This is a great new book for those of you interested in doing digital ethnographies or research on social media.
Social scientists’ humor.
An interesting blog post about writing live fieldnotes
The AAA has approved a new ethics code. There are seven main principles:
- Do no harm.
- Be open and honest regarding your work.
- Obtain informed consent and necessary permissions.
- Weigh competing ethical obligations due collaborators and affected parties.
- Make your results accessible.
- Protect and preserve your records.
- Maintain respectful and ethical professional relationships.
This is a little public service announcement to explain to undergraduate students what it is that professors do, and what makes them different from high school teachers
So the truth is that writing a blog on a regular basis is just a very difficult thing to do when one is a full time faculty member, the chair of one’s department and also trying to pursue an independent scholarly agenda. I always seem to be so hopeful during the summer and winter breaks that I will be able to maintain my momentum on Tumblr, but once those exams and papers come flooding in, everything goes to pot. I love the blogging format. It allows for shorter bits of writing that can be published instantaneously. In a profession where the publication process is glacially slow, the immediacy of blog posts is so satisfying.
I had meant to write a series of posts about the IRB process and how best to navigate it. But time constraints being what they are, I will only say a few things. The first is that IRBs, in general, do not know how to deal with ethnography. Good IRB administrators know this and will exempt most ethnographic projects under the oral history exemption as long as you swear up and down that you will keep all identifying information about your informants confidential. But IRBs always have to consider whether the rewards of a certain research project outweigh the risks it poses to informants.
Good ethnography that is based on a grounded theory approach is about doing the research without knowing exactly what you will find in the field. The best ethnography is about letting our informants teach us what knowledges should be rewarded and so, by design, we cannot know what those knowledges are until we are in the field. But if we need IRB approval before we go to the field, we are in trouble.
If you are working at a college or university, IRBs cannot be avoided. It is your job as a scholar to explain why ethnography as a methodology is valuable and why it can produce knowledge that other methodologies will systematically belittle or ignore. Your argument has to be that good ethnography is the reward, regardless of what specific thesis the ethnography proves or disproves. Ethnography does not work on the medical model of research. There are no double blind studies in the real world.
Unfortunately, my experience from attending a PRIM&R conference (https://www.primr.org/) is that you do not have to have a Ph.D. or have done any research to become an IRB “professional.” This is an administrative career path for some people who justify their employment to the powers-that-be by fear mongering about potential lawsuits over faculty research misconduct. Thus, many IRB “professionals” are more concerned about keeping their jobs than they are about facilitating faculty research. This causes problems. My advice is: be patient. Work with them as much as possible. Like it or not, they do have power over what research can and cannot be done. It sucks. Get over it or try to change it.
This is a recent discussion thread from a Chronicle of Higher Education forum that might be of interest to those of you working on, with or against IRBs.
I will be posting on this issue again soon (as soon as I can come up for air from the madness of the semester).
In an earlier response to one of my posts about choosing a project, someone commented that avoiding your institutional IRB is a good reason for choosing to do an ethnographic project abroad. As someone who has dealt with IRBs for the last 15 years and who was the chair of an IRB for two years, I thought I would take some time to discuss what IRBs do and why they do it.
All universities and college that do research are federally required to have an IRB, and as a researcher, you should never try to avoid your IRB. While there has been a lot of push back against the perceived “mission creep” of the IRBs, the fundamental reason that IRBs exist are good ones.
The impetus for research oversight was the result of the infamous Tuskegee syphilis experiment, a clinical study conducted between 1932 and 1972. Poor black men were enrolled in the study and were told that they would receive free health care from the federal government. Instead, the doctors left these men untreated in order to study the natural progression of syphilis, even after it because clear in the 1940s that syphilis could be successfully treated with penicillin. Many men died, their wives were unnecessarily infected, and their children born with congenital syphilis because doctors consciously failed to treat the men in the Tuskegee study.
Research oversight is designed to ensure that ethical standards of research are maintained, which in itself, is a worthy goal, especially for clinical trails and psychological research. The problem begins when these standards are applied to all social science research, and particularly to ethnography.
Choosing a Project, Part III: Going Abroad
I always knew that I wanted to do my research in a foreign country, so for me there was never any question about whether or not to study outside of the United States. I have been doing ethnographic fieldwork in Bulgaria for 15 years now. Of course, it took extra time to learn the language and there were endless bureaucratic delays in acquiring my long-term residency permits, but it was worth it. Sofia has become like a second home to me.
There are several compelling reasons to go abroad. The first is that you increase your chances of doing original research, and as I have stated earlier, originality should be your primary goal.
Second, having an area specialty increases the audience for your potential book and strengthens the chances that you will eventually land an academic job. Most large research universities have international studies programs. Even small colleges like Bowdoin have majors and or minors in Latin American Studies, Asian Studies, East European Studies and Africana Studies. While there is a well-founded critique that the persistence of area studies perpetuates U.S. imperialism abroad (see Rey Chow’s great book, The Age of the World Target), the reality is that having an area profile make you more attractive to future employers because your courses will contribute to more than one department or program. Furthermore, the knowledge production that arises out of areas studies does not necessarily have to support imperialist aim. It can just as easily help to undermine them.
Third, depending on your institution, there may be important Institutional Research Board (IRB) issues to consider. I will discuss the politics navigating IRBs when doing ethnographic research in the next post.
So the first question is whether to stay at home or go abroad. I realize that these are relative terms. There are plenty of non-U.S. citizens studying for their PhDs at universities in North America. So by “home,” I mean the country where you were born and/or grew up.
In the United States, there are plenty of excellent ethnographic studies done by Americans. There are the classics: Carol Stack’s All Our Kin and Call to Home, Esther Newton’s Mother Camp, or Phillipe Bourgois’s In Search of Respect and Righteous Dopefiend. More recently, there is David Valentine’s Imagining Transgender: An Ethnography of a Category and Labor and Legality: An Ethnography of a Mexican Immigrant Network by Ruth Gomberg-Munoz.
The thing that unites these texts is that there are mainstream (usually white) Americans studying a subculture within the U.S. that would be considered “other:” illegal immigrants from Mexico, female impersonators, Puerto Rican crack dealers, etc. In Europe, there is also a long tradition of folklore studies whereby anthropologists study local indigenous populations with different worldviews. Folklorists might also focus on subcultures with unique and allegedly more authentic ontologies in modern or modernizing societies (e.g. religious minorities). This was especially true in the communist countries of Eastern Europe where it was difficult for would-be ethnographers to live abroad for any extended period of time. Doing ethnography at home has a long history.
Studying the country of your birth has definite advantages. The first is that, in most cases, you do not have to learn a foreign language. If you are dealing with an ethnic minority in your own culture, this may not hold true, but in many cases, your native tongue will do just fine. Foreign language acquisition can take a lot of time. Ethnographic research requires near fluency and a reasonable command of local jargon. If you are not particularly good at language acquisition (and this is a skill that varies from person to person), then operating in your mother tongue may be the way to go. It will also allow you to get into the field faster and more quickly proceed through your Ph.D. program.
The second advantage has to do with logistics. It is much easier to sort out accommodation and travel when you are in a familiar country. You may already have an “in” with the particular community that you want to study. Most importantly, you do not need to arrange for a visa or a special residency permit to stay in the country for an extended period of time. In my experience working in Bulgaria, this is a huge and time-consuming hassle that has deep-sixed many a research project (more on this in the next post).
For some scholars, staying at home means dealing with pressing social issues in their own culture in hopes that their scholarship can change things. Sometimes it is easier to feel like you can have an impact at home where you understand the political system and can mobilize local populations for change.
The key thing to staying at home is finding a community or subculture that fascinates you. Your first ethnographic project may define the rest of your career so make sure you are truly passionate about your topic, and not just choosing it for convenience.