Ethics and Qualitative Research: An Example
Alice Goffman, a young and upcoming sociologist published the book On the Run in 2014. The book, set in USA and based on ethnographic research conducted by Ms. Goffman, revolves around a small number of young men – Chuck, Mike, Tim, Reggie, Alex and one or two others – and tells the story of their fight with other men from neighboring territories and their attempt to establish their hegemony and to avoid the police and the justice system. The police force is ironically portrayed as the “occupying force” and these Afro-American men need to acquire skills to stay alive. The phrase “on the run” basically means running away or avoiding the authorities and can also be interpreted to mean the struggle of staying alive on a daily basis. The book establishes the fragility of the lives of the African Americans and demonstrates the 24x7 like reach of the US judicial and police system. Any infringement which comes to the notice of the police can lead to immediate imprisonment and penal supervision. Goffman uses the term “legally compromised” for these young men – as their entire life revolves around “avoiding any encounter with law enforcement” because their freedom can be compromised at any time and for almost no reason.
On one hand the book tells the story of Afro-American youths trying to survive in a toxic environment in the USA while on the other it portrays an extra-ordinary reach of the US penal system – a reach that goes far beyond the formal prison system. The US penal system also influences the lives of people released from prisons under the guise of probation by continuously monitoring them and controlling various aspects of their lives. In the words of Goffman, the modern penal system of USA has turned Afro-American neighborhoods into kind of invisible ghettos. Wives and women are persuaded to cooperate with the police in to providing information about their husbands, partners, and sons. They were threatened with arrest, prosecution, imprisonment, or with the arrest of other family members if they did not co-operate, or they were threatened with having their jobs compromised or their benefits removed. Most dramatically, and by no means unusually, they were also threatened with having their children removed into foster care.
When the book was published in2014, Alice Goffman was hailed as the next big thing in the academic circles of USA. She was the upcoming star of qualitative research who had revived ethnographic research in a major way in the USA. However, this claim to fame was short lived as within a couple of years the academic community had started questioning the ethics used in the research. We discuss some of the issues here and why has it ignited such a debate in the academic circles.
The book is based on ethnographic study. Ethnographic research requires the researcher becomes one with the community s/he is studying. This would require that Alice Goffman be a part of the African American Community which she was studying – a near impossible task since Alice Goffman has Caucasian ancestry. She also belonged to the privileged section of the American society since she was the daughter of noted sociologist Erving Goffman and sociolinguist Gillian Sankoff. The first challenge she would be facing would be of integration with the African community in which she was going to conduct her ethnographic study. Goffman’s method was seen as exploitative and harmful it was not based on the principle of informed consent. The subjects under study did not know the Goffman was conducting such a study. She describes her methodology at the end of her book as to how she integrated herself in the neighborhood.
“Beginning as an undergraduate student, rather serendipitously she began to tutor two children in the neighborhood and gradually, by building friendships with Chuck, Mike and others, almost imperceptibly became part and parcel of 6th Street life”. However, she never describes whether she took any informed consent. This essentially means that the subjects had no way of knowing as to how and when the information could be used to their detriment and were in no way able to decide whether they should continue with the experiment or not.
The key focus of her study were African American males who were living on the fringes of the society and had daily encounter with the law enforcement agencies. This set of subjects would be extremely sensitive to anyone who tried to integrate with them and can be a potential informant to the police and other law enforcement agencies. In such a scenario, disclosing her intention of studying them and documenting them would be a surefire way of shutting the doors of her subjects. She would be faced with another dilemma – should she disclose the topic of her study to them or keep it hidden? Disclosing her agenda would make the subjects more cautious and they may revert to more law-abiding behaviour. On the other hand, not disclosing her agenda may put her in position where she may witness acts which were against the law.
In her book, Goffman describes a scene where one of the subjects was murdered in front of her eyes. This forced her to run away from the scene. This brings in to question the morality of Goffman doing the research. Did she run away to save herself from being embroiled in any kind of controversy? She, by the act of witnessing a murder, becomes a material witness and would be required by law to testify in court. An ethical course of action would have been to call the police and depose before them. But by avoiding this course of action, Goffman also becomes accessory to murder.
These are some of the issues that have plagued Alice Goffman and her research in her maiden book “On the Run”. In her defense it could be said that she had maintained meticulous notes and had given detailed descriptions of the events around her. However, her refusal to share her notes also goes against her credibility as a researcher as it may be argued that the book itself is an outcome of her vivid imagination.
The book is an excellent illustration regrading the issues of ethics in research and had sparked a fierce debate in the academic circles. Proponents argue that “covert ethnography” is a well-established framework in which to conduct the research. They also argue that by not informing the police Alice Goffman kept the secrecy of the subjects in question. But opponents are of the opinion that by not calling the police she is an “accessory to murder” and should be facing punishment for her misdemeanor. The key question that plagues social sciences remains– “how much can we exploit our subjects for our own personal gains?” Research by Goffman raises some interesting questions which strike at the root of social science research be it qualitative or quantitative.
Prof. Rohit Vishal Kumar is Associate Professor (Marketing) at International Management Institute Bhubaneswar. A Marketing professional, he is passionate about Branding and Services Marketing. In his free time, he loves to tinker with Open Source Softwares and technologies.
- Written by Rohit Vishal Kumar