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Politics and Ethics in Qualitative Research

MAURICE PUNC


H


"Just Do It!"

FIELDWORK is fun; it is easy; anyone can do it; is salutary for young academics to flee the nest; and they should be able to take any moral or political dilemmas encountered in their stride. There has always been a somewhat pragmatic, if not reductionist, tradition in qualitative research at was exemplified by Everett Hughes's "fly on your own" strategy for students at Chicago (Gans, 1967, p. 301). Of course, the classical anthropologists engaged in long and lonely involvement in distant settings and had to solve their problems individually and on site (Clarke, 1975, p. 105), and something of this tradition—geared to the solo researcher, absent for a considerable period of time, and cut off from the university—was conveyed by the precepts of the Chicago school. This style of qualitative research holds that it is healthy and wholesome for students and aspiring social scientists to get "the seats of their pants dirty by real research" (Park, quoted in Burgess, 982, p. 6; emphasis in original). They should abandon the classroom in order to knock on doors, troop the streets, and join groups; they should just “get in there and see what is going on" (as Howard Becker advised a bemused British student asking what "paradigm" he should employ in the field; Atkinson, 1977, p. 32).


In contrast, there are voices that alert us to the inherent moral pitfalls of participant observation and that warn us of the essentially "political" nature of all field research. In this model, quali­tative research is seen as potentially volatile, even hazardous, requiring careful consideration and preparation before someone should be allowed to enter the field. Without adequate training and supervision, the neophyte researcher can unwit­tingly become an unguided projectile bringing turbulence to the field, fostering personal traumas (for researcher and researched), and even causing damage to the discipline. This position was pow­erfully argued by John Lofland at an ASA seminar on participant observation, where he virtually de­manded a certification of competence before the researcher be let loose in the field. During the past decade, moreover, these two divergent stances have been challenged by the impact of feminist, racial, and ethnic discourse that has not only made visible new research areas but also has raised critical issues related to a politically engaged re­search dialectic (Welch, 1991). These have pro­found implications for the ethics and politics of research (Fonow & Cook, 1991; Grossberg, Nel­son, & Treichler, 1992; Reinharz, 1992).




AUTHOR'S NOTE: I would like to thank the editors of this volume, and the two readers for this chapter, for their valuable comments on my first draft. I also wish to extend my gratitude to Derek Phillips, Peter K. Manning, Hans Werdmolder and John Van Maanen for their critical advice while I was preparing this chapter.

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84 LOCATING THE FIELD

My position in this chapter will be to argue forcibly for the "get out and do it" perspective. Understandably, no one in his or her right mind would support a carefree, amateuristic, and un­duly naive approach to qualitative research. But, at the same time, I would warn against leaning too far toward a highly restrictive model for research that serves to prevent academics from exploring complex social realities that are not always ame­nable to more formal methods. My sympathies for this view have been powerfully shaped by my own background as a sociologist who engaged in research that painfully raised a whole range of largely unexpected political and ethical issues (Punch, 1986, 1989), related to stress in the field situation, research fatigue, confidentiality, harm, privacy and identification, and spoiling the field. In two projects that commenced with supportive sponsors, I encountered an accumulation of unan­ticipated difficulties, such as varying interpreta­tions of the research bargain over time, disputes about contractual obligations, restrictions on sec­ondary access, intimidation via the law, disagree­ment on publication, and even an (in my view unethical) appeal to professional ethics in an at­tempt to limit my research. Those issues are not exclusive to projects employing observation, but perhaps they are most likely to occur in an acute way there than in other styles of work.

Furthermore, I trust that many of the views presented in this chapter are also applicable to other styles of qualitative research. Qualitative research covers a spectrum of techniques—but central are observation, interviewing, and docu­mentary analysis—and these may be used in a broad range of disciplines. Indeed, contemporary researchers are to be found within an extensive spectrum of groups and institutions involving dif­fering time spans and types of personal engage­ment (Burgess, 1982; Hammersley & Atkinson, 1983; Shaffir & Stebbins, 1991). It is probably the case, however, that in Anglo-American uni­versities (with an "apprenticeship" model of gradu­ate education unlike that in most continental European institutes), most researchers will first encounter fieldwork while engaged on a disserta­tion that is mostly a solo enterprise with relatively unstructured observation, deep involvement in the setting, and a strong identification with the researched. This can mean that the researcher is unavoidably vulnerable and that there is a consid­erably larger element of risk and uncertainty than with more formal methods.

There is here too an absolutely central point that much field research is dependent on one person's perception of the field situation at a given point in time, that that perception is shaped both by personality-and by the nature of the inter­action with the researched, and that this makes the researcher his or her own "research instrument."

This is fundamentally different from more formal models of research, and it also bedevils our evalu­ation of what "really" happened because we are almost totally reliant on one person's portrayal of events. This is amplified if we further accept that there are a number of potentially distorting filters at work that militate against full authenticity on methods, and that censor material on the relation­ships with the human "subjects" concerned.

Here I am assuming that qualitative fieldwork employs participant observation as its central tech­nique and that this involves the researcher in pro­longed immersion in the life of a group, commu­nity, or organization in order to discern people's habits and thoughts as well as to decipher the social structure that binds them together (McCall & Simmons, 1969; Van Maanen, 1979). Far more than with other styles of social research, then, this implies that the investigator engages in a close, if not intimate, relationship with those he or she observes. Crucial to that relationship is access and acceptance, and elsewhere I have spoken of "infiltration" as a key technique in fieldwork (Punch, 1986, p. 11) even though the concept is negatively associated with spying and deception (Erikson, quoted in Bulmer, 1982, p. 150). Entry and depar­ture, distrust and confidence, elation and despon­dency, commitment and betrayal, friendship and abandonment—all are as fundamental here as are dry discussions on the techniques of observation, taking field notes, analyzing the data, and writing the report. Furthermore, acute moral and ethical dilemmas may be encountered while a semicon­scious political process of negotiation pervades all fieldwork. And both elements, political and ethical, often have to be resolved situationally, and even spontaneously, without the luxury of being able to turn first to consult a more experi­enced colleague. The dynamics and dilemmas associated with this area of fieldwork can be summarized crudely in terms of getting in and getting out, and of one's social and moral conduct in relation to the political constraints of the field.


On the Politics of Fieldwork

To a greater or lesser extent, politics suffuses all social scientific research (Guba & Lincoln, 1989, p. 125). By politics I mean everything from the micropolitics of personal relations to the cul­tures and resources of research units and univer­sities,, the powers and policies of government research departments, and ultimately even the hand (heavy or otherwise) of the central state itself (Bell & Newby, 1977;. Hammond, 1964): All of these contexts and constraints crucially influence the -design, implementation, and out-



Politics and Ethics in Qualitative Research 85

comes of research (Gubrium & Silverman, 1989). This is important to convey to fledgling researchers, who may imbibe a false view of the research process as smooth and unproblematic (“The unchanging researcher makes a unilinear journey through a static setting”; Hunt, 1984, p. 285), whereas we should be drawing their attention to the political perils and ethical pitfalls of actually carrying out research. An additional motive for doing this is to-espouse the view that fieldwork is definitely not a soft option, but, rather, represents a demanding craft that involves both coping with multiple negotiations and continually dealing with ethical dilemmas.

But perhaps collectively we are ourselves largely responsible for the "conspiracy" in selling the neat, packaged, unilinear view of research. Suc­cessful studies attract the limelight; failures are often neglected. Dilemmas in the field are glossed over in an anodyne appendix, and it may even be deemed inappropriate for the "scientist" to aban­don objectivity and detachment in recounting de­scriptions of personal involvement and political bat­tles in the field setting. This can be reinforced by the strictures of publishers, who may find personal ac­counts anecdotal, trivial, and scarcely worthy or space (Punch, 1989, p. 203). As Clarke (1975) ob­serves, "A large area of knowledge is systematically suppressed as 'non-scientific' by the limitations of prevailing research methodologies" (p. 96).

In contrast, some accounts of field research touch on the stress, the deep personal involve­ment, the role conflicts, the physical and mental effort, the drudgery and discomfort—and even the danger—of observational studies for the re­searcher. Yablonsky (1968) was threatened with violence in a commune, and Thompson (1967) was beaten up by Hell's Angels: Schwartz (1964) was attacked verbally and physically during his study in a mental hospital, where he was seen as a "spy" by both patients and staff; and Vidich and Bensman (1968) were caricatured, in a Fourth of July procession in the town they had studied, by an effigy bending over a manure spreader. Wax (1971) was involved in dangerous and stressful situations in Japanese relocation camps, and she was denounced as a "communist agitator" during research on Native American reservations. Burns (1977) was refused publication for his study of the BBC: Wallis (1977) was tailed and harassed by members of the Scientology movement: and. in a project within a police department, a researcher "literally had to block a file-cabinet with his body to keep two armed internal affairs offi­cers from taking observers' records. Meanwhile the principal investigator was frantically contact­ing the chief of police to get internal affairs called off” (Florez & Kelling, 1979, p. 17).

These examples could be multiplied by horror stories gleaned from the academic circuit, where “tales of the field” (Van Maanen, 1988) abound of obstructionist gatekeepers, vacillating sponsors, factionalism in the field setting that forces the research to choose sides, organizational resistance, respondents subverting the research role, sexual shenanigans, and disputes about publication and the veracity of findings. Such pitfalls and predicaments can rarely be anticipated, yet they may fundamentally alter the whole nature and purpose of the research.

These personal and anecdotal accounts form an oral culture of moral and practical warnings; they are not widely written of, according to John Van Maanen (personal communication, 1993), largely because we have failed to develop a "genre or narrative convention within our standard works" that would shape a taken-for-granted imperative that field-workers own up to the manner in which they solved such issues during their research (but see Sanjek, 1990, on "fieldnotes"). In contrast, there is a stream of thought that does make expo­sure of affectivity and of the research process central and that is represented by feminist re­search (Roberts. 1981). This not only attacks tra­ditional methodology as an instrument of repres­sion but also in some cases, argues for "total immersion" in the field; this new "epistemology of insiderness" (Reinharz. 1992, p. 259) has led feminist scholars to an attempt "to rescue emotion from its discarded role in the creation of knowl­edge" (Fonow & Cook, 1991, p. 11). This power­ful and significant contribution to the recent de­bate on the politics of research is in reaction to the patriarchal nature or academic life and the "research infrastructure" allied to an effort to construct a feminist epistemology and methodol­ogy. Fonow and Cook (1991) focus on a number of themes in the literature on feminist methods: "reflexivity; an action orientation; attention to the affective components of research: and use of the situation-in-hand" (pp. 1-5).

In essence, much research is informed by the experience of oppression owing to sexism, and the research process may well contain an element of "consciousness-raising,” of emotional cathar­sis, and of increased politicization and activism. As the aim of certain strands of feminist research is praxis leading to liberation (Mies, 1991), this has profound implications for "the statement of purpose, topic selection, theoretical orientation, choice of method, view of human nature, and definitions of the researcher's role" (Fonow & Cook, 1991. p. 5). This action component is shared with black studies. Marxism, and gay and lesbian studies and permeates research with an explicitly political agenda. Research by women on women to assist women has undoubtedly opened up fresh new arenas largely inaccessible to males and this enrichment has frequently been embedded within qualitative research precisely because this is held


86 LOCATING THE FIELD
to be more compatible than formal, quantitative methods with feminist scholarship (Hammersley, 1993; Jayaratne & Stewart, 1991; Reinharz, 1992). Feminist research has, for instance, fostered studies of obscene telephone calls, violence against women (shelters for battered females), single-gender col­lege residences, sexual harassment, pornography, AIDS clinics, abortion, and discrimination in the workplace. In effect, the impact of feminist research has been to awaken the whole issue of gender in research activities and to politicize the debate on the conduct of research; similar arguments have been raised about race and ethnicity.

In some cases there is an openness to "complete transformation" through total participation and a belief that consciousness-raising will become the "ground work for friendship, shared struggle and identity change" (Reinharz 1992, p. 68). This has aided in bringing affectivity into accounts of re­search and has also exposed the reality that much qualitative, observational work was conducted by privileged white males. There are profound epistemological and methodological issues here that I cannot possibly tackle within the confines of this chapter, but I suspect that many traditional ethnographers, brought up in a scholarly convention of "openness" to the field setting and "objectiv­ity" with regard to data, would be concerned that explicitly ideological and political research would overly predetermine the material gleaned in ob­servational studies. This, in turn, would doubtless lead to a riposte about the disingenuousness of believing in objectivity through the eyes of white male academics. My point is that the traditionalists tended to eschew "politics," to avoid "total immersion," and to be wary of "going native," all of which, in contrast, are elements of feminist methods. This debate has illuminated certain re­search dilemmas in an acute and fresh way that needs to be taken into account in all that follows below. Rather than enter that debate, which poses issues at the ideological and institutional levels, I shall focus here on those practical and mundane elements that continually influence the "politics" of fieldwork in many research projects.


Hence I wish simply to focus on certain fea­tures that are not always clearly articulated in accounts but that have a material impact on quali­tative research in general and fieldwork in par­ticular and that shape the politics of research.

Researcher personality. The personality of the researcher helps to determine his or her selection of topics, his or her intellectual approach, and his .or her ability in the field (Clarke, 1975, p. 104). But often we are left in the-dark as to the personal and intellectual path that led researchers to drop one line of inquiry or to pursue another topic. We require more intellectual autobiographies to clar­ify why academics end up studying what they do (Okely & Callaway, 1992). Family circumstances can be important in terms of absences and travel, and spouse's support, or lack of it, can prove crucial to the continuation of a field project.

Geographic proximity. One simple factor that is often glossed over in terms of selecting topics and field settings is geographic proximity. There may be something romantic about Evans-Pritchard, Malinowski, and Boas setting off stoically into the bush, where they lived in relative isolation and virtuous celibacy, but some researchers just travel conveniently down the road to the nearest morgue, mental hospital, or action group.

Nature of the research object. The nature of the research object—be it a community, a formal organization, or an informal group—is of signifi­cance for access, research bargains, funding, and the likelihood of polarity and conflict in the re­search setting (Punch, 1989; Spencer, 1973).

Researcher's institutional background. The repu­tation of the researcher's institutional background can be of considerable importance in opening or closing doors. The backing of prestigious aca­demic institutions and figureheads may be vital to access in some settings but irrelevant, or even harmful, in others. For instance, Platt (1976, p. 45) records a case in which researchers in Britain were able to get a member of Parliament to organ­ize a speech in the House of Commons that led to certain doors being opened for them.


Gatekeepers. Gatekeepers can be crucial in terms of access and funding (Argyris, 1969). The deter­mination of some watchdogs to protect their in­stitutions may ironically be almost inversely re­lated to the willingness of members to accept research. Klein (1976) remarks, "Social science is not engaged by 'industry' or organizations, but by individuals in gatekeeping or sponsorship or client roles. The outcome, therefore, is always mediated through the needs, resources, and roles of such individuals" (p. 225). Researchers may suffer by being continually seen as extensions of their political sponsors within the setting despite their denials to the contrary. Furthermore, gate­keepers need not be construed only in terms of government agencies and corporate representatives, but can also be found in scientific funding bodies, among publishers, and within academia. The in­tellectual development of the discipline, academic imperialism, the institutional division of labor, the selection and availability of specific supervi­sors, backstage, bargaining, precontract lobbying, departmental distribution of perks (research as­sistance, travel money, -typing support), and patronage can all play roles in determining the status of, and resources for, field research, and in speci-


Politics and Ethics in Qualitative Research 87

fying why some projects are launched and others buried (Dingwall, Payne, & Payne, 1980, Sharrock & Anderson, 1980; Shils, 1982). It is somewhat encouraging to read that even Whyte had difficulty in publishing his now-classic 1943 book Street Cor­ner Society, in having it reviewed and taken seri­ously, and fluctuating sales have reflected the fads and fashions of postwar sociology. The acceptance of his research for a Ph.D. at Chicago was also contingent on Hughes' s championing of him against a critical Wirth (Whyte, 1981, p. 356).


Status of field-workers. The impact that the pres­ence of researchers has on the setting is related to the status and visibility of the field-workers. The "lone wolf often requires no funding, gains easy access, and melts away into the field. The "hired hand," in contrast, may come with a team of people, be highly visible, be tied to contractual obligations, and be expected to deliver the goods within a speci­fied period of time (Wycoff & Kelling, 1978).

Expectations in team research. A feature of re­search that has rarely been examined is the variety of expectations and roles in team research that can hinder behavior in the field and lead to conflict about outcomes. In team research, leadership, supervision, discipline, morale, status, salaries, career prospects, and the intellectual division of labor can promote unexpected tensions in the field and lead to disputes about publication. Junior assistants may fear that a senior researcher will prematurely publish to in­crease his or her academic status while cynically exploiting their data, spoiling the field, and ruining their chances of collecting separate data for a disser­tation. A love affair breaking up between team mem­bers can also spell disaster and undermine timeta­bles and deadlines. Workloads, ownership of data, rights of publication, and career and status issues are all affected by the constraints of team research. Al Reiss, Jr., in operating a team investigating police behavior, had to make it clear that serious "devi­ance" by a team member might threaten the whole project, and that he also had an employer-employee relationship with them that meant he was prepared to dismiss people if necessary (statements made at an ASA seminar on field research). Bell (1977) presents a graphic portrait of the problems that beset the restudy of the community of Banbury in Britain. The project leader was rarely present, the team never really jelled as a unit, the field supervisor left early to take up an academic appointment, and the two research assistants wanted to collect data for their dissertations as well as for the project; further, data were withheld from the supervisor because the oth­ers were worried that he "would in some way run off with the data and publish separately" (p. 55).

The structural and status frustrations of the hired hand (particularly the temporary research assistant virtually abandoned to the field) may mean that he or she suffers from poor morale becomes estranged from the parent organization is strongly tempted toward co-optation, becomes secretive toward supervisors, and is a "bother" requiring "unusually intense and patient supervi­sion" (Florez & Kelling, 1979. p. 12). He or she is particularly in danger of "going native."



Other factors affecting research in the field. The actual conduct of research and success in the field can be affected by myriad factors, including age, gender, status, ethnic background, overidentification, rejection, factionalism, bureaucratic obstacles, accidents, and good fortune. But, again, we rarely hear of failures, although Diamond (1964) recounts how he was ejected from the field in Nigeria, and Clarke (1975) speaks of field-workers who nearly went insane, panicked, or got cold feet and never actually got to the field, "but we are systemati­cally denied public information on what happens" (p. 106). Observational studies are often associated with young people (graduate students, research as­sistants), and some settings may require a youthful appearance and even physical stamina (as in Reimer's 1979 study of construction workers).

Gender and race close some avenues of inquiry but clearly open up others. Martin (1980), in her study of women in policing, could not penetrate the world of the policemen's locker room or out-of-work socializing. In masculine worlds the female researcher may have to adopt various ploys to deal with prejudice, sexual innuendo, and unwelcome advances. Hunt (1984) realized that she was operat­ing in a culture where several features of her iden­tity—white, female, educated outsider—were im­pediments to developing rapport and trust with different categories within the police and had to engage in a transformation from "untrustworthy femi­nine spy" to "street woman researcher" whereby she renegotiated gender-to combine elements of mascu­linity and femininity. The compromises this in­volved would doubtless enrage many contemporary feminists, but they force the female field-worker to get out or else accept a measure of "interactional shitwork" (Reinharz, 1992). The limitations associ­ated with views on race and gender mean that it is impossible in many police forces for a white female to patrol alone with a black male officer. Women often have to cope too with the conflict between their desire and need to continue research (e.g., for career purposes) and their encountering "sexual har­assment, physical danger, and sexual stereotyping"; furthermore, in a society that is "ageist, sexist, and hetero-sexist, the young, female researcher may be defined as a sexual object to be seduced by hetero­sexual males" (Reinharz, 1992, p. 58)..

A young student, however, may be perceived as nonthreatening and may even elicit a consider­able measure of sympathy from respondents. But rather than concluding that fieldwork is not for


88 LOCATING THE FIELD
ing age and increased status can open doors to fruitful areas of inquiry, such as senior manage­ment in business. Personality, appearance, and luck may all play roles in exploiting unexpected avenues or overcoming unanticipated obstacles in the field.

Publishing. A harmonious relationship in the field may come unstuck at the moment of writing an impending publication where the researcher's material appears in cold print. The subjects of research suddenly see themselves summarized and interpreted in ways that may not match up with their own partial perspectives on the natural set­ting. Where the research bargain includes an im­plicit or explicit obligation to consult the group or institution on publication, severe differences of opinion can arise. These may be almost com­pletely unanticipated by the researcher, in the sense that it is difficult to predict what organiza­tional representatives will find objectionable (Bums, 1977). Vidich and Bensman's (1968) study of "Springdale" provoked a scandalized reaction that raised fundamental issues related to invasion of privacy, the ethics of research (on identity, harm, ownership of data, and so on), and responsibilities to Cornell University, which had sponsored the research (and which proved unduly sensitive to the outcry from the community). There were also protests from other academics. Progressive and radical institutions, highly critical of the estab­lishment and ideologically committed to open­ness and publication, may themselves be highly sensitive to criticism because of their marginality, susceptibility to discrediting, and desire for le­gitimacy (Punch,1986,pp.49-70).

Social and moral obligations. Finally, what social and moral obligations are generated by fieldwork? This issue forms a major part of what follows in this chapter and can be viewed as having two central parts. On the one hand, there is the nature of the researcher's personal relation­ships with people he or she encounters in the field. On the other hand, there are the moral and ethical aspects related to the purpose and conduct of research itself. In effect, how far can you go?



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