“some dissimulation is intrinsic to social life and, therefore to field work” – Ethical Ethnography

Anthropology and ethnography have always had to deal with ethical constraints just like any other research method in practice and just like any other method, ethical considerations have had to evolve with the emerging possibilities technology can offer. Originally “anthropologists’ descriptions were often of isolated groups with no written language and no access to today’s mass media” (Priest 1996:28) considering our selected culture of study, the capabilities of technology and the average user, this is not a luxury we have.

Our blog and accompanying forms of social network dissemination while remain constantly professional are most certainly public; meaning that it is possible that an individual or institution relating to our project which may be a part of our project (i.e. distinguishable through a description of appearance, personality and/or actions). Given that we adopted a covert-participant role it is possible these individual(s) or institutions may recognise themselves as part of our study may not appreciate our stance, opinions, conclusions, extrapolation or generalisations of their culture nor the part we suggest they have played a part in its construction or purpose.

Furthermore individual(s) or institutions which have not been considered may feel implicated in our conclusions this neglection as well as the previous scenario and similar variations can result in undesired media attention and/or legal action. Of course these are extremely pessimistic outcomes: given the scale and predicted reach of our project, this being actively engaging colleagues and professional peers within relevant field meaning that any possible damage would be minimal if any.

Low Risk Ethical Checklist Questions 15 and 16

Of course further steps can and have been taken to ensure that the benefits exceed any possible risk. The first step was to conducted a Low Risk Research Ethics Approval Check to ensure that “The benefit expected must exceed the expected harms” (Beach 1996:19) and that steps would be put in place to see it through. Also referring back to a point already made, our work is monitored (constantly in fact) by our colleagues and professional peers. This adds another layer to the iterative nature of the project (discussed in a previous posting), which allows for constant reflection and constructive criticism. One could argue that to a certain degree this project “self checks” through the transparent nature of the documentation process.

While the iterative process, open source documentation of our research, peer review and its status as a micro-ethnographic study well aware of its reach and limitations all go along way at every stage in minimising any potential harm. This in accordance with any officially recognised intuitions monitoring ethical research, “social research should try to minimize disturbance both to subjects themselves and to the subjects’ relationships with their environment” (Bryman 2004:510). Sadly ethics in ethnography is a tricky dance between contradicting stances and practices, while a dance may be an apt metaphor; a minefield wouldn’t be far off either.

Bryman states that there are four areas by which ethical principles can be broken down to “[1] whether there is harm to participants [2] whether there is a lack of informed consent [3] whether there is an invasion of privacy [4] whether deception is involved” (Bryman 2004:509).  This project entailed a certain amount of covert participant observation. However such a method is in contrast with the principle of informed consent because “research participants should be given as much information as might be needed to make an informed decision” (Bryman 2004:511), covert participant observation “transgresses that principle … [participants] are involved whether they like it or not” (Bryman 2004:511).

Low Risk Ethical Checklist Questions 24 and 31

This principle in particular is often considered impractical within an ethnographic study; this was certainly true of our field research. To inform every individual we observed and gain the informed consent necessary to satisfy a Universalism approach would be near to impossible whether attempted on or not. Our methods of data collection where this: Visual documentation via digital photography and observation notes, audio recorded of ambient sound, informal semi-structured interviews (fully informed consent given) recorded in an audio/visual medium. In the case of the interviews as mentioned, fully informed consent was given solving any possible problems regarding possible harm, lack of informed consent, invasion of privacy or deception.

The main problems came from the covert observations wherein we were “disguised” as tourists (an easy disguise) of course this was partly true, what differentiated our research team from that of a tourist was our approach and to what ends our data would be used. The photography and audio recordings of street crowd sounds, Bilbao fans in the bar and outside the stadium before and after the Athletic Club Vs. Espanyol game were never directed towards any individual; While not impossible for an individual or group (besides that of Athletic Club fans as a group) to identify themselves or others, this is a possible outcome but could be considered statistically safe given the reach of the project.

In legal terms any forms of copy righted material which may or may not have been used will fall under the Fair use and Academic Fair Use sections of Copyright law; furthermore all of the previously mention work has been appropriately referenced and in accordance Coventry Universities policies.

What has been stated above regarding deception, invasion of privacy, potential harm and informed consent (or lack thereof?) presents ethical, moral and legal issues which will always be present when conducting any form of ethnographic research information in one form or another and are almost unavoidable. Information is always held back from participants in varying degrees to avoid contamination of data, because it is deemed necessary, because there is no other way ect . Our ethical stance could be considered situational in our approach, we propose that “The end justifies the means … unless there is some breaking of ethical rules we would never know about certain social phenomena” this would suggest that in a given situations this could “argue that deception was justified”. As mentioned nearly all “research involves elements that are at least ethically questionable” in our case this came from our covert participant observations by not stating we were anything more than tourists. This information was deliberately held back to avoid instance where the unknowing participants may “try to hide actions and attitudes they consider undesirable, and so will be dishonest” (Bryman 2012:130 -135).

So while it appears no one wishes to say that deception, lack of informed consent, possible harm to participants or invasion privacy are ethically sound it is heavily hinted at by many researchers and within in the context of this project we feel the ends do justify means. The projects scope, limitations and crucially our understanding of its limitations are ultimately its saving grace. The benefits outweigh the risks because the project while far from being unimportant is small, its reach is limited this is based on number of blog/Facebook views and comments as well as the predicted number of those who will see the finished project. Any conclusions/ generalisation or in the case of an inductive/iterative preliminary study a proposed hypothesis will be kept within the context and bounds of the research. Within this project we have subsumed the potential benefits of a much larger project and drastically limited risk to both participant and researcher.

Low Risk Ethical Checklist Questions 26 and 27

Of course other issues raised in our Low Risk Ethical Checklist have much simpler solutions, in fact some come back to correct professional practice something which we have been improving for 3 years as well as again by devising appropriate methods “Research should be designed, reviewed and undertaken to ensure integrity, quality and transparency” (Bryman 2012:144). The issues is remedied by our actively engaging colleagues, scholarly professional in the field of research methods and peer review constantly confirming our methods.

What is clear this analysis of ethical research is that there is a healthy dose of irony, that one “must be dishonest to get honest data” (Bryman 2012:134)



Beach, D. (1996) The Responsible Conduct of Research. Cambridge: VCH

Bertrand, I. and Hughes, P. (2005) Media Research Methods: Audiences, Insitutions, Texts. Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillsn

Bryman, A. (2012) Social Research Methods. 4nd edn. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Bryman, A. (2004) Social Research Methods. 2nd edn. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Coppyright Witness Ltd. (2011)
Copyright Law Fact Sheet P-09 : Understanding Fair use
[online] available from <http://www.copyrightservice.co.uk/copyright/p09_fair_use> [10/19 2011]

During, S. (ed.) (2007) The Cultural Studies Reader. 3rd edn. Oxon: Routledge

Huff, S. A. (2009) Designing Research for Publication. London: SAGE Publications

Priest, H. S. (1996) Doing Media Research: An Introduction. London: Sage Publications


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s