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Ethics in (auto)ethnographic methodology


Ethics in (auto)ethnographic methodology

Hilde Ham

O’Reilly, Karen, Ethnographic methods, London and New York: Routledge, 2005, 252 pages, ISBN 0-415-32156-5 (pbk).

General introduction

(Auto)ethnography is a research methodology that researchers use to make a very thorough study of a subject or to go in search of characteristic ways of thinking and acting within a social group or culture. At the same time, the researchers themselves are actively participating and operating; they are thus critically studying their own roles and experiences, being components of the research field. This type of research is neither neutral nor objective. Rather, it is intersubjective, normatively ethical, and dependent on culture and context. Other characteristics are time-dependence, polyphony, fragmentation, non-linearity, non-causality, uniqueness and unpredictability. What is more, there is room for including perceptions and biographical details.
The associated research methods range from holding interviews, discussions or debates, making observations and doing literature research to analysing text and image. Because of this jumble of characteristics and opportunities, this type of ethnographic research is particularly complex, permanently posing complicated questions and dilemmas.

In the Introduction (chapter 1) to Ethnographic methods, Karen O’Reilly goes back in time to look at one of the standard works written by the anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski in 1922, Argonauts of the Western Pacific. Malinowski was born in Poland in 1884, grew up in an aristocratic family and studied in Krakow and London. He did his most famous piece of research on courtship, marriage, domestic life, gardening and magic on the Trobriand Islands (Melanesia, Papua New Guinea) where he lived for a long period among the indigenous people.

After his death in 1967, his secret diary was published. This revealed aspects of himself and his work that had been unknown until then. To start with, the irritation, frustrations and antipathy which he had felt towards the indigenous peoples became visible – literally. Furthermore, it seems he had not participated in the way he had claimed, and thirdly, he had also interrogated people, thus influencing them directly. Several ethical issues and dilemmas emerge as a result. What should be your position as a researcher when carrying out research? What are the reasons for carrying out research? How do you take on the role of insider if you are an outsider? To what extent can you look at things through the eyes of an insider? How do you look (as a Westerner) at a totally different culture, and what are the resulting distortions, opportunities and limitations? How does the professional role of the researcher relate to his/her personal role? How did Malinowski’s presence affect the context? What did the indigenous people reveal to him and what did they withhold?

In the second chapter, O’Reilly explores practical matters related to carrying out ethnographic research. How do you choose your research area; what are you interested in; what literature should you read; which research methods will you use? How relevant is your topic? She makes a plea for going into the field as openly and as flexibly as possible. On the other hand, she writes in her summary on page 43 that careful planning and design are necessary. She does not comment on how flexibility relates to planning. She does, however, devote some attention to several other pressing questions relating to research practice: how can we understand social living? How scientific and objective can we be when researching the life people live? What role do political and moral values play in social sciences?

O’Reilly continues with Ethical ethnography in Chapter 3, in which she looks at several moral dilemmas. Should researchers go undercover or should they – right from the start – be completely open and frank about mutual roles, positions, commitments and expectations? What does informed consent actually involve? Perhaps researchers should lay all their cards on the table so the participants know where they stand and can give their consent. But what do you do if you prefer not to provide all the details beforehand? Giving information may, after all, influence the participants. To what extent do participants understand what saying ‘yes’ means? Do they always know exactly what they are saying ‘yes’ to? People sometimes agree in order to be able to take part in some research because they are under the impression (perhaps falsely so) that they will reap some benefit from it. Another issue is whether mixing and exchanging personal data in order to guarantee anonymity does justice to the individuality of respondents.

In 1970, the researcher Laud Humphreys used personal details about anonymous, homosexual men order to describe their personal world and social environment. Acting as a voyeur lookout (watch queen), he collected details such as car registration numbers. This data gave Humphreys access to databanks (through a friend who was a police officer) in which personal information was stored. The participants had no idea Humphreys was doing research into the contacts they made in the public toilets in a park.

The research carried out by Sarah Pink in 2001 into female bullfighters was judged by some colleagues to be unethical because bullfights are – according to them – unethical. Pink was labelled as unethical because she seemed to be supporting these bullfighters in carrying out her research.

Even if useful guidelines and ethical codes are committed to paper, their interpretation and evaluation will always be complicated and depend on the vision, context and standpoint of the researcher.

According to O’Reilly, it is both desirable and essential that researchers continually reflect critically on their work. I agree with this; after all, researchers influence the research field. However, O’Reilly does not provide any specific and systematic tools for reflection. There is also the fact that self-reflection can create complicated dilemmas. Should researchers share their atypical opinions with participants or with other members of their group? Is it desirable or essential to publish information on personal sympathies or antipathies? Or are subjective feelings of uneasiness, aggression or love manipulated (consciously or unconsciously) or systematically eliminated, thus creating quasi-scientific objectivity (à la Malinowski)?

Self-reflection can add to the accuracy and reliability of the final research results. By reflecting on autobiographical elements, the performance of the research and the subsequent analysis, a researcher can achieve an acceptable and transparent form of subjectivity. The problem is that self-reflection is particularly complex and remains insufficient. There are always thoughts and feelings that are difficult or impossible to put into words. The essential question here is still: how reflexive, reflective and critical can researchers be? How blind are our blind spots? How do our own images and assumptions affect the research? They can lead to problems if researchers assume that the partners of people with dementia are going to be able to talk freely (in a group) about their function as family carer. Do assumptions sneak in again after a while? Researchers can make totally the wrong assumptions if their language does not quite match that of the respondents or of the ultimate research report readers. Is there a limit to the insight one can have into oneself? There are situations where researchers use language that is too direct, where they immediately lay all their cards on the table. This could mean the door closing on any further research leads. Perhaps we should be thinking about that proverb on seeing the mote in someone’s eye but not seeing the beam in our own?

An ethics group discussion (a meeting that O’Reilly regularly plans with her students) is a good way of discussing pros and cons, and ifs and buts on all sorts of topics (limits, interests, insights) and to focus more sharply on choices that may be involved. O’Reilly’s aim in such discussions is not to resolve dilemmas but to stimulate discussions on these dilemmas. Frank talks and discussions on ethical issues are worthwhile to a certain extent. They can be a fruitful and creative contribution to forming an opinion or to taking the final decision. However, there are risks: digression, loss of coherence, relevant aspects being ‘forgotten’, or stages in the reasoning being skipped. Ultimately, choices have to be made; not choosing is also a valid choice. A methodology such as, for example, the Nijmegen Method for Moral Counselling can add something to group discussions. The very first question in that method is: when does a case study become a moral problem? The next stage is to discuss the medical, nursing, ideological, social and organisational dimensions. After weighing up and assessing relevant units, there is a decision. Another well thought-out model for determining one’s ethical position is the Three Ring Model. In Ring 1, the focus is on Formulation; in Ring 2, on Analysis and in Ring 3, on Synthesis (Es, R. van, 2004). Of course, each method and model has its limitations. Sometimes there is too little room for open discussion, so the system becomes a straightjacket in which the form has priority over the content.

O’Reilly demonstrates in Chapter 4 that researchers gain access to research groups in different ways. Michael started to research drugs in his own circle of friends. Gail did something comparable; she wanted to research groups of friends and, like Michael, started close to home. Lorna, who grew up on a farm, investigated farmers. These three examples show that the researchers began their research close to themselves and to their surroundings. This can be advantageous, but not always. It was advantageous to Lorna that she felt comfortable with animals, but the drawback was that she might not have noticed everyday events because they were so normal for her. For all three cases there are questions relating to proximity, distance, subjectivity and objectivity. How can you expose a pattern if you are to a large extent part of that pattern?

In the chapters Interviews: Asking questions of individuals and groups and Practical issues in interviewing, particular attention is paid to talking to people. The author recognises various categories: planned and spontaneous, formal and informal, structured, unstructured and semi-structured interviews, opportunistic chats, one-to-one in-depth interviews, group discussions and discussion groups (comparable with free conversation). By Opportunistic Discussion Group (ODG), the author means an unplanned, spontaneously arisen group discussion without topics being suggested by the researcher. A Planned Discussion Group (PDG) is an organised group discussion around a number of topics suggested by the researcher (rather like focus groups). The differences between focus groups and PDGs are, according to O’Reilly, as follows:

Focus groups:


Group consists of 4-12 people

The group may be smaller or larger

Topic is selected

Linked to ethnography

Group members are strangers to each other

Ethnographic relationship

Focused on objective and assignment

More open

Series of meetings

May be one meeting or more


Natural setting

The term ‘group interview’ is not in the author’s vocabulary because she cannot imagine that a group interview would take place without any interaction. Interview details can be validated by internal or external triangulation or by comparing notes with one’s own observations.

In Chapter 7, Visual data and other things, O’Reilly distinguishes three ways of using two-dimensional material:

Illustrations, photographs, graphs, tables etc that researchers devise in order to clarify or support arguments in the research (images as ‘writing’). To illustrate this, O’Reilly refers once again to Malinowski who took many photographs on the Trobriand Islands; Illustrations made by respondents can be included: posters, adverts, diaries, letters, photo albums, video clips, websites, shopping lists (‘found’ images);

Working in close cooperation, the researchers and participants discuss existing or created illustrations, films, strip cartoons and drawings (creative use of images).
In normal research practice, the distinctions between these three forms often become blurred. The writer devotes only a brief summary to examples of three-dimensional, visual data: sculptures, artefacts, badges, waste and graffiti.

Ethical questions arise during the processing of, for example, photographs. What are the consequences of cutting people out of group photographs (some people change their mind about participating) or of changing the colour of someone’s eyes? How permissible is it to assemble photographs of people who have never met each other? This could lead to legal battles if arguments arise on copyright and reproduction rights. If publishers refuse to place illustrations in books because the costs would be too high, visual data turns into another sort of problem. How does content weigh up against economic interests?

The analysis of the content and semiotics (semiotics = value of signs in a sign system in, for example, literature, film, architecture, fashion, behaviour) at the end of the chapter forms the prelude to the next chapter in which the analytical and writing processes are discussed. In addition to the ‘standard’ categories of dissertation (introduction, literature, research field, methodology, result and conclusions), O’Reilly devotes attention to post-modern variations. Here complexity, ambiguity and chaos reign supreme because our social world is, by its very nature, chaotic – at least, that is what postmodernists argue. Where are the boundaries and what form do they take? Can you abandon the ‘standard’ chapters because they use ‘old’ assumptions?

The author emphasises that everything that ultimately ends up on paper to be read is related to iterative-inductive analysis of data that have been collected in a non-linear fashion. For the continual organising and analysing processes, computer programs can be used that, for example, count words. However, O’Reilly rightly points out the risks. If you were to use a computer to score how often words or events occur, this mainly says something about what you as researcher noticed at that moment. It does not say very much about the relevance of the topics or concepts being counted. Another risk lurking in the background is that of becoming too alienated and distanced from the data. On the other hand, a computer can help discover (more quickly than we can) if there are shifts in patterns. Ultimately, however, data analysis remains the unremitting labour of human beings.

In conclusion

O’Reilly emphasises the strengths of this type of social sciences research, which focuses on everyday life. She also devotes some attention to structure, analysis, methodology and scientific philosophy, but in my opinion not quite enough. There are inherent risks in starting research (in which the researcher is personally interested) without any focus on the problem or questions involved. These risks are arbitrariness, lack of system, methodology, chaos and an ad hoc policy. Furthermore, aspects such as uniqueness, experience, diversity and lack of unanimity in context-related auto/ethnographic research make it difficult but not entirely impossible to generalise and to generate general knowledge. Any choices a researcher makes and any limits he/she sets have a personal, social and cultural, relative and arbitrary basis; they always demand clear explanations and meticulous accountability. Finally, it all boils down to doing as much justice as possible to the assembled facts and to finding out more about people’s social lifestyle, how they live and what they go through. That is why this type of research is fundamentally different from that in the exact sciences in which laws, causality, reproducibility, objectivity and predictability play an important role. In our own particular world, there is no question of just one truth or just one reality. People create time-, place- and people-related realities and truths, all of which reveal both similarities and differences.

The design of this book, with many examples of case studies in separate boxes and references to literature at the end of each chapter, suggests it is very easy to read. As far as I am concerned, O’Reilly would have done just as well to give a few examples of cases and then to analyse these in more depth as the chapter progressed. That would have given us more insight into the research process. Unfortunately, no method or system of analysing and unravelling dilemmas is included. On the other hand, ethics is not the central theme in the book, but just one of the many topics.

O’Reilly demonstrates how complex it is to carry out auto/ethnographic research. Complicated issues and dilemmas appear from the start and continue to the end. Diverse situations continually make demands on one’s reasoning power, creativity and imagination. Personal, professional, public and organisational interests constantly demand a careful weighing up of the facts and critical reflection. They also demand we mull over things and ask questions. This introduction certainly stimulates us to do all that. Furthermore, the content and language is particularly suited to undergraduates, the author’s target group.


Es, Rob van (2004) Identiteit en verantwoordelijkheid – synthese voor een ethische positiebepaling. In Es, Rob van (red.) Communicatie en ethiek. Organisaties en hun publieke verantwoordelijkheid (pp13-57), Amsterdam: Boom.

Humphreys, L. (1970) Tea-Room Trade, Chicago: Aldine.

Malinowski, B. (1922) Argonauts of the Western Pacific: An Account of Native Enterprise and Adventure in the Archipelagoes of Melanesian New Guinea, New York: Dutton.

Malinowski, B. (1967) A Diary in the Strict Sense of the Term. London: Athlone.

Pink, S. (2001) Doing Visual Ethnography: Images, Media and Representation in Research, London: Sage.

Hilde Ham is the director of 'Uniek en Anders’ - a business training consultancy
( www.uniekenanders.nl ) . She studied Humanities (cum laude), is an Art Historian and is busy with finishing her phd/dba.