19 SES 02, Ethics and Research in Educational Ethnography (Part 1)
Symposium to be continued in 19 SES 03
Schools as fieldwork sites are tempting because they may appear to provide automatic access to a field: The researcher has permission to be in the place of study, and those studied are obliged to be there, teachers through their work contracts and children through compulsory school attendance. Yet the compulsory attendance of actors in schools is also a challenge, particularly because schools involve minors who may not themselves consent to participating in the research. In this paper I discuss the ethical considerations and, embedded in these, the methodological challenges involved in doing participant observation in schools where not all students have themselves consented – themselves and their parents - to participation in the research. The paper draws on experiences with the Norwegian equivalent of ethics committees prior to conducting ethnographic fieldwork in two secondary schools in Oslo. The aim of the paper is to contribute to discussions about the conditions for participant observation under the current regimes of auditable ethics. In these regimes, formal procedures of consent and reporting to ethics committees and administrative agencies are set up to ensure that researchers work according to national guidelines and legislation for research ethics and privacy protection. An important critique from researchers is that the requirements on researchers who want to conduct participant observation are unreasonable and will make it impossible to do ethnographic participant observation, for instance in schools. Another critique is that that the principles of auditable ethics are built on research on ‘human subjects’, whereas what ethnographers study is social interaction (Strathern, 2000). The paper discusses if, and if yes, when, it is it possible for ethnographers to contest some of the regulations aimed at protecting privacy under the auspices of studying social interaction, not individual human subjects? The paper suggest that a way to approach this question for ethnographers is to make their engagement with formalised ethics an object of analysis. If researchers omit description and analysis of the process of obtaining consent, they also miss out on the opportunity to reflect on how people’s decision to participate, or not to participate, may reveal their relationships with institutions and different categories of people. Through such analysis, we may come to see formalised ethics and ‘everyday ethics’ (Silverman, 2003) not as entirely separate matters, but as connected dimensions of a research process.
Silverman, M. (2003). Everyday Ethics: A personal journey in rural Ireland, 1980-2001. The Ethics of Anthropology: Debates and Dilemmas. P. Caplan. London and New York, Routledge. Strathern, M. (2000). Audit cultures : anthropological studies in accountability, ethics and the academy. London, Routledge.
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