The Boundaries of Research Ethics: Between Confidentiality and Truthfulness

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By researching marginalized communities and their encounters with the law,
sociologists and cultural anthropologists take the risk of being perceived as undercover
police informants by their subjects of research, while by the authorities, on the other
hand, as co-conspirators in the criminal offences depicted, particularly when they refuse
to reveal the identity of their respondents. A book, the result of years-long research in
the life of petty criminals and drug dealers in an unnamed African American
neighbourhood in USA, caused a surge of reactions regarding the author’s ethical
position, but also the alleged falsehood of her claims, which she was unable to support
with evidence due to the delicate nature of the subject.

On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City is Alice Goffman’s first book,
published in 2014. It is the result of the several-years long research of the African
American community in West Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the members of which, among
whom petty drug dealers and people in conflict with the law, practically live in a micro
police state, under constant threats of arrests, between periodical intervals of short-
term stays in correctional facilities and prisons and relative freedom.
Goffman began working on the subject in her 20s as a sociology student enrolled
at the second-year of studies at the University of Pennsylvania. Later, she moved in the
vicinity of the neighbourhood she was researching, known as Sixth Street in her book,
going as far as to invite two of her “informers” to share a flat with her.
And although most ethnographers’ project end in the course of a year, Goffman
spent more than six years out in the field she still considers as her second home today.
Her field notes, kept attentively – among which transcriptions of hours-long
conversations with her subjects, without any interventions to them – finally amounted
to thousands of pages. The notes contained descriptions of how the constant court
hearings, interrogations, police surveillance and poverty affected family relations and
friendships, violence, and generally the quality of life in the community, or in other
words how the legal system dominates people’s lives, systematically depriving them of
opportunities.

In the introduction, Goffman elaborates on her central thesis – how the sheer
extent of police control and arrests in poor African American neighbourhoods deeply
and permanently affect life in the community, not only with regards to young people as
the most salient target, but rather with regards to family members, partners and
neighbours.

The book was generally received with positive criticism, commenting on
Goffman’s subtle portrayal of people attempting to maintain common sense and dignity
in neo-liberal capitalist USA. The New York Times listed it among the 100 Notable Books
of 2014, while the prestigious magazine New York Review of Books predicted it would
become an “ethnographic classic”.

However, certain opposing opinions criticized the book for allegedly factual
inaccuracies and the author’s criminal behaviour. Her first hand testimony of the
depicted crimes (a conspiracy for murder, for one) make her a fellow conspirator
according to legal experts. Reactions within and beyond the academic circles unleashed
a surge of re-examinations of Goffman’s allegations, only partly confirmed, because the
key “evidence” – her field notes, was destroyed by her once the book was released so
as not to serve as material in a potential court case against her or against the
characters depicted in the book.

The case bolstered discussions on the ethical boundaries of similar research,
research on topics related to illegal activities, in this case with drugs and violence. The
trust researchers earn while working with a certain group of people must never be
compromised, and similar to analytic journalism, a research must never reveal the
identity of the source. However, on the other hand, the authority Goffman possess as a
member of the (expensively) educated white class, writing about the lives of poor black
people without considering her own positionality as an outsider and a privileged
observer (in other words, without a trace of “intellectual humbleness”), many believe is
questionable. These critics do not neglect to mention Alice’s father, Erving Goffman,
who passed away at 60 when she was a child, and who is considered to be one of the
most important US sociologists in the past 50 years, a fact which provides Alice with an
invisible advantage before her colleagues.

Considering the close relationship she maintained with her respondents and the
great interest she took in their lives, Goffman perhaps lost the necessary distance,
taking for granted some of the information she was told without being able to confirm
it. We can identify at least two such episodes in the book. In one, she claims that an
11-year old child was convicted to a suspended sentence of three years imprisonment
after being caught while riding on the co-driver’s seat in a stolen vehicle. However, such
a sentence has not occurred in Pennsylvania, and it never could have considering there
is no such law as to accuse someone of being guilty simply for being caught riding in a
stolen vehicle. The second, less dramatic episode refers to a moment when Goffman,
together with her informer, went to the hospital to visit his wife who had just had a
baby. And yet, instead of the father being allowed to see his child, he was arrested
because the hospital allegedly kept a list of arrest warrants, reporting him immediately
after he registered as a visitor. This, according to many is an exaggeration since
hospitals in US allegedly do not corroborate with the police on such matters, with the
exception of reporting patients with gun shots. It is possible that Goffman’s informers
embellished their stories in order to impress her or to justify their actions, a practice
familiar to anyone who has done field interviews on any subject.
The case uncovers the fundamental limitations of ethnography as a manner of
researching marginalized communities, particularly those in some type of conflict with the law and the system’s institutions. The need to protect their privacy and identity
poses a special challenge for researchers, who when diligently abiding by ethical
principles lack the possibility to verify their findings. For the average reader this
transforms the research into a version of journalism, creative writing and impressionistic
data collection, instead of systematically revealing the truth. When Alice claims “she
was there”, the question “why should we believe you?” seems legitimate. On the other
hand, perhaps her biggest “sin” is her simply being honest about whose stories she
wanted to tell.

Author: Ilina Jakimovska
Ilina Jakimovska is a professor at the Institute of Ethnology and Anthropology at the
Faculty of Natural Sciences and Mathematics, St. Cyril and Methodius University. She
has been editing and writing the culture section at the off.net portal for a decade.

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