the phrase, "as well as possible," concedes that the level of understanding implied by the standard of "informed consent" is likely impossible. Better to face that reality, she suggests, than trivialize ethics by holding ethnographers to an unreachable standard.


Note. In her acknowledgements, Bell writes that her essay is in part an effort to explain her views to "Laura-Lee Balkwill, a policy analyst from Canada's Secretariat on Responsible Conduct of Research, who braved the den of frustrated social scientists at the [2012 Ethics Rupture] conference in an effort to try to understand our concerns." I second Bell's praise of Balkwill, whose thoughtful questions and gracious skepticism helped many of us to reexamine our assumptions and refine our arguments.

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