Fieldwork: custom, character and questions of ethics

I have been thinking about fieldwork a lot lately, and how to improve on what I did with it during my PhD because I am doing it all again, post-doctorally. I have started a new, connected research project which I will probably write about later on, and I am wondering if the way I am doing my fieldwork is the best way. I am not really doing anything too different yet, and I’m working in the same two departments although with different lecturers. This will probably be one of three posts thinking through different aspects of doing fieldwork, so I’d like to start with considering the question of ethics, and the ethical behaviour of researchers in ‘the field’.

Fieldwork is generally defined as ‘an investigation or search for material, data, etc, made in the field as opposed to the classroom, laboratory, or official headquarters’ (http://www.thefreedictionary.com/field+work).  I gather data in classrooms, and in conversations with lecturers, and from documents. This year I am also adding student voices to the mix. This may not fit this definition but for the sake of using one word instead of two, and because it tends to be a ‘catch-all’ term for this phase of a research project, I am going to use the term fieldwork to talk about the phase of gathering different kinds of data from different sources, even is a classroom or lecture hall.

The lecturers I worked with last year and the ones I am working with this year are colleagues. I know them and they know me, and we respect and like one another professionally and personally as well. So it is very important that we can work together well, and that I am ethical in the way I behave as a researcher because that will affect the way I am received as a colleague. There are several benefits to working like this: access to data is much less complicated – I have been welcomed with open minds and arms, and they are interested in what I am doing; I can ask questions after class and even in class if I want to, so I feel like part of the environment rather than a detached outsider (more about this in another post perhaps); I am really enjoying this work a great deal because these departments are so interested and welcoming.

However, there are also drawbacks. The biggest, for me, stemmed quite specifically from the kind of data gathering I was (and am still) doing – what Paul Trowler calls doing research in your own ‘backyard’ and learning what Kevin Williams has called ‘guilty knowledge’. I work at the same university I gather my data in, and I do other kinds of work from time to time with the lecturers who are talking to me and letting me into their classrooms. So, I am not a detached outsider. I am part of this environment, and it is thus a challenge to try to be more objective about what I am seeing and thinking, and not get too emotionally involved with the courses or the lecturers and students and therefore end up skewing the representations of my data, or omitting important observations because they may not paint the lecturers or students in a good light.  Williams especially talks about this in his paper – he argues that doing research with colleagues in your own university, in a place in which you have invested part of yourself, is difficult because sometimes you learn things you are not sure you should disclose, or dig into deeper. This can leave you and your research in a tricky place, as your professional identity as a staff member can conflict with your identity as a researcher. Choices may have to be made, and this is where custom can clash with character.

Essentially, the literature on research ethics talks about ‘custom’ as being chiefly about the forms you fill in and the ethical protocols you agree to abide by. These are the standard ethical rules to live by in your field. ‘Character’, on the other hand, is to do with how you behave as a researcher when confronted with guilty or difficult knowledge or situations that present you with ethical dilemmas. This is an important distinction. I filled in forms, and got ethical clearance and promised, quite truthfully, to abide by the ethical rules laid down by my university. But when I got into the field, I was confronted by a couple of dilemmas that those forms and rules did not necessarily help me to solve. I had to call more in my character as a researcher, reflect very carefully on the dilemma, and speak to my participants openly about the problem yet without compromising myself or my research in that process. I had to rely on character, rather than on custom, to get me through and to keep the integrity of my research project intact.

This was not easy, but through this part of my fieldwork phase, I realised that while the rules and protocols are there for a reason and need to be observed diligently, there are also things they cannot account for. It is when these unexpected twists and turns arise that you need to call on your own character as a person and as a researcher. You need to cultivate relationships, as far as you can, with your participants that are open, so that when difficulties arise that include or affect them you can share these and reach an understanding, solution or compromise as needed. Share with them, if it’s helpful, pieces of what you are writing and get their feedback. Show them your classroom or interview transcripts, and ask for their input and whether they would like anything omitted. Discuss their requests for omissions or changes with them openly, especially if they may compromise your research. Talk about this in your methodology, so your reader knows what happened too.

It’s important to actually be ethical, and not just to say you will be, and it’s important to realise that things don’t always go according to plan in the field, so having an ethical and upfront character and approach to your research will stand you in good stead in case the unexpected is part of your journey too.

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