Tag Archives: ethnography ethics

more reasons to love Jean Lave

Sometimes, people tell you what you need to hear at the exact right moment, even when they themselves do not realize it. As i mentioned before, i’m taking this amazing course this semester. What i’m beginning to realize is that it is not the brilliant readings that are of value to me so much as the ways in which it is helping me frame academia and research. As i am starting to admit that i won’t be in graduate school forever and taking steps towards dissertation, all of my neuroses about the academic process are coming out full force. (Of course, this is not helped by the layers of bureaucracy and hoops that are required to move towards graduation.)

Last fall, i submitted my IRB (“human subjects”) forms for approval. The stack was a small tree. On Tuesday, shortly before class, i received “conditional” approval for my work and was told that i would know what i needed to change within a month. How i love the slowness. These IRB forms have been weighing on me. In order to step through that hoop, i had to list every question i would ask my subjects in a sort of formalized script, exactly how i would recruit my subjects (including the exact wording), the hypothesis of my research that i am testing, etc. These forms fundamentally conflicted with how i believe good ethnographic research works. Sure, i could do an interview study from this but my whole project is about hanging out amongst youth, both online and off. Of course, interviewing will be a part of it, but there’s so much more. But to say exactly what that will be has felt so unreasonable that it took me six months to file the damn forms because i had a complete panic attack every time i looked at them. I finally sucked it up and tried to articulate everything i could. Yet, i still felt as though i had failed. I failed to account for the times when i sat on the 22 overhearing teenagers’ commentary following school. I didn’t account for the invitations that i receive to sit in on people’s classrooms, special programs to keep teens off the streets. I didn’t account for the times when teens saw my MySpace shirt and came up to me to tell me their story. Eeek!

And then, in discussing Beamtimes and Lifetimes, we started talking about the process of doing ethnography and the dangerous assumption that ethnography is the same thing as an interview study. Having been involved in a backchannel about how Traweek’s project could’ve possibly gotten through IRB, i piped up and said that i thought that people conflated the two because of the amount of formalism required to get through IRB. Jean’s response was priceless. In essence she said that you have to submit the forms to the best of your ability but “you don’t have to do what they say.” IRBs are there to protect the university, to make you think about ethics, but they don’t know how to handle ethnography and the most important thing is to create a list of your ethics and to stick to them, to really be accountable to yourself – “everybody ought to write their own ethics statement and follow it.” I told her about the formalism of the forms and she laughed and said “gracious me, throw that stuff out the moment you’re done.” She reminded us that ethnography can’t be done that way, that we will all fail ourselves. “Be careful, if you say you’re going to do this tight-assed medical model stuff, you might end up doing it.”

At one point, one of the students spoke up: “remember, you’re being recorded.” She laughed, smiled and said, “that’s okay, send it to the committee.”