Sunday, January 22, 2006

see jane in the academy: reframing?

see jane in the academy: reframing? The link at the top of this post is to an interesting, though somewhat speculative consideration of the ethics of working with less priveleged research informants. It feels like a good place to begin my own (entirely speculative) consideration of the issue, because this author's fears are so similar to mine. When I have worked with less-priveleged informants, I have felt terribly patronizing, and have really struggled to develop a rapport as a result. Even working with informants in a similar socio-economic position to myself, people I have worked with effectively in a non-research setting, my discomfort over the altered status of our working relationship, the feeling that I was taking advantage, using people for my own benefit, with no benefit to them, alters the relationship, and makes me seriously less effective.
The Society for Ethnomusicology Statement of Ethical Considerations is a pretty good place to start when considering more official matters of ethics, while the American Anthropological Association Ethics Resources page gives a more in-depth analysis of considerations that, while confusingly dense in places, is pretty practically helpful. And yet neither really deals with the emotional aspects. My mentor has been working on and off for a while on a paper related to the ethical considerations of her PhD project, which deals with the stresses of working with informants with whom one has an unequal power relationship. One point which she made very clearly, and which I am about to over-simplify terribly, was the difficulty of the researcher/informant relationship where gender inequality is a consideration. I cited her paper when challenging a male collegue's positioning in a paper dealing with female initiation rituals, and received a very defensive response. It is so easy to get caught up in fears of ineffectuality when working with real people, knowledge, power, and real lives. This life is so confusingly real, so impossible to comprehend from the lived perspective. How are we as outsiders in other's lives supposed to offer considered commentary and understanding.
A commentator on my mentor's paper suggested that the main issue for consideration in such matters should be expertise. For one reason or another, we have decided to devote time and energy to the study of specific topics, and that gives us a knowledge advantage over those who have to live the lives we study in more dimensions. We have (or should have) the advantage of a financial buffer in the form of our institutions and our careers that give us the liberty that the people living the lives we study don't have. We can afford a certain level of distance.
It sound's cold, but It is also the only way I can understand this. I don't have to live through what my informants do, so I can study them. Participant observation always involves some distance, and that is what makes it an effective method.

Ok, I'm all blogged out now.


jane said...

this is interesting. the concerns you write about and the possible (tho potentially cold seeming) ways we can reframe the research we do are well articulated.

one thing my MentorProf and I have talked about is this whole insider-outsider dimension of the the privilege issue. On the one hand we could look at research with less privileged people as ethically problematic because we are building our careers and reputation out of their experiences, with little (if any) direct benefit to the people/participants. then there's this whole issue of living the experiences. can we even truly know and understand, and thus authentically represent and appropriately analyze the experiences of people who live very different lives from the ones we live? the answer, is quite likely, no.

some would then say that we shouldn't do the research--on moral and representative grounds. we should leave that research for the insiders.

but then. if we do that, are there insiders with the resources and positions to actually do the research in ways that will be recognized by a larger community? perhaps. but quite possibly not--especially of the degree of privilege of participants is quite low. and so maybe what's good enough at this juncture is to acknowledge what we cannot know about our participants' lived experiences, be explicit about how the function of privilege influneces both the data we receive from participants, and the way we interpret our data, and keep trying harder and harder to do our job better.

choirgirl said...

Thank you so much for taking the time to comment, Jane. You (as always) make a strong point.
One of the big issues in South African research is that because we remain relatively close to apartheid, white academics like myself are still the priveleged majority in the academy, despite being the minority population group outside it. We therefore work within the paradox created by our privelege over so many centuries. Because we had the benefits of a stronger education previously, we are getting the better jobs, and this is obviously unfair to those who have struggled through an inefficient education system. On the other hand, though, it is important that we be used to improve the education and knowledge of the majority, rather than them being abandoned to inexperienced educators and researchers. The result is that practical apartheid within the academy endures, and there is increasing tension related to whites studying and teaching blacks about themselves.
Your point that we should seek to acknowledge these positions, and do our jobs the best we can really does make the most sense, because it seems like the best option to (eventually) evening out the imballance. Perhaps in the not too distant future, my present first year students (most of whom were in the first class educated entirely under the new democracy) will be in a position to build their own careers with some input from me and my priveleged position. Perhaps this is the begining of the new academic order.

jane said...

this is a very shallow comment but it was my first reaction to reading your comment-note.

i think it is so neat (complicated, fun, exciting, and full of potential & i'm sure angst from time to time too) that you are getting to part of such a transitional moment for education and change in South Africa.

Very very cool.

Hip hip hooray for being part of creating/supporting a new academic order.

choirgirl said...

Thank you, Jane. When the angst gets to me, I'll read your comment again, and remember why it is worth it.