A few weeks ago we had a post-graduate research day for the Centre for the Study of Childhood and Youth at Sheffield. The theme was Children as Participants in Research – with an emphasis on involving young people in the research process. The idea is, that by involving participants in the research process, such as collaborating with them about what to look at, how to analyse, collecting data, and so on, it makes the whole business of research more open and respectful – therefore more ethical.
I do agree that it is good to involve research participants – and I also think that children and young people are more likely to be overlooked in the consultation process. Indeed, the theme for the day’s event was chosen by me (as co-ordinator for post graduate events in the Centre.) So while I offer some reservations in this post, I do at the same time, believe that it can be really good to collaborate with others when carrying out research and I do believe it is a good idea – but it is not essential for ethical work.
We should be cautious. It is not always going to be the case that research participants WANT to be active in gathering data, even making up research questions and so on. They may like to be involved in a research project but may not have an interest further than that. Just because we as researchers are interested in data analysis and so on, does not mean our research participants necessarily are. In this case, I think that we need to respect those people who do not want to collaborate with us, and we should respect researchers who do not always involve participants – it may be that there are good reasons not to do so. I think we can be over zealous sometimes and almost seem as if we are bludgeoning people to become involved – in order to make an ethical point for the methodology section of our articles!
Secondly, the postgrad. day seemed to involve a LOT of ethnographic research; this method has a lot to recommend it in terms of ethics alone. The method, involving multiple ways of gathering data over a long period of time, typically with the researcher getting ‘immersed in the field’ and aiming to acquire a ‘thick description’ of what is happening. Data might include, photos; video; audio recordings of events; notes jotted down; selected items from within the field – pictures drawn by people, notes made; in fact evidence may be items produced by the participants or by the researcher. Data for an ethnography could be virtually anything from within the field and which seems to be of significance to the research focus.
I have carried out a number of ethnographic studies looking at online spaces – such as Flickr and also eBay and Blogs. In doing so I have spent ages looking at the online space, tracing threads across the sites, talking to people involved in the sites and so on. The method attempts to try and eliminate that whole “researcher superiority” thing; it does not set up experiments and look at how people react. It looks at what people are doing in context and seeks to understand what happens ‘naturally’, as life goes on. Intervention is anathema to the ethnographer because it is about understanding the culture as it is. To do an experiment of some kind, or to even ask a series of questions from a list would be seen as intrusive, forcing a paradigm or values system on the data. Ethnography seeks to understand how the people of a particular culture operate and what THEIR values are; o have a list of questions brings in your own framework or way of seeing. In ethnography, researchers don’t take the moral high ground and try not to impose their values . I like doing ethnography and you can end up feeling very involved in the research project with this method. I like it as a method… but it is just one way of looking.
It is important in analysing for an ethnography that you try to understand the values of the people in the research space. To do this well, you need to be able to try and put aside your preconceived ideas of the culture and the people. You need to try and come to it without judging and this is very hard as it requires a lot of honesty from the researcher about who they are, what values they have, and what influences the way they interpret what is happening. I think the difficulty involved in being circumspect should not be underestimated.
I have therefore recently been thinking that I also like the approach where people are interviewed and where the researcher does NOT necessarily hang around all the time. This is because in interviews the research participants never forget that they are being researched and therefore can control what they let the researcher know (very important in terms of ethics); secondly that the researcher does not hang around for ages in places where people want to feel private. With interviews or questionnaires, the participants KNOW at all times what the researcher is looking at and can more easily object – unlike when the ethnographer takes notes that the participants may not be aware of, or takes a picture that the participant was not expecting, etc.
My example is my planned research on Facebook; I will only be interviewing young people. I will not look at their Facebook without them present and I will not keep going back to talk to them. I want to let them get on with their lives and not feel that they are being watched by some weirdo researcher lurker. This is a new way of researching for me and I hope it is going to be OK. (Usually I am a weirdo lurker researcher).
Here are some birds hunting for stuff too … (thanks Ahmed for sending me this picture)
So all in all, I think that we should not assume that participants who agree to be in our research project actually want to DO the research; secondly I would like like to say that in some instances, what might appear to be less sensitive, procedural research, (eg interviews) might sometimes be construed as more sensitive.