How do you work ethically with material generated in an interview? I’ve been pondering this question recently as part of a more general think about ethical research practice*.
Research ethics are covered in institutional forms – yes? Well no. The forms only cover specific aspects of ethical practice… the basics of consent, confidentiality and anonymity, safety, harm and benefit. The permission-oriented paperwork doesn’t go near all that is involved in an ethical research practice. Any experienced researcher will tell you that ethical decisions need to be made regularly and throughout any research project. And the ethical decisions do not stop when the field work finishes. They continue right through the analysis and writing.
But, to give them their due, institutional processes usually do require that you pay attention to ethics after field work. They ask to to consider what happens to the data after it’s generated. For instance, researchers are expected to decide at the outset whether interviewees will have transcripts returned to them for checking, and sometimes whether participants have a chance to comment on the analysis or see potential publications before they are sent off.
But even this is not all that is involved in the ethics of working with other people’s words and lives. There is a very large question of the politics of representation. This is something that doesn’t make it on to most ethics forms, but often does get discussed in methods courses – although I suspect more in some disciplines than others. (Yes anthropology, I’m bigging you up again.)
However, the ways in which we ‘make people’ in our writing is not just about big questions – it’s also about the detail. The small stuff. Back to my pondering about interviews.
Decisions about how to work with interview transcripts are not straightforward, and I worry that key issues are not discussed often enough. To illustrate this point, here’s a few ethical questions that might arise about data generation and analysis:
- How do we record and then analyse the important sensory elements of interviews? What does it mean to leave them out?
- Does our desire to find patterns (themes) lead us to skip over important tensions and individual idiosyncrasies? What does it mean to leave them out?
- Does the use of particular forms of software accentuate our gaze on broad themes rather than emergent narratives and subtle underpinning metaphors? What does it mean to leave them out?
- Do the ways in which we transcribe recordings pay sufficient attention to silences, stumbles, awkwardness, intonations, irony, sarcasm and so on? What does it mean to leave them out?
And then there’s the ethical questions surrounding the writing that results from analysis. Here’s just a few things that matter:
- How can you best make the reader interested in the participant and see the value and logic of their responses? The decision goes to the question of doing no harm.
- How do you cut through all of the verbiage to distil the essence of an interview so that it rings true to the event – and so it is ‘fair’ to the interviewee?
- How much can you cut, splice and juggle the words of participants without actually veering into ‘making it up’?
- What safeguards do you put in place to avoid cherry-picking particular words that conveniently fit a pattern?
- How do you deal with accents? What are the ethical pluses and minuses of converting people’s words into standard English? (See John Field’s helpful post on this.)
- How do you deal with disorderly thoughts, broken arguments, half-finished sentences? What is the potential for harm in the choice that you make about cleaning up/not cleaning up?
- Are there ethical pitfalls in trying to stick too closely to a participant’s words?
- How do you actually craft paragraphs and sentences so that the rhythm and meaning-making of the participant is best communicated?
- Where is the ‘researcher you’ in the writing – hiding behind a carefully selected long slab of writing that masquerades as ‘authentic voice’?
On what basis do you make decisions about these questions?
These two beginning lists suggest that it is pretty hard to separate out questions of analytic technique and writing craft from ethics. The decisions you make about how to analyse and how to write are not simply about the best process, the most robust, the most transparent, something transferable. They are also profoundly about the ways in which we think about what we are doing with people who have given us their time, thoughts and words. And that’s a worry.
I guess I am working up to writing a paper about all of this…
*My latest book, with Chris Hall, on place-based methods for researching schools works with the notion of relational research ethics – with the researcher being a ‘guest’ offered ‘hospitality’.