Category Archives: Ethics in research

Ethical research tradeoff: masking or unmasking participants names and places

Outstanding article on ethics and particularly, on how to proceed when handling the confidentiality of respondents in a given research: “ethnographic masking in an era of data transparency” The common practice is to mask the names of participants and places as for the “do no harm” ethic. In this article, authors argue that the default practice should be to name names and places, unless there are specific case-by-case reasons not to. That way allow not omiting sometimes key informaiton. They sustain that in the Era of Internt, trying to mask names and places by using pseudonyms, at best, it seems “illusory promise to protect confidentiality”. What is more, participants often find seeing their names in print, when a book is published, “rewarding”.

We frame this essay as a conversation because, over the last few years, the two of us have been having a vigorous discussion about masking as we each grappled with methodological and theoretical challenges that masking was posing for our respective ethnographies in two different small towns. This conversation has evolved beyond our own work and resulted in an article that probes larger issues around the ethical and scientific tradeoffs of masking and challenges the usual justifications given for this practice. We want to use this forum to share some of our experiences and thinking on this matter and invite others to join us in the exchange.

Murphy (M): Our starting point is that masking has become virtually a ritualistic practice in ethnographic writing. When ethnographers sit down to write, they commonly assign fictitious names to the people and places they study. This is often justified as an ethical necessity, to protect our participants’ privacy and/or prevent them from being harmed from their participation in the research. But concealing identities is a slippery slope. Pseudonyms alone are seldom sufficient to protect confidentiality. And so ethnographers frequently engage in more extensive masking by, for example, altering identifying characteristics about people (e.g., changing a person’s gender or occupation) and places (e.g., altering historical events or census data), omitting primary source references, and/or creating composite characters. These practices run counter to the growing expectation for data accessibility and for making it possible for others to triangulate data sources and compare cases.

Jerolmack (J): It seems to me that one way masking does this is by burying sociologically significant information that can be used by the scholarly community to independently evaluate the ethnographer’s analysis and consider alternative interpretations. We discovered a great example of this in the book Forgive and Remember, an examination of the training of surgeons and the organization of their work in one hospital. In the book, Charles Bosk changed the gender of a female surgical resident in an effort to ensure her confidentiality. Almost 30 years after its publication, Bosk revealed that this participant was the only woman resident in the group. By altering her gender, Bosk made it impossible for a reader to consider how gender shaped hospital interactions and promotion practices. In hindsight, Bosk admits that gender was actually very central to understanding the social dynamics of the hospital, but it was something he did not notice at the time because of how his own gender was privileged in the field.

I don’t think ethnographers acknowledge the extent to which decisions about what and how to mask are inherently theoretical choices. Though ethnographers usually claim they are only making “minor” changes, to other scholars—especially those with different theoretical interests—they may be quite major and necessary pieces of information for them to come to their own conclusions about the role of particular biographical or situational factors in the analysis. As Bosk writes, “My problem with changing Jones’ gender is that it makes the critique I did not make impossible for others to make.”

M: Another problem with masking is that it makes generalizing beyond the ethnographic case difficult. Scholars often give places fake names, for example, to highlight how their case generalizes (e.g., “Middletown”) and to help move readers away from the case’s idiosyncrasies. But in my estimation, masking often removes the details a reader needs to specify what to generalize a case “to.” For example, in my work on suburban poverty, I have been documenting the ways that the built environment significantly shapes the social networks, neighborly relations, and survival strategies of people who don’t have cars or access to public transit. In analyzing my case, I turned to Carol Stack’s All Our Kin, a classic ethnography of survival strategies and kinship networks in an “African American ghetto” in the “Midwest” that she calls “The Flats.” Why, I wondered, do my findings about kinship networks differ from Stack’s? Unfortunately, I’m not able to explore whether differences in the built environment of the communities we studied account for some of these discrepancies because, in addition to concealing the location, Stack gives few details about the spatial configuration of the community or the networks she observed. She does note that her participants are spread out and that no one lives more than 3 miles apart, but what I have found is that living two blocks versus three miles apart or living in walking distance to businesses makes a significant difference in how these ties help people make ends meet. What kinds of communities can we generalize her findings to, then? To build a broader, more specified theory about poverty, race, place, and social networks, we need sufficient detail to answer questions central to making sociology a cumulative social science.

J: I’m also concerned with how masking can preclude replication, falsification, and comparison. The ethnographic revisit, for example, has been touted as an important way to study change over time. By revisiting someone else’s fieldsite years or decades later, ethnographers can use the original study as a kind of “baseline” comparison in order to specify how observed changes in interaction and the social order of the setting are the result of intervening historical forces. But when the scholarly community is denied the identity of places, organizations, and even people, making these types of revisits may be impossible for anyone but the original ethnographer, who remains the sole gatekeeper of the fieldsite and the knowledge produced about it.

Even if an ethnographer should serendipitously stumble upon a pseudonymous site that has been previously studied ethnographically, the original masking of the site constrains the later ethnographer’s ability to use the first study as a historical record. I am dealing with this dilemma in my current research project. When I moved to Williamsport, Pennsylvania in 2013 to study how shale gas extraction (“fracking”) is transforming community life, I was delighted to discover that an ethnography had been written about the area in the years just before fracking commenced. Since I had not been in the field before fracking began, having this earlier portrait of the community would enable me to specify how this industry has changed this town. The problem? In addition to using fake people- and place-names, the earlier ethnography masked numerous details about civic leaders, historical events, and organizations. That move now hampers my ability to directly compare changes over time among particular community groups.

Revealing place names can enable other kinds of revisits as well. For example, although my colleague Eric Klinenberg gave pseudonyms to the victims he wrote about in his bookHeatwave, his decision to name the city of Chicago and the two neighborhoods he compared allowed other scholars to quantitatively test his qualitatively-derived thesis about how differences in neighborhood-level factors contributed to disparate mortality rates across neighborhoods. Such comparisons enabled researchers to examine how representative Klinenberg’s neighborhoods were to other neighborhoods in the city andtest whether his claims about his own case studies were supported with other kinds of research techniques and data. All too often, however, such virtual or quantitative revisits are foreclosed by the ethnographer’s decision to mask place.

M: Many scholars may be inclined to concede that not masking identifying information would make ethnographic work more transparent—and, I think we both agree, more scientifically useful—but what would be the ethical implications of not masking, especially around issues of privacy and confidentiality? After all, it is our duty as researchers to “do no harm” to those we study. Colin, how do you think about this having already published a book where you do not mask and do not use pseudonyms?

J: My stance on naming was heavily influenced by a passage in Barbara Myerhoff’s moving portrait of an elderly Jewish community center (Number Our Days) in which she reveals that the seniors asked her to reconsider her decision to use fake names because they craved “an enduring record” of their existence. (She didn’t). The lesson for me was that I would give my participants a choice to be identified or masked, and in the end, only one person chose anonymity. There was very little that I could offer my participants for all the time they gave me, but they viewed seeing their name in print as intrinsically rewarding. When I handed out copies of The Global Pigeon, most quickly thumbed the pages looking for their name and some excitedly took photos of the printed pages they appeared on and texted them to friends and family. This has convinced me that, at least some of the time, naming may be more ethical than masking. It’s worth noting that I have gone through 3 different university IRBs, at both public and private schools, and have never had trouble getting IRB approval to reveal names for either of my ethnographies; IRBs do not in fact require pseudonyms or masking.

As for the “do no harm” ethic, it’s not clear to me that pseudonyms and masking actuallyprotect our participants. There are numerous instances where readers have identified the people, places, and organizations depicted despite the author’s efforts to scrub identifying information. Furthermore, masking also often fails in its goal to prevent participants withina fieldsite from identifying one another. A great example of this comes from what happened after the publication of Nancy Scheper-Hughes’ Saints, Scholars, and Schizophrenics. Not only did a reporter publicly unmask the Irish village that she called “Ballybran” but villagers also easily figured out the person behind each pseudonym despite the lengths she took to “scramble certain identifying information.”

M: It’s interesting to note that this example, and others like it, occurred long before the era of Google and social media. These technologies have made it even easier to identify people and places by performing keyword searches based on information or events depicted in an ethnography. I would guess that this is all the more possible given how much contemporary ethnographers have to interact with participants online to truly understand their social worlds, tethering us to our participants in very public ways.

J: Indeed. Given all of this, it seems to me that the practice of using pseudonyms and masking offers, at best, an illusory promise to protect confidentiality.

M: That’s exactly what Scheper-Hughes concluded as well. In fact, she wrote that if she were to write her book on “Ballybran” again:

I would…avoid the ‘cute’ and ‘conventional’ use of pseudonyms. Nor would I scramble certain identifying features of the individuals on the naïve assumption that these masks and disguises could not be easily de-coded…I have come to see that the time honored practice of bestowing anonymity on ‘our’ communities and informants fools few and protects no one—save, perhaps, the anthropologists’ own skin.

So Colin, are you saying that if we are not fully able to protect participants through masking we should do away with this practice altogether?

J: Not quite. Masking may be practically necessary to carry out some research and ethically required to carry out other research. But I think the universe of cases that “require” masking is much smaller than ethnographers acknowledge. Moreover, I believe that it is unethical for ethnographers to imply to our participants that we can promise confidentiality when it cannot—with any degree of certainty—be ensured, and that we should respect the fact that sometimes participants actually want to be named.

M: That makes sense, but I would add that participants should also have a right to decide if they don’t want their involvement in research to appear online when a friend, family member, lover, or employer Googles their name years after the completion of the research. The use of pseudonyms, without the masking of other identifiers, would provide such protections.

J: So where does this leave us? It seems apparent that there are very real scientific costs introduced when the ethnographer engages in masking, costs that negatively impact the community of scholars by impeding our efforts to construct cumulative social science. It also appears that the reason ethnographers usually give for masking—confidentiality—often does not hold up in practice. Yet I can see that some degree of masking may be practically or ethically necessary for some fieldwork.

My own conclusion is that masking is no longer defensible as the taken-for-granted default position. My experience with naming in The Global Pigeon, and my frustration with how a previous ethnographer’s decision to mask Williamsport is hampering my research on fracking in the same community, have convinced me that ethnographers should make naming the default, and then mask only to the extent required to ethically carry out your research. Alex, where do you come down on this?

M: This is a question I am still struggling with. I do think we should strive to mask as minimally as possible. And I think to do this we need to have extensive, honest, ongoing conversations with our participants about the costs, benefits, tradeoffs, and limitations of masking. As I work to make these decisions for my own book I am doing just this—going back to my participants as well as other community members and stakeholders to have these discussions. Doing so has been invaluable—they’ve made me aware of concerns around naming and masking that are important to them but that I had not thought of and vice versa. I guess I would say that I don’t think there is a universal answer. Every ethnography poses some distinct ethical issues, and so these decisions have to be made on a case-by-case basis, in consultation with one’s participants. That’s where I stand.

I am glad, though, to be having this conversation; it’s an important one. I definitely think that masking is a practice worth rethinking in light of the issues raised here.

J: This is especially the case in the face of scholarly and public demands for greater data transparency. While ethnographers may be understandably reticent to share their interview transcripts and unfiltered fieldnotes, masking minimally, and only when necessary, is arguably a more practical means of addressing the transparency expectation. It also is likely to have more scholarly utility since it enables researchers to bring other perspectives and sources of data to bear on one’s case study, which is in alignment with the goals for data transparency. At any rate, ethnographers risk marginalization both within and outside the academy if they ignore these concerns.

Alexandra Murphy is in the sociology department and population studies center at the University of Michigan. She studies suburban poverty and transportation insecurity and is co-editor of The Urban Ethnography Reader.

Colin Jerolmack is in the sociology and environmental studies departments at New York University. He is author of The Global Pigeon.


Research ethics when gaining access to organizations. Case study

Original source: “doing qualitative research as if counsel is hiding in the closet

I have also faced challenges when studying political organizations. The most stressful experience so far took place during my research on the experiences of young activists who worked as canvassers, recruiting new members and renewing existing memberships for a number of progressive campaigns. The findings of this study went into my book Activism, Inc. Most of the data used for the book came from open-ended semi-structured interviews with one cohort of young people working on the summer canvass and the participant observations conducted in canvass offices during summer 2003.

Preparing to enter the field for this study involved gaining access to the largest canvassing organization in the United States—The Fund for Public Interest Research—which had never before been the subject of an academic study, and likely never will be again. (I created a pseudonym for the organization in Activism, Inc. because the findings from the research were not very complimentary. Since the organization came out in an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education after the book was published, I named it in subsequent publications.) After many rounds of discussions with the organization and positive support from well-known activists whom I knew from my life before I became a sociologist, the organization agreed to be the setting of my research project. Before going into the field to do participant observation in offices and interview canvassers, however, the organization required that we negotiate a memorandum of understanding that would determine who and what I would gain access to and what I could ask about during my research. After some back-and-forth, the organization and I signed the agreement that stated, “The treatment of the data will be consistent with the protocol outlined by the Columbia University Institutional Review Board (IRB Protocol #02/03-998A).”

Although social scientists frequently complain that the requirements of our universities’ IRBs put unnecessary limitations on social research—particularly for projects that collect little personal data about the research subjects—I found the IRB provided me with a welcome shield with which I could protect my research and my subjects from the organization. Throughout the duration of this project, people from the organization made multiple attempts to get my field notes and interview data. In fact early on in the project, a representative from the organization offered to hide in the closet or surreptitiously turn on the office’s intercom so that she could listen in on my interviews.

Even though we had agreed from the beginning that my data would be kept confidential and both sides had signed the agreement that acknowledged that I would be following the regulations of the IRB, the organization persisted. Thanks to the university’s Human Subjects requirements, however, I was able to respond to these requests by pointing out that my protocol, which is required by the university and was clearly outlined in our agreement, would not permit such activities.

In addition to protecting my subjects, the IRB protected me when the organization threatened to take legal action. Right before Activism, Inc. was published, the organization’s legal team threatened to block the publication of the book (for which they had no legal grounds), stating that I had to turn over all of my data to them before they would approve any publication. Once again, the IRB and my human subjects protocol provided a welcome protection. It’s worth noting that, even though my IRB Protocol was protected through Columbia University, I was still required to hire my own lawyer, which cost me thousands of dollars. After enduring hours of phone calls with lawyers from the University and Stanford University Press to go over the research and my methods, our “legal team” agreed that I had done nothing wrong and the book could be published.

Given these experiences, I now conduct all of my research very carefully—basically doing it as if a corporate counsel is looking over my shoulder every step of the way. Moving forward, qualitative sociologists who study less privileged communities should follow the lead of those of us who have been studying elites and do their work AS IF they’re studying a group with their own legal representation. In other words, we all should treat our field sites as if they are populated by a privileged portion of the population who wield law degrees.

Informed consent in political elites studies. Case study

I stumbled across this article “doing qualitative research as if counsel is hiding in the closet”, a very good example of how a researcher proceed when dealing with research ethics regarding confidentiality and inform consent in such particular studies as “political elites”. When providing a description of the research before the beginning of the interview, researcher hand the “ethical review board” or IRB-approved information sheet about the research and tell them that “nothing they say will be directly attributable to them”. In journalist´s parlance, the interview is “off the record”.

Bellow I have pasted the most significant part:

A lot of my research studies political elites. As such, I am frequently conducting participant observation and open-ended, semi-structured interviews in the halls of the US Congress, offices of various federal agencies, political consultants, lobbying firms, and organizations that aim to represent the public’s interest. In other words, my data are collected from a highly educated group of people, an overwhelming proportion of whom have law degrees. Moreover, most of these offices employ some sort of “corporate” counsel that monitors access—or what I think of as my field site and my research subjects. As a result, I have learned to be extremely careful since these lawyers have made it clear to me on a number of occasions that I can lose access and be booted from my field site at any point.

In the 15 years since I completed my PhD, I have been challenged by research subjects regarding my use of their names or the data I collected from them in two particularly anxiety-inducing cases. In the first, a subject of an interview who worked for a Congressional Committee found a draft of a paper online that directly quoted him. While I was making the final edits on my first book, which named this subject and quoted him directly, I got a very aggressive email from him. In response, I passed on a copy of the transcript of the interview that included an exchange during which I asked if I could use the subject’s name and he affirmed. His concerns were alleviated after receiving the transcript that included his consent. Nonetheless, I removed direct reference to this research subject in my book. I also adapted the way that I approach political elites whom I study.

Although these interviews are usual seen as exempt from IRB requirements because I am asking about subjects’ political work and not anything personal, I have found I get better data (and avoid such interactions with JDs working in the political arena) if I grant all subjects confidentiality. When providing a description of my research before I begin an interview, I hand my subjects an IRB-approved information sheet about the research and tell them that nothing they say will be directly attributable to them. In journalists’ parlance, the interview is “off the record.” I state that I will email them directly for approval if I find there is any segment that I would like to quote directly in my work. Because so many of my subjects have experience speaking with journalists, I find that following similar norms about attribution puts the subjects at ease. Although this process adds some work when I am writing, it tends to yield more interesting data. This process also gives me an electronic trail if I am approached by subjects post hoc, which can be very helpful if I am contacted by lawyers.

Regretting Motherhood: A Sociopolitical Analysis

Based on in-depth interviews with twenty-three Israeli mothers, this article seeks to contribute to an ongoing inquiry into women’s subjective experiences of mothering by addressing an understudied maternal emotive and cognitive stance: regretting motherhood. The literature teaches us that within a pronatal monopoly, threatening women that they will inevitably regret not having children acts as powerful reproducer of the ideology of motherhood. Simultaneously, motherhood is constructed as a mythical nexus that lies outside and beyond the human terrain of regret, and therefore a desire to undo the maternal experience is conceived as an object of disbelief. By incorporating regret into maternal experiences, the purpose of the article is twofold: The first is to distinguish regret over motherhood from other conflictual and ambivalent maternal emotions. Whereas participants’ expressions of regretting motherhood were not bereft of ambivalence, and thus were not necessarily exceptional or anomalous, they foreground a different emotive and cognitive stance toward motherhood. The second purpose is to situate regret over motherhood in the sociopolitical arena. It has been suggested that the “power of backward thinking” might be used to reflect on the systems of power governing maternal feelings in two ways: first, through a categorical distinction in the target of regret between object (the children) and experience (maternity), which utilizes the cultural structure of mother love; second, by opposing the very essentialist presumption of a fixed female identity that naturally befits mothering or progressively adapts to it and evaluates it as a worthwhile experience.

Donath, O. (2015). Regretting motherhood: A Sociopolitical analysis. Signs,40(2), 343-367.

Little Albert experiment (1920) #researchethics

The Little Albert experiment was a case study showing empirical evidence of classical conditioning in humans. This study was also an example of stimulus generalization. It was carried out by John B. Watson and his graduate student, Rosalie Rayner, at Johns Hopkins University. The results were first published in the February 1920 issue of the Journal of Experimental Psychology.

John B. Watson, after observing children in the field, was interested in finding support for his notion that the reaction of children, whenever they heard loud noises, was prompted by fear. Furthermore, he reasoned that this fear was innate or due to an unconditioned response. He felt that following the principles of classical conditioning, he could condition a child to fear another distinctive stimulus which normally would not be feared by a child.

Albert was only about eight months old at the time of the first test. Because of his age, the experiment today would be considered unethical by the American Psychological Association’s ethic code (see references). Since the experiment, and other later studies which pushed the boundaries of experimental ethics, legislation was passed to prevent unethical and potentially harmful experiments. Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996, the Public Health Service Act, and new required education in using human research participants was put into place by the National Institutes of Health in 2000. In the early 1970s, following widely publicized cases of research abuse, The National Commission for the Protection of Human Subjects of Biomedical and Behavioral Research (NCPHS) was created to study issues surrounding the protection of humans in research. In 1979, the Commission issued a report entitled “Ethical Principles and Guidelines for the Protection of Human Subjects of Research” (commonly called the “Belmont Report”), which provided the ethical framework which federal regulations for the protection of human participants in research are currently based on.Under the NCPHS standards set in the late 1970s, an experiment such as Watson’s would not have been allowed.

Original source

Overscaled Urbanization (Tim Franco Captures the Overscaled Urbanization of Chongqing)

© Tim Franco These days, many of China‘s largest urban areas are easily recognizable to people from all over the world, with the skylines of coastal mega-cities such as Shanghai andBeijing taking their place in the global consciousness. Far less known though is the inland city of Chongqing – another of China’s five top-tier “National Central Cities” – where in 2010 the Chinese government embarked on a plan to urbanize a further 10 million of the region’s rural population, with around 1,300 people now moving into the city every day.

Since his first visit to the city in 2009 photographer Tim Franco has been on a mission to document the rapid change in what he believes is “maybe the most widely unknown megacity in the world.” The result is Metamorpolis, a forthcoming photographic book by Franco with text by British journalist Richard Macauley, which documents the colossal scale of development juxtaposed against the people of Chongqing – many of whom still live an incongruous rural lifestyle among the concrete sprawl. Read on after the break for more images from the book and an interview with Franco about the experience of documenting one of the world’s fastest-growing cities.

You are European, and based in Shanghai. What made you choose Chongqing for this project, instead of other Chinese cities?

Shanghai, Beijing, Hong Kong and many of Chinese coastal cities are very famous world wide; everybody has seen them and knows about them. They are the ones which were developed first when the economy boomed in China. I really wanted to witness the fast urban development of the country but I felt that in Shanghai, I was a bit too late – all the famous images of the city have circulated worldwide.

That is why in 2009 I embarked on a small road trip to central China to visit some other secondary developing cities such as Wuhan, Chengdu and Chongqing. After a few days in Chongqing, I quickly understood it was the city I wanted to document. The most obvious reason is that this growing megalopolis is located right in between mountains and giant rivers, which give it a very unique scale. Most of the big cities in China are flat and extended but because of its unique geographical location, Chongqing is urbanizing through beautiful elements which gave the photos a very particular aesthetic. The second reason is that, being the latest province city to be created in China, and because of the different policies following the construction of the three gorges dam project, Chongqing was facing one of the fastest urbanization rates in the world. With almost two-thirds of Chongqing’s population still rural, the local government is trying to invert that trend and relocate a massive population of farmers into the city. I really felt that Chongqing was a representation of what was going on in the whole country, except in a rapid and city-scale simulation.

© Tim Franco

What was your impression as a European when you first experienced Chongqing?

My first week in Chongqing was thrilling! I felt like I was in Blade Runner, walking through dark alleys and getting lost in maze-like streets. Discovering different levels, taking elevators and cable cars to travel from one part of the city to the others. It looked to me like a chaotic and dark mix of Manhattan and Hong Kong. At that time, the local government was still chasing the giant mafia ring that controlled most of the city’s business for so many years: it felt like I was part of a movie! I couldn’t wait to go back there as soon as I left. It is kind of strange because the darkness and the mess of a city can be quite depressing and violent, but this also gives it a unique style and energy that made me want to photograph it even more.

You’ve already been documenting Chongqing’s urban expansion for five years. Have you noticed any changes in how the city is expanding?

The changes I have witnessed in Chonqqing are tremendous! I have seen entire districts disappearing in the center of the city. Some of the houses destroyed were witnesses to the Kuomintang era when Chongqing was the capital of China. I have seen farmlands on the North side of the city being taken over by concrete roads and housing complexes, with farmers continuing to plant vegetables between highways or on the side of construction sites.

I basically witnessed the entire center of the city growing into highrise glass towers, and luxury shops appearing like mushrooms on the main pedestrian street. In 2009, I was struggling to find good coffee in the morning – now I can have one on the 58th floor of the Westin Hotel overlooking the city, shop at H&M and get my new iPhone in the fancy Apple store that just opened. It’s almost unbelievable.

But it is also sad to see how the city is struggling with its originality, trying to copy other famous cities in the world, with a replica of Hong Kong IFC, a fake Zaha Hadid, or the new star project being build at the tip of the peninsula influenced by the Marina Bay Sands building in Singapore.

Do you think the people of Chongqing are adapting well to the city’s dramatic changes?

This is a tough question and according to who you ask in the city, you may get many different answers. As a Westerner walking in the city you are very quickly shocked by the amount of traditional architecture and old buildings being destroyed, almost like erasing signs of the past. But when talking to the people who lived in very poor conditions in some of those buildings with little access to electricity or basic heating, you understand why they are welcoming the transition to high rise building.

As ugly as they may look, they offer them a new level of comfort and a feeling of modernity. A feeling of becoming part of Chinese growth and not being left behind. But part of the population, especially people coming from the rural areas, are often struggling with the pace of urbanization. Often, the older generations don’t even know how to read or write. They find themselves moved to the city only knowing how to grow vegetables, so they start to find whatever land is available downtown to do the only thing they know how to do.

To be very honest I am very impressed by how the people in China learn to adapt. It seems whatever happens and whatever the difficulty, they always find a way to adapt, create small business and communities. Even though the city is growing at an incredible speed, every part of the city seems active.

© Tim Franco

One of the most striking things about your photographs is how you are able to simultaneously capture human-scale elements in the foreground with the huge buildings looming behind. Is there a particular camera setup you use for this or is it all about finding the right place to take a photo?

I am glad you brought this up, because it was exactly what I tried to do in this project! I used to shoot a lot of urban landscapes prior to this project and I only found my photos interesting when I added a human element to them, to give them scale and to see how the space was actually being used. This process was important for me in documenting Chongqing. I really wanted to show how the city was growing out of proportion and to give a very visual idea of how enormous these constructions and buildings are.

I don’t think there is a particular set up. I am using an old medium-format film camera, and I always try to spot the places with the city and the construction in the background and people in the foreground. This also allows me to be to invisible to the people I photographed so their action and behavior could be more natural in the photo. In general, I don’t like to force myself upon the people I photograph, so I either take a step back and photograph them in their environment or if I come closer, I engage them first in a conversation and explain to them what I am doing before taking a portrait.

© Tim Franco

Do you have a favorite place in Chongqing to search for photo opportunities?

I am not sure if I have a favorite place. The cable car running through the city (the one you can see on some of the photos and in particular on the video) is quite incredible because it takes you through the different layers of the city – actually, it used to do that, now half of those layers have been destroyed! In general, I am very attracted to every kind of place that gives you a sense of the scale of the city, with the rivers, the building, the mountains and the people.

How do you search out new places in the city that could be interesting?

These days, I rely on a network of people who are living in the city, both locals and foreign people that tell me about new places they discover. Often I also just find a place on the map I have never been to and take a taxi or a motorbike ride there. There is a good chance that on the way, I might find a new incredible place like a giant hole in the ground, some farmland in the middle of a construction site, or another architectural curiosity. For a while, I had a cheap motorbike which I purchased for about $200 USD and drove around the city and beyond. I sold it later for a little less.

© Tim Franco

What do you think the future holds for Chongqing?

It is going to be interesting to look at the future of Chongqing. It is certainly becoming one of the biggest cities in China, and it’s facing a very big challenge in urbanizing a very large rural population. A lot of of other cities are looking at Chongqing to see how those urbanizing policies will work for the economic and social future of the city. For me personally, even if part of the process ends with the book being finalized, I will still continue to document the city as it grows.

Original Source

Informed consent from vulnerable populations

I came across this article on Ebola, the high fatality rate disease that has outbreak in West Africa in recent months. The use of an experimental serum ZMapp has raised certain critiques for ethical reasons. I found very clear and appealing the way the writer explains the problems when it comes to ethical testing and deployment of a new treatment.

The trick to informed consent is that it has to be meaningful. It’s not enough to just tell subjects about the study; they need to understand what that means, and to be capable of saying or signing a document saying, “Yes, I understand, and I’m still willing to participate.” This leads us to a second major concern for ethical research: the treatment of vulnerable populations. There are some groups of people who by definition are unable to give meaningful informed consent. These include children, institutionalized persons (prisoners and those confined to mental health institutions), and anyone else who might not be capable of understanding the full implications of their decision to participate in a study.

First, the author emphasizes not only the importance of obtaining informed consent from subjects, but also the fact that such consent must be meaningful. Secondly, the treatment of vulnerable populations, i.e. those who are not entirely able to give meaningful informed consent. Although this article mainly refers to sanitary research, these circumstances are also possible within social science. These include children, disabled population or demented elderly population.

Another interesting piece of this article is the reference to informed consent when doing research in developing countries:

Most social scientists who do research in developing countries – myself included – have similar stories of subjects not understanding why they are being asked to sign an informed consent form; in their minds, agreement to talk to me is consent. Signing a document also leaves a record, which many subjects fear might somehow be used against them by political authorities, foreign spies, or others who are up to no good.

Finally, the way in which the Ebola dilemma seems to be solve by the World Health Organization:

The World Health Organization announced today that they are forming a panel of ethicists to consider whether and how ZMapp might be distributed among Ebola patients. There is no doubt in anyone’s mind that the urgency of Ebola, its high fatality rate, and the need to deliver effective treatment as quickly as possible must be taken seriously. Here’s hoping that the WHO ethicists can come to a quick conclusion, that ZMapp can be manufactured quickly, and that the drug will be responsibly distributed in a way that informs patients and their families to the fullest extent possible and allows researchers to learn more about how it works and doesn’t work in human populations. A cure for Ebola would be a wonderful thing indeed.

This may be seen as a possible solution to address other research ethical issues, i.e. the creation of a panel of ethicists.

2014 Contemporary Ethnography Across the Disciplines Hui

Kia ora koutou! The third international Contemporary Ethnography Across the Disciplines (CEAD) hui has been announced. The conference CEAD 2014: Sensual Landscapes of Ethnography will take place from 25-28 November 2014 and will return to the beautiful campus of the University of Waikato in Hamilton in Aotearoa New Zealand. The CEAD, an international ethnography conference and hui, welcomes all forms of engagement in ethnographic disciplinary practice, and aims to stimulate rich intellectual discourse. As a Southern Hemisphere conference, it offers a richness of perspective that is slightly counter to the dominant, hegemonic worldview of many ethnographic pieces; for example, informed by a Kaupapa Māori wordview of “research,” discussions of participant/researcher “ethics” take on a decidedly-richer, more nuanced, view. Researchers and practitioners from across the disciplines of law, anthropology, arts & letters, education, geography, health, management, business, psychology, sociology, cultural, and ethnic and gender studies – and any other discipline where ethnography advances scholarship and public understanding of the way groups and individuals interact and live their lives into being – are invited to share in the rich diversity that the conference and hui provides.

The major theme for the hui is Sensual Landscapes of Ethnography and there are three major content streams for exploration (read more about each one here):

  1. Emerging Methods: Traditional, Experimental and Transgressive Forms
  2. Praxis and Advocacy: Doing Ethnography on the Ground
  3. Social Justice and Transformation: Theoretical Ethnographic Visions

Further info here

What is ethics in research and why is it important?

Cartoon by Paul Mason. According to the Australian National Statement on Ethical Conduct in Human Research (henceforth referred to simply as the "Australian National Statement"), human research is any investigation that is conducted with people, about people, on tissue from people, or using data concerning people.

Cartoon by Paul Mason. According to the Australian National Statement on Ethical Conduct in Human Research (henceforth referred to simply as the “Australian National Statement”), human research is any investigation that is conducted with people, about people, on tissue from people, or using data concerning people.

In 1946 the atrocities committed by Nazi scientists in the name of research were investigated in War Crimes Tribunal at Nuremberg. 16 doctors and administrators were found guilty of “willing participation in the systematic torture, mutilation, and killing of prisoners in experiments”. This led to development of the Nuremberg Code in 1947, the first international code of research ethics.

Hence, to address the question “what is ethics in research and why it is important” one should first consider the next question: “is the only aim to do the best work?” If so, ethical issues may be underestimated. It was actually the defense of Nazi scientists. Far from this horrifying precedents, still in today’s social research we need to handle many ethical issues. Dealing with such topics as illness, politic, religion or sexuality, among others; participant’s interest must be safeguarded. Above all, acting ethically in research means protecting participants’ interests and rights. Five more important issue must be highlighted:

1. Exploitation of participants. Until the 1970’s highly unethical social and medical studies were common. A good example was the experiment among a group of 399 African American men afflicted with syphilis unknowingly from 1930s to 1970. Although there is no evidence that in today’s social research these kind of cases still exist there may be situation when researcher’s interest are over the participant´s interests.

2. Deception. When a field interviewer misrepresents the true purpose of research it is considered deception. The participant lies to participants to obtain information he/she could not otherwise obtain. It may happen when, for example, the interviewer pretends he/she is a student in a certain subject in order to obtain critical information about a competitor.

3. Overlook informed consent. Researcher should obtain an informed consent of participants. “Informed consent” means that an individual or community understands what is going to happen if they agree to take part of a social experiment or be interviewed for a study or survey. Researchers have to entirely inform subjects about what they will be taking, the risks of participation and non-participation, and how the data generated from the study will be used (ie, the findings might be published in an academic journal and promoted in a newspaper). The trick to informed consent is that it has to be meaningful (Seay, 2014). It’s not enough to just tell subjects about the study; they need to understand what that means, and to be capable of saying or signing a document saying, “Yes, I understand, and I’m still willing to participate.” This leads us to a second major concern for ethical research: the treatment of vulnerable populations. There are some groups of people who by definition are unable to give meaningful informed consent. These include children, institutionalized persons (prisoners and those confined to mental health institutions), and anyone else who might not be capable of understanding the full implications of their decision to participate in a study.
Furthermore, the publication of information from personal interviews or focus group must either obtain the explicit consent of the people involved or omit personal details to protect identities. In case the participant recognizes himself or herself in the publication and feels unpleasant, researcher may be in trouble.
4. Harm people in collecting data. The interviewer’s questions may confront people with sensitive issues, like the severity of illness or the lack of prospect in their future life. In some cases, it may produce an internal crisis for these people. It is an ethical responsibility reflects about taking such risks for the sake of the research.

5. Personal data protection. The danger of misuse personal data has led government to increase legislation on this issue. A good example is the implementation of the European Union Directive 95/46/EC. This provides protection for individuals in relation to the processing, storing and movement of data. As a researcher, one may face this kind of situations, especially as to personal data of potential participants in focus group. Market research companies usually own their own dataset with potential participants. To communicate with then, details as address or phone number must be stored. For this reason, it is recommendable to compliance the current legislation. As long as personal information is processed and stored in the research’s computer, a number of legal rules must be compliance.Finally, research ethics has a lot to do with reflection and sensitiveness. Apart from the formal rules and norms, safeguard participants’ interest requires a constant exercise of reflection and sensitiveness from the researcher. A good way to do so is try to take participants’ role and think from their perspective. How would one feel?


Flick, U. (2009). An introduction to qualitative research. Sage Publications Limited

Lewis, Philip, Mark NK Saunders, and Adrian Thornhill. Research methods for business students. Pearson, 2009.

NIH, Protecting Human Research Participants, p.11-13;

Seay, Laura. “Ebola, research ethics, and the ZMapp serumThe Washington Post 6 August 2014:

Silverman, D. (2011). Interpreting qualitative data. Sage Publications Limited.

What roles do your values play?

English: ASHS science values

English: ASHS science values (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A value is an idea what people share about what is good or bad, desireble or undesireble. Values are reflected in apparantly trivial everyday behaviors. The sociologist Robin M. Williams, Jr. (1970) identified fifteen fundamental values (in reference to american society

  1. achievement and success
  2. activity and work
  3. humanitarianism
  4. efficiency and practicality
  5. progress
  6. material confort
  7. equality
  8. freedom
  9. resignation
  10. rationality and science
  11. nationalism and patriotism
  12. democracy
  13. individuality
  14. racial and ethnic superiority

Of course, there may be many more and some of the mentioned values may be not share in all the countries and also, it may change over time.

A “resources” or positivist researcher will probably sustain that our personal value should not affect the process of research and for this reasons you must be completly out of this process and that doing in-depth interviews the results are not credible. On the contrary, a “feeling” or interpretativist researcher would argue that unavoidably we demostrate our values at all stages. After all, choicing one topic rather than another, suggests that you think one of the topics is more important. For example, having such values as humanitarianism it wouldnt be rare if your research focus a nonprofit organization.

Your choice of philosofical approach is a reflection of your values, as is your choice of data collection techniques. For example, to conduct a study where you place great importance on data collected through interview work suggests that you value personal interaction with your respondents more highly than their views expressed through an anonymous questionnaire.

Heron suggests the possibility of writing your own statement of personal values in relation to the topic you are studying. The statement of values may be of use both to you as researcher and those parties with whom you have contact in your research. The use to you would be a result of your “being honest with yourself” about quite what your values are. This would heighten your awareness of value judgements you are making in drawing conclusions form your data. These value judgements may lead to the drawing of conclusions which may be different from those drawn by researchers with other values.


Williams, Robin Murphy. American society: A sociological interpretation. New York: Knopf, 1970.
Craig J. Calhoun, Donald Light, Suzanne Infeld Keller. Sociology. McGraw-Hill, 2000.
Lewis, Philip, Mark NK Saunders, and Adrian Thornhill. Research methods for business students. Pearson, 2009.