[URBANTH-L]a question concerning methods/ethics

James Phillips PhillipJ at sou.edu
Fri Jul 31 12:33:33 EDT 2009

Thanks for initiating a good discussion!  My first response is that if
I am producing the “product” (ethnography, etc.) I am in charge of
the decisions made in its production.  I always assume that my
informants have their own individual agendas and perspectives, while I
have to balance and integrate, somehow, all of these individual voices. 
So my agenda has to be at least a little different from that of any of
my informants. This is true even if my intent is to “give voice” to
my informants. It is even true if I am doing nothing more complex that a
life history (which is still quite complex). 

Most of our work as anthropologists is done with people who are part of
extensive social, informational, and power networks where, very often,
revealing one informant’s identity makes it much easier for others to
discover other identities in the network. While my informant may want
his/her identity known, I have to think of others whose anonymity may be
compromised by the revelation.  I do not simply rely on the idea that my
informant must know and has assessed the consequences for others. That
is my job.  When the issue arises, I try to be quite clear with my
informant about this.   

As many of the responses to your question so far have shown, context is
important. There are times when the narrative or the analysis will make
no sense apart from the identification of the specific historical place,
event, or person.  Yet, this may also be a problem for others. What
should be actually identified and what can be presented more discretely
as representative, composite, or symbolic, or in more abstract terms?  

I may be especially sensitive to the problem of context and
“collateral damage” to others, since much of my fieldwork has
been in situations of war, political repression, and human rights
violations and, further, often the central topic of investigation has
been how people manage or change these conflictive contexts. It is
almost paradoxical that in such situations the people involved may see
both anonymity and global publicity as forms of protection—either no
one knows who you are, or the world knows…and is watching.  So context
is always important, and the responsibility for the decision is yours,
always with due consultation and reflection.  I guess you already know
this, since you asked the question in the first place.  

I hesitate to raise it, but...theoretically, at least, there is another
option.  If the ethical issue(s) become too complicated or unmanageable,
it may be a sign that the research should be abandoned, at least for
now.  There is certainly precedent for this seemingly unthinkable
course.  Good luck!

James Phillips
Anthropology, International Studies, and
Latin American Studies
Southern Oregon University

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