Prepared by Hannah Quinn with Andrew Gilbert
On Tuesday, May 12th the Ethnography Lab hosted the first of three sessions for our “Ethnography in/of the Pandemic” series. Session 1 focused on “ethics and engagement,” a theme that emerged from the brainstorming session on May 1st where participants noted their concerns related to pursuing or continuing research under pandemic conditions. Several threads wove through the collective discussion.
Thread I: Ethics of Engagement
One clear observation from our discussion was that ethical research emerges from and is secured through relationships with our research participants. Questions about whether and how we should start or continue research under pandemic conditions cannot be answered without engaging those participants. It was suggested that participants are the experts on the subject of their own lives and that we should thus resist making assumptions about their capacities, risks, vulnerability, and so on.
This observation was born out by the diversity of experiences of many contributors to our discussion. One contributor mentioned that approaching research participants on topics other than COVID-19 provided a space for people to feel engaged, less lonely, and more useful in this moment. Others spoke from previous experience working in “conflict” or “disaster” zones, noting that in contexts where strong relationships already existed, reengaging in ethnographic research came as something of a relief and people were happy to continue working. If we recall all of the various processes unfolding in the research encounter—that, for example, these are intersubjective engagements that include practices of self-making through which people demonstrate to themselves and others the kinds of people they are and the kinds of things they care about—we can imagine a diversity of reasons for why people would be open to and interested in participating in research. At the same time, we should be ready for the possibility that people will feel too overburdened to engage right now.
We were also reminded that this is a good moment to revisit what our own motivations and ethical commitments can tell us about how to proceed. One contributor noted that she has found it valuable to return to her training in feminist and de-colonial methods for the guidance they offer on forming ethical and caring research relationships during the pandemic.
Thread II: Building Relations and Collaborations
Another thread running throughout the conversation was about the possibilities that pandemic conditions offer for rethinking how and why we build relationships in our field sites, and how we might collaborate in new ways. Pandemic conditions provide us with novel opportunities to think about mutuality in research relations and how we can support and contribute to the communities and groups we work with as researchers. Contributors to this conversation suggested that such support could include volunteering, seeking out and synthesizing COVID-related resources for community members, connecting participants and community members with journalists for relevant think-pieces, writing op-eds together with our interlocutors, supporting mutual aid efforts, or facilitating the formation of new relationships and acting as a conduit between people. In one example, a contributor spoke about new avenues and areas of research that have opened up for her by working closely with participants on their labour organizing efforts in her field site. Another discussed how he approached a new COVID-19 related research project as an opportunity to redirect and redistribute emerging pools of funds to vulnerable populations and research participants.
Thread III: Revisiting Ethical Principles
Our discussion also focused on the practical ethical considerations raised by the move to virtual and digital methods and sources. Virtual methods present both challenges and opportunities and require us to revisit and rethink core questions of informed consent, access, and exclusion. We also acknowledged that many ethnographers have been using digital methods for decades and that it is important to consult their expertise and learn from their experiences.
As many of us begin to seek out virtual sites where relevant interactions and events are happening, we may need to rethink what counts as “public,” a key notion that many of us rely upon when evaluating notions like consent and privacy. For example, one contributor felt the need to remind research participants whose interactions she was following on social media that her virtual presence had a research purpose. Another contributor observed that digital methods generated new considerations around data protection and participant risk, and noted that when she updated her ethics protocol with the university, she was advised to provide privacy risk information associated with Zoom and other conferencing platforms. This prompted another contributor to comment that we may need to come up with fresh language to make the emerging ethical considerations of our research, and how we are responding to them, legible to ethics review boards. One set of emerging ethical considerations is the digital divide that may exclude some from participating while also creating new spaces for people to engage in our research that were previously unavailable.
Two concluding observations from our discussion were based upon our own social experience of the pandemic. We were reminded that we should employ the same skepticism we usually bring to our scholarship to the social pressure to make the pandemic the overriding concern of our research practice. In other words, while we need to consider how to work ethically during a pandemic, it is equally important to think critically about the pandemic discourse itself and the ways that the world is both changed and yet entirely the same for many people.
Finally, one contributor observed that much of the discussion around research and the pandemic has focused on constraints, in part because that is how many of us are experiencing the effects of the pandemic on our lives; and yet those constraints may not be as confining as they initially appear. On the other hand, the capacity to adapt and pursue exciting and ethical ways of engaging in research will be distributed unevenly as many researchers themselves may be facing intensified caregiving obligations or increased precarity. It left us with fresh questions about how we might do our research in collaborative ways that support one another.
Links to references that were mentioned during the meeting (in order):
Lupton, Deborah, ed. 2020. “Doing Fieldwork in a Pandemic.” https://docs.google.com/document/d/1clGjGABB2h2qbduTgfqribHmog9B6P0NvMgVuiHZCl8/.
Daniel Miller: How to Conduct an Ethnography during Social Isolation. 2020. London. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NSiTrYB-0so.
Fiskesjö, Magnus. 2020. “Research Ethics, Violated.” Allegra (blog). May 7, 2020. https://allegralaboratory.net/research-ethics-violated/.
Sangaramoorthy, Thurka, and Karen A. Kroeger. 2020. Rapid Ethnographic Assessments: A Practical Approach and Toolkit For Collaborative Community Research. London & New York: Routledge. https://www.routledge.com/Rapid-Ethnographic-Assessments-A-Practical-Approach-and-Toolkit-For-Collaborative/Sangaramoorthy-Kroeger/p/book/9780367252298.