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.