Monday, March 21, 2011

Ethical Implications in Qualitative Research

A couple of great articles this week!  First we have “Turning in upon Ourselves: Positionality, Subjectivity, and Reflexivity in Case Study and Ethnographic Research” by Elizabeth Chiseri-Strater.  “All researchers are positioned,” she begins.  Exactly to what extent researchers are aware of this, how they negotiate it, and how it appears in their research make up the balance of the article.  Some researchers consciously write their positioning into their research; I thought of Van Maanen’s confessional ethnographies as she described this type of awareness. While the remnants of positivism might lead researchers to fight the tendency to write themselves into their studies, Chiseri-Strater celebrates it: “Turning in upon ourselves prevents us from removing our selv(es) from our research process, from our connections with our informants, or from our written translation of data to text” (119). In other words the researcher should be aware that one subject of any study will always be the researcher herself.

Thomas Newkirk contributed “Seduction and Betrayal in Qualitative Research.” I already had some reservations about certain types of qualitative research (similar to Dan’s comments in class last week), and this article certainly added another nail to the coffin.  When we do qualitative research, especially ethnographic or classroom-based research involving populations with which we have or build a personal relationship, we are immediately faced with a dilemma.  We can either be “objective” (read really big scare quotes here) and risk hurting someone’s feelings if we report negative results, or we run the risk of manipulating our findings to avoid that hurt.  While Newkirk offers possible ways to mitigate these pitfalls (discussing the dangers at the time of consent, giving the subject the right to offer alternative interpretations, and the possibility of intervention in the situation), even these solutions only lessen, but do not remove, these openings for damage.

Both of these articles are from Ethics and Representation in Qualitative Studies of Literacy, edited by Gesa Kirsch and Peter Mortensen.  The introduction to this volume was also on our reading list for this week.  The editors identified three key areas that continue to challenge those doing qualitative research on literacy: ethical dilemmas, often involving the relationship of the researcher with the subjects of the study; issues of representation, that is, what stance does the researcher take herself, and how does she position her research subjects; and institutional and social contexts, the set of givens which often begin as invisible, but result in major influences, both recognized and unrecognized, on qualitative research and its publication.  I was surprised at the number of times the word “pain” recurred in this introduction; the researcher may be in pain from a situation that prompted the research or from incidents in the research itself.  The subject(s) may be in pain either as a result of the research or as a result of factors unrelated to, but scrutinized in, the research; there may be pain in any number of relationship configurations relating to the research.  As researchers move away from the positivistic (and basically unrealistic) view of researcher as completely objective and unrelated observer, awareness of actual emotions, including pain, caused and uncovered by the research process has increased.

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