Working on a paper on how I bring blogging in the text of my dissertation, I finally get to write a bit more on When They Read What We Write: The Politics of Ethnography promised long time ago. Although the book is well worth reading as a whole for anyone interested in relations between a researcher and those participating in the research, one of the papers is a must read for those studying bloggers:
- Sheehan, Elizabeth A. (1993). The student of culture and the ethnography of Irish intellectuals. In C.B.Brettell (Ed.), When they read what we write: the politics of ethnography (pp. 75-89). Westport, CT: Bergin & Garvey.
In the paper the author tells about the challenges of representing in a research report academics she studied: public intellectuals, “who earn their living in large part through their ideas” (p. 81).
It is a cliché to say that knowledge is power, but in the case of informants who are intellectuals, knowledge is also capital, symbolic and otherwise. Here too the boundaries between public and private forms of information become confused, merge, and cross over to opposite sides in the exchange between anthropologist and informant. As a results, ethnographic writing about academics and intellectuals raises serious issues of intellectual attribution. […] As intellectuals, many academics create their lives through their work, and their work through their lives. Interviews with such information can provide exhilarating insight for the ethnographer (Yes! Yes! This is what I mean!), brought to a sudden halt by the realization that the ideas you are now thinking – and thinking of writing about – are not entirely your own at all but the product of mutual intellectual exchange. How to you correctly ascribe ideas that are offered within the context of an interview but which may also be the basis of new works, new publications? How do you separate the public thinker from the private, honour his confidentiality and intellectual property, and still offer a meaningful analysis? (Sheehan,1993, p.81)
This one has direct connections to my early questions on weblog research ethics in respect to he choices between protecting privacy of the participants and recognising their authorship. Browsing through the referrals to my post on attribution and ownership of ideas when blogging research I came across a nice summary of the issue from a research participant side in a post by Frank Carver (bold is mine):
One of my current concerns is the tension between perceived needs one the one hand for attribution, academic traceability and ownership of ones own words; and on the other hand for privacy. This is seen in sharpest relief in solicitations for academic surveys. Routinely such instruments come with a disclaimer pointing out that all answers will be anonymous. Well-structured surveys and questionnaires, though, often also contain a section for general comments and feedback. In most cases I do not want this to be anonymous – indeed I would rather it formed part of a dialogue between the researcher and subjects, allowing both to benefit, learn and develop.
I am considering taking up a habit of always adding my contact details to academic survey submissions to deliberately challenge the assumption that I wish to be an anonymous donor of information, and to encourage researchers to participate in a community of interest.
The stress on mutual benefits is important: often it’s not only the researcher who learns new things, but also people who participate in the research, when their thinking on a subject is triggered as a result of an interaction. Elizabeth Sheehan gives a nice example that the challenges of attributing the ideas in a case like this one may also exist on the participant’s side:
I might add that this process can work both ways, but with less ethical difficulty for the informant. I was both flattered and dismayed to see some insights of mine appear in the Irish Times, unattributed, under the byline of an academic I had interviewed a few days earlier. He had no need, as had I, to sort out his ides from my own in a setting which was, for him, just and interesting discussion with another academic. (Sheehan,1993, p.81)
Another issue that the paper touches is the one I had to deal myself: the need to represent research participants in a way that multiple parts of their input could not be attributed to the same person (in When they read what we write: respondent identification). An example from the paper:
…his identity had to be fragmented. In the dissertation he becomes several people, not my the questionable device of pretending he was really a number of different individuals, but simply by my failing to inform the reader that “one professor,” “another commentator,” and so forth who appear throughout the dissertation are actually one person. Consequently, this single individual is discessed as the unnamber center of the appointment controversy, as an anonymous example of the links between scholarship and party politics, as an attributed commentator on his research discipline, and as a published sources on his research specialty. (Sheehan,1993, pp.83-84)