[URBANTH-L]a question concerning methods/ethics

Lisa Maya Knauer lknauer at umassd.edu
Thu Jul 30 10:39:52 EDT 2009

I can't speak for other researchers, but I think one has to be very 
conscientious and think about the larger social and historical context. 
It's hard to answer in the abstract, or in general. I can only write 
from my experience, and  I've often used people's actual names. My 
dissertation research focused on rumba performers and enthusiasts in New 
York and Cuba -- one of whose "issues" is how they have been rendered 
invisible. Some of them are very explicit about what they see as my role 
within the community -- to document their presence and let people know 
about them.  That's my "job", as they see it. This is especially true of 
some of the Cuban rumberos in New York, who are very concerned that 
people back in Cuba know that they, the emigres, are still doing their 
bit to maintain the vitality of that cultural practice. For example, 
they want me to put their real names in photograph captions that 
illustrate an article or chapter.  In interviews I have asked people 
what they want and to the extent I can, I respect their wishes. So this 
is, as Bascom notes, a form of reciprocity. But I have also been part of 
this community since before I started graduate school, and still hang 
with the rumam at this point one of the "regulars" on the scene.

Of course, there are well-established professional performers in the 
community ("public" figures to those who know something about this 
culture) and it would be nearly impossible to anonymize them since the 
details of their personal histories are well known to everyone in the 
community.  As a general matter, when I write descriptive and historical 
passages, I try to credit the actual individuals who pioneered the genre 
both "here" and "there".  However, since one of the issues I address is 
competing claims to ownership and authenticity, I do render 
controversial statements anonymous, or write about them in a more 
generalized way rather than attributing them to specific individuals. 
That is, I might write something like "Some of the non-Cubans told me 
that, back in the early 1980s, the Cubans were less welcoming toward 
outsiders..."  or "Cubans occasionally complained about the boricuas and 
dominicanos ..."   (As a footnote, some of my work has been published in 
Spanish (in Cuba) and has been read by folks "in the community", who 
have generously corrected some small historical details that I have 
tried to address in subsequent writings).

In another project, concerning  (largely undocumented) Central American 
communities, I've used real names of public figures and a few leaders in 
the community who have fairly public personae  have insisted that I use 
their real names. Again, they were concerned that their presence be 
acknowledged.  But I am only starting to "write up" this project and I 
will have to navigate these issues bit by bit. I am using the real name 
of the city (New Bedford), as a highly-publicized ICE raid is what 
sparked this project.  The local newspaper has written several in-depth 
articles about the community, and some of their sources (some of whose 
full names have appeared in the paper) are also my "informants".  For 
example, the sisters of an immigrant who was murdered were quoted 
extensively in the paper during the trial. Their names, and his, are 
)now part of the public record.  I've interviewed the sisters, although 
I didn't know "who" they were when I first sat down with them.  I might 
draw upon these interviews (and my ongoing work with them) for a couple 
of different "points" -- violence against immigrants, or women's 
migration trajectories. And I'd have to talk these issues through with 
them. I could choose to write about the same informants in different 
parts of a published work and identify them in one context (discussion 
of the murder) and anonymize them in another section.

In terms of the IRB and what they might require: I think it is possible 
to make a convincing case either way. I have argued successfully that my 
work (on both these projects) is at least in part social history -- 
documenting and describing communities that have been rendered marginal 
or invisible - and that although they may include individuals defined as 
:"vulnerable", I will respect both those individuals' privacy and their 
agency (that is, their ability to make decisions for themselves).  My 
IRB seems to feel they can trust my ability to "do the right thing" (or 
to judge what "the right thing" might be).  But all IRBs are different. 
The proposal for the research on Central Americans went through a pretty 
laborious but not unfriendly review. But I also reached out to the 
chairs of the IRB and the research office staff long before submitting 
the proposal.

Hope this is helpful.  This might be a useful subject for a workshop at 
a future AAA meeting, or an AnthroNews issue.


Lisa Maya Knauer
Associate Professor, Anthropology
University of Massachusetts Dartmouth

Bascom Guffin wrote:
> I would say that in the case of B (she/he doesn't care), I would still 
> anonymize the informant. If they specifically ask that their names be 
> mentioned, it becomes a tougher call. I know of one person who had DJs 
> as informants, and many of them asked that their real names (at least 
> their real DJ names) be used, because they saw it as an opportunity 
> for publicity. In this case, you might consider using their real names 
> to be a sort of reciprocation for the time and effort they've put in 
> to helping you out. But this researcher still ended up anonymizing 
> their sources, because informants made statements that the researcher 
> determined could be controversial. There may have been other aspects 
> to the researcher's reasoning as well. If the informants are public 
> figures, other considerations might also apply, in that there may be 
> good reason to use their real names, especially if it is overly 
> difficult to hide their identities. All this is off the top of my 
> head, and I am sure there are other members of the list who have given 
> this much deeper thought, and been directly faced with these practical 
> considerations. I too would be interested to hear what folks have to say.
>         Best,
>         Bascom
> ----------------
> Bascom Guffin | PhD Candidate
> Department of Anthropology
> University of California, Davis
> mbguffin at ucdavis.edu
> On Jul 24, 2009, at 9:41 AM, Fethi Keles wrote:
>> Friends,
>> I would like to receive opinions on the following issue, if possible.
>> What most everyone does when we write things up is to change names 
>> and use pseudonyms etc. etc. But, what do you do if an informant a) 
>> specifically asks to be identified with his/her actual name in your 
>> study (book, article whatever) b) says s/he doesn't care/wouldn't 
>> mind if you were to use his/her actual name?
>> I feel the answer to this must be more than 'well go ahead and do as 
>> s/he says', for there could be a whole lot of other implications if 
>> one does so. Any readings you would suggest? What courses of action 
>> would be on the table in the two cases above?
>> Any thoughts will be appreciated. Thank you.
>> Fethi Keles
>> PhD Candidate in Cultural Anthropology
>> Maxwell School
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