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«Natasha Whiteman Control And Contingency: Maintaining Ethical Stances In Research1 ABSTRACT Drawing from the author’s experience of carrying out ...»

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Natasha Whiteman

Control And Contingency: Maintaining Ethical Stances In Research1


Drawing from the author’s experience of carrying out observational research in two online communities, this

paper explores the instability of localised research ethics. The paper presents a framework for conceptualising the ongoing production and destabilisation of ethical stances in research, arguing that such destabilisation can be productive, provoking methodological/ethical learning.


In a comparison of different theoretical approaches to the relationship between technology and society, Lievrouw describes how the development of new media involves “a dynamic relationship between

determination and contingency” (Leivrouw, 2006, p. 258):

Determination is the effort to specify conditions or “impose coherence” in a situation with the intent of achieving some desired outcome […] Contingency is the existence of many possible conditions in an uncertain situation. Complete certainty is never fully achieved, so in a sense there is no final design ‘solution’ for a given technological problem. Rather, designers contend with contingency by making choice from among existing conditions or by creating new ones. In turn, these choices create new conditions and uncertainties that prompt further specifications or choices, and so on. (Lievrouw, 2006, p.

258, her emphasis) We can perhaps recognise a similar tension between determination (or as I am thinking about it here, ‘control’) and contingency in the development of a different type of (methodological) technology - the design and production of research ethics. The 'doing’ of research ethics involves an effort to “specify conditions” in respect of an outcome; broadly the production of (ethical) research. The researcher must be able to establish a workable ethical position in respect of key methodological decisions. This involves a fixing of research ethics that is often evident in the setting down of the groundwork of projects in the initial design and proposing of research. Yet this fixing is only temporary and usually broad-brushed, in contrast to the actual experience of research. Initial design efforts are likely to be undone, or at least challenged, by the contingent nature of research practice and the unexpected events that researchers may face. The question then is how the researcher “contends” with this contingency.

1 the author would like to thank Claudia Lapping for her invaluable feedback on the initial draft of this paper, and Paul Dowling for his always extremely productive comments in our ongoing discussion of this work. My PhD research, reported here, was funded by an ESRC 1+3 award.

©Copyright Natasha Whiteman. Also licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivs 3.0 Unported License (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/3.0/).

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  This paper explores this tension between control and contingency by examining the instability of research ethics that are embedded in the local details of research practice. It develops an understanding of the negotiation of situated ethics in research - both online and off - as involving the localised production of ethical stances; stances that are established relationally in respect of different contexts that present their own, occasionally competing, ethical discourses. The paper describes how these contexts/discourses can inform the ongoing production of ethics in research whilst also serving to destabilise the stances that researchers construct. It then examines the resulting instability of the ongoing production of ethical stances, focusing on contingent events arising from the empirical settings of research. It considers how particular moments crystallise this ongoing instability, arguing that the challenges that this instability presents – although often uncomfortable to experience – can be useful, forcing reflection on the ethical decisions we make, and the assumptions that these are based on.


What are we doing when we make ethical decisions in research? Situated approaches to research ethics suggest that we not just complying with general principles or following pre-established procedures. Instead, researchers are faced with the challenge of making contextualised judgements about the best course of action that are anchored in the local contexts of research. This way of thinking about research ethics, although not unique to Internet research, has been influential in the responses of researchers to the challenges of online research practice – with a rejection of ‘one size fits all’ approaches to research ethics in favour of ethical decision-making that is “tailored” to the diverse environments of the Internet (Enyon, Fry and Schroeder, 2008).

Such localising moves are evident in critiques of ethical codes, rules and guidance that are based on 2 generalised conceptualisations of the Internet and Internet-based research. They are also evident in researcher’s rejections of approaches to ethics that suggest that ethical decision-making can be insulated from the actual experience of research. In her discussion of qualitative ICT research, for example, Markham (2006) describes how many textbook approaches to ethics neglect the localised nature of ethical practice, instead tending to codify ethics as involving the constitution and regulation of “an a priori stance.” She challenges this characterisation by drawing attention to the way that ethics are embedded within methodological action; action that is located in specific locations and situations. This suggests an approach to ethics that are shaped and, in Walther’s (2002) terms, “confined by context.” In a similar way, Cavanagh (1999) has suggested that researchers’ actions should be informed by their understanding of the cultures they study, and McKee and Porter (2008) have suggested that in making ethical decisions researchers should “attend to the complexities of context, of place, of situation, of technologies, of methodologies, and of authors/persons/players/residents” (McKee and Porter, 2009, p. 147).

2 For example of such critiques see Herring, 1996; Walther, 2002.

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  The conceptual move away from universal, general principles towards local, contextually-embedded instantiations of ethics is not, of course, new or unique to scholarship relating to the Internet. It has historical antecedents in accounts of ethical decision-making during fieldwork-based research and in the discussion of the nature of qualitative inquiry more broadly, and has been established by researchers working within different disciplines, including education (e.g. Simons and Usher, 2000), geography (e.g. White and Bailey, 2004), and sociology (e.g. Calvey, 2008). Simons and Usher (2000), for example, present a move towards

ethical localisation in their conceptualisation of “situated ethics”:

For us, the whole point about a situated ethics is precisely that it is situated, and this implies that it is immune to universalization. A situated ethics is local and specific to particular practices. It cannot be universalized, and therefore any attempt to formulate a theory of situated ethics, given that any theorization strives for universality, must be doomed to failure. This is not to say that in any particular practice universal statements or principles of a general nature are inappropriate and unhelpful. However, it is to say that any such statements or principles will be mediated by the local and specific – by, in other words, the situatedness which constitutes that practice. (Simons and Usher, 2000, p. 2) Emphasising localisation in this way focuses attention on “the difficulty and complexity of such decisionmaking in situations where recourse cannot be had to indubitable foundations and irrecontrovertible principles” (Simons and Usher, 2000, p. 3). What this does not do, however, is provide a framework for thinking about what researchers are doing when their actions are being informed by “the local and specific.” It is important to note that, as Simons and Usher suggest, an emphasis on localised ethics does not exclude the relevance of general principles to the practice of research. McKee and Porter (2009), for example, describe their own belief in “the fundamental universal research principle of “Do no harm” to research participants or their communities,” but how they “[…] believe that determining the potential and degree of harm requires procedural principles” (p. 145). Rather than rejecting general principles, localised approaches to ethics instead draw attention to their interpretation and relevance in respect of the specific interests and contexts of research (the way that a researcher requesting consent might be disruptive in one environment but welcomed in another, for example).


A second emphasis in recent work involves a recognition of the instability of research ethics. This recognition is, again, not new, and extends beyond Internet research writing. The challenges of managing the “contingent, dynamic, temporal, occasioned” nature of situated ethics, involving ongoing “practical manoeuvres and tactics” (Calvey, 2008, p. 912) has been noted by researchers working in different academic fields (although more vocally by those using qualitative methods). This work draws attention to the way that localised research ethics are “fluid, ongoing and situated in everyday life” (White and Bailey, 2004, p. 142), suggesting that any consideration of “ethics in practice” (Gullemin and Gillam, 2004) needs to involve a

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Perhaps unsurprisingly, those engaged in longitudinal fieldwork have paid particular attention to the dynamic and fluctuating nature of localised ethics. This is because, as Hammersley has suggested, there is

particular uncertainty in research in:

“so-called ‘natural’ settings that are not under the control of the researcher. Here, method is closely implicated with the particular, and changing, circumstances in those places where data are to be collected. In such research, it is unlikely to be possible for researchers to anticipate and describe all the relevant circumstances of their research to ethics committees.” (Hammersley, 2009, p. 215)

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To take one example: ethical instability is evident in a paper on the practice and ethics of ethnographic research in American hospitals by Mattingly (2005). Mattingly challenges the universal assumptions that she argues underpin institutional understandings of how ethical behaviour might be monitored and governed by 6 ethics review procedures (particularly in clinical research) by drawing attention to the changing nature of her relationship to her research participants and the resultant shifts in ethical ground that she experienced in her work. One focus involved shifting concerns regarding confidentiality. Mattingly describes her experience of how, as she developed relationships with her participants, the ground rules established by the consent process were challenged by participants’ changing desires; specifically when participants started to regard her research as an opportunity “to be heard, to tell their stories, to voice their perspective on what it is like to care for a very ill child or negotiate with the health care system” (p. 455). The promise of confidentiality established at the outset of research then started become to be seen as a problematic ethical straightjacket, imposed by regulators and denying these participants their desired voice (although, as she notes, other participants remained glad of their anonymity). Such changes, which could not be anticipated in advance of the study, instead emerged during the research process, in the “context of a developing relationship with those studied” (p. 456), and within “the context of real-life circumstances and research relationships” (p. 457).

3 What these authors term “ethically important moments” in research.

4 See, for example, Homan’s description of the different kinds of “ethical problem” that he experienced during his research in Pentecostal churches when confronted with activities that went against his personal beliefs (1980).

5 Hammersley describes how this recognition has led to recommendations that some research should undergo continuous ethical review (Hammersley, 2009, p. 215).

6 Specifically the assumption that ethical rules are “context-free” and that they can involve the application of “universal rules, norms and theories” to guarantee and ethical outcome (p. 462).

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  Internet researchers have similarly emphasised the need for a continuous negotiation of ethics in the

face of empirical developments that cannot be anticipated in advance of research. As Allen notes:

“since the ethical researcher cannot a priori adjudicate what will be harmful, it is necessary to redevelop ethical research practices by engaging in creative ‘ethical work’ in situ, in dialogue with participants and perhaps other researchers, and throughout the research and publication processes” (Allen, 1996, n.p.).

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