Ethics and Ethnography


This week I’ve been knee-deep in ethnographic studies, compiling a bibliography on zines and self-sponsored writing. Depending on how you define ethnography, I’ve been hard-pressed to find any other method at work except historical analysis. Granted, some of these studies are more empirical than others, but pretty much every one of them has used a combination of textual analysis, interview, and observation (with some more emic in their perspective than others). Interestingly, in the intro to one of the least transparent studies (yet unarguably the most influential), Notes From Underground (1997), Stephen Duncombe illustrates “the anxiety of authority” that Patricia Sullivan identifies in “Ethnography and the Problem of the ‘Other'”:

Still others will be disappointed that I’ve written a book on zines at all. Isn’t this just another exploitation of zines, “selling out” the underground to the above-ground world? Perhaps. But alternative culture has already been discovered — the more important question is who will represent it and how. The ways in which I explore and explain the world of zines certainly bear the mark of my theoretical interests and political concerns, but I’m of the world I write and my concern for the underground runs deeper than its status as this (or last) season’s cultural exotica. More important, I’m a conscientious observer and a careful listener. And I believe that what zinesters have to say and what zines represent are too important to stay sequestered within the walls of a subcultural ghetto. (20)

Duncombe justifies his ethics by adopting the emic perspective of charitable participant-observer. And yet at the end of Notes he argues that as long as zines cling to a negative identity — an identity always at odds with but also attached to a dominant consumer culture — they will be politically ineffective. In fact, in a new afterward for the 2nd edition (2008) he accuses print zines of being little more than “an exercise in nostalgia,” characterizing zines as a bohemic ghetto (212). Of course Duncombe also lauds zines throughout Notes, but readers are left wondering how zinesters themselves — especially the thousands who still practice zine-ing — feel about this characterization of them.

Perhaps an even more problematic example is Fanzines (2010) by Teal Triggs, who has been accused of printing zine covers without the permission of the authors or barely dialoging with her research subjects at all, a problem that led her to get several facts wrong in her book. While Triggs employs a purely historical/textual analysis in Fanzines, if the accusations are true, this is not only a legal issue for the zine community, but an ethical one that puts folks like me — potential researchers of zine communities — on notice. At the very least, perception is reality and zinesters have good reason to doubt the intentions of academics who are interested in speaking for them. Luckily, as Janice Radway has recently argued, many zinesters are also academics and librarians (like Jerianne at Underground Press) so they’re not completely divided communities.

In any case, the ethics of ethnographers are taken up by several readings this week and I’d like to focus on two widely cited essays in particular from Ethics and Representation in Qualitative Studies of Literacy (1996): Tom Newkirk’s “Seduction and Betrayal in Qualitative Research” and Patricia Sullivan’s “Ethnography and the Problem of the ‘Other.'” Both advocate for a more critical understanding of ethnography, especially those that “study down” (e.g. examine the literate practices of those with less power), but represent slightly incompatible views of how to mitigate the ethical problems such qualitative work engenders.

For Newkirk, the problem is informed consent: how to make research subjects aware that the information they provide could render them negatively — as racist teachers, bourgeois professionals, or unethical citizens. For Sullivan, a research project should “ultimately aim to benefit those whose voices, texts, and circumstances make [our] understanding possible” (98). For Newkirk, ethnography should allow for (and probably require) some bad news; Sullivan, on the other hand, is less comfortable with those conclusions, seeking to not just inform subjects of their representation, but to include them in actively constructing it. For Sullivan, self-reflexivity — “the explicit rendering of one’s own theoretical and political assumptions and beliefs as well as one’s experiences and emotions in the process of fieldwork — isn’t enough. Power-sharing discourse should be present throughout the research process where, “[p]articipants are involved in framing research questions, collecting and interpreting data, commenting on, and sometimes in, the final text” (109).

This is perhaps where Sullivan and Newkirk are incompatible. While Newkirk argues for dialogue with participants within the process — especially with the consent agreement and “interpretation of problematical situations” during data gathering. Sullivan, though, would give participants more agency than this, involving them from the get-go when framing research questions and deciding which data is relevant data. I wonder, though, if Sullivan is painting too idealistic a picture of the research process. I wonder this partially because I can’t imagine wandering into a zine convention on onto an online zine community and asking them what questions should be asked. I’d receive empty looks or snide rebuttals. After all, if I don’t know what I’m looking for, then why am at that site.

One study I’ve encountered through my  bib that does emulate an ideal research practice is Katherine Schultz’s “Looking across Space and Time” from RTE in 2002. In that fairly influential study, Schultz uses multi-site ethnography to understand the literacy practices of high school students across contexts, in school and out. From her data analysis, Schultz find three themes from out-of-school writing: “(a) writing was largely a private practice they kept separate from their school lives, (b) writing was used to take a critical stance, c) writing was a bridge between their homes and school worlds” (368). One of the major and important conclusions to evolve from this last pattern is that once students graduated, they stopped writing out of school. Part of what I liked about this study was Schultz’s narration of how she triangulated data with her student participants even as she helped cart them back and forth from school to job in her car: “I showed the findings to the research participants to determine if the findings seemed valid from their perspectives” (367). And when she discusses the teachers in the study, she characterizes them as thoughtful and relevant. In fact, one implication of her findings is that school sponsorships of literacy have an indirect effects on self-sponsorships of literacy.

Even though I think this is an ethical study, it makes me wonder what kinds of decisions she had to make throughout the process. Did she show her work to the teachers, who more or less have a back seat in the study? I wonder what other example studies in the field are useful for discussing Newkirk, Sullivan, and others this week. Thoughts?