Ethical Challenges in Participant Observation: A Reflection on Ethnographic Fieldwork
Li, Jun, The Qualitative Report
In this essay I reflect on the ethical challenges of ethnographic fieldwork I personally experienced in a female gambling study . By assuming a covert research role, I was able to observe natural occurrences of female gambling activities but unable to make peace with disturbing feelings of my research concealment. By making my study overt, I was able to fulfill ethical obligations as a researcher but unable to get female gamblers to speak their minds. I responded to such ethical dilemmas by adjusting the level of involvement, participating in female gambling culture as an insider and observing it as an outsider. This fieldwork suggests that the ethics of participant observation should be addressed in relation to the sensitivity of the research topic, the vulnerability of the researched individuals, and the plasticity of field membership roles. Key Words: Participant Observation, Female Gambling Culture, Sensitive Research, Research Ethics, and Field Membership Roles
After completing my doctoral study in education, I received a one-year postdoctoral fellowship from the Ontario Problem Gambling Research Center to investigate female gambling culture at the department of sociology. In order to understand how women come to gamble and develop gambling problems, I employed two integrated ethnographic data collection methods, participant observation, and in-depth interviewing. While participant observation aimed to uncover the world of female gamblers with first-hand exploration of naturalistic gambling settings, in-depth interviewing intended to reveal the meanings of female gambling by attending to women's personal perspectives and interpretations. This labour-intensive ethnographic work was paid off with rich and informative narrative data. However, due to the disturbing emotions of ethical dilemmas I experienced in the field as an embedded participant researcher, in preparing the final report, I did not include some of my field encounters.
Although the ethical pitfalls inherent in participant observation are a well-recognized concern in ethnographic research, confessional tales (Van Maanen, 1988), especially unexpected mistakes occurring in the field, are less addressed in the literature. A few years have passed, but I still feel that this gambling research experience should be told to re-inform ethnographers, particularly the novice researchers, about potential and often unforeseen contingencies of such fieldwork.
In this reflective essay I first outline the necessity of using ethnographic methods to investigate sensitive topics involving vulnerable individuals or groups; then I detail ethical dilemmas and socio-emotional discomfort I encountered in the field; and finally I reflect on the lessons I learned from conducting this gambling study.
Ethnography and Sensitive Research
It has long been acknowledged that, when studying non-mainstream groups in society such as the marginalized and the stigmatized, researchers must tailor their data collection methods to both the sensitivity of the research topic and the vulnerability of research subjects (Goffman, 1963; Hobbs, 2002; Lee, 1993). Because observational research does not intervene in the activities of the people being studied (Alder & Alder, 2000), ethnography is, in particular, suitable to investigating sensitive issues because such work can provide rich, detailed descriptions about the unknown or the little known. As the only field method that allows researchers to observe what people do in "real life" contexts, not what they say what they do, ethnographic participant observation can supply detailed, authentic information unattainable by any other research method (Homan, 1980; Humphreys, 1970; Gans, 1999).
Since participant observation has the greatest potential to uncover contextualized, honest data, otherwise inaccessible, it ontologically and epistemologically underpins human quests for understanding multiple realities of life in context (Rossman & Rallis, 2003). Furthermore, in revealing what lies beneath, ethnographic research can empower the very people being studied, transforming the "public consciousness" and "common sense" about the disadvantaged in society (Fine, Weis, Weseen, & Wong, 2003).
Ethical Dilemmas in Participant Observation
In order to discover, describe, and represent the world of the researched, ethnographers such as cultural anthropologists and symbolic interactionist sociologists have traditionally committed themselves to the first-hand exploration of research settings with naturalistic field methods (Atkinson, Coffey, Delamont, Lofland, & Lofland, 2002; Hammersley & Atkinson, 1995; Hume & Mulcock, 2004). Ethnographic participant observation could be overt or covert, with or without revealing research purpose and research identity to the researched. Although covert participant observation is more likely to provide detailed portraits of contextualized social realities, it stirred much controversy and debate on research ethics, mainly regarding the deception and the absence of informed consent from the people being studied (Bulmer, 1980, 1982; Dingwall, 1980; M. L. Wax, 1979). With increasing limitations imposed on covert research, recent writings on this topic remain rare.
Nevertheless, researchers with an advocacy and emancipatory paradigm, especially those who aim to experience and represent social lives of the disadvantaged people, continue to challenge ethical restrictions on covert research methods. For example, in a feminist analysis of doing research with homeless women, the researcher contends that the unique context of the lives of these women demands a re-definition of the conventional ethical constructs to uncover unheard stories of troubled lives, so as to prevent a perpetuation of the stereotyping, stigmatization, and marginalization they face on a day-to-day basis (Paradis, 2000). Since ethnographic research consistently yields more detailed, contextualized findings than consent interviews and other overt qualitative data collection methods, the distinctive contribution of this embedded fieldwork should be recognized (Charmaz & Olesen, 1997), and ethnographic research should receive more support from the ethics review board (Tope, Chamberlain, Crowley, & Hodson, 2005). The position taken by these researchers has significant implications for sensitive research involving with vulnerable participants, as I explain next.
Gambling as a Sensitive Research Topic
Although many social and cultural phenomena can be considered as "sensitive" in general terms, sensitive research refers to the study of secretive, stigmatized, or deviant human activity and behaviour involving vulnerable research subjects. Gambling is a sensitive research topic because it is characterized by a mixture of popularity, glamour, secrecy, and stigma in contemporary context.
In the past decade legal gambling in Canada has been increasingly accepted as one of life's legitimate pleasures, emerging as national pastime. According to the data released by Statistics Canada, net revenue from the government-run lotteries, video lottery terminals, and casinos rose from 2.7 billion in 1992 to 12.4 billion in 2004 (Statistics Canada, 2005). The economic impact of the gambling industry is evident in measure, as numbers do not lie. However, the social, psychological, and health costs of gambling addiction remain largely unknown because stories behind such staggering gambling revenue growth are rarely told by gamblers themselves. Although public attitudes towards recreational or social gambling in the West have been rapidly shifting in parallel with the expansion of legal gambling, excessive or problem gambling remains a sensitive topic people are afraid of talking about. This reality has posed enormous …
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Publication information: Article title: Ethical Challenges in Participant Observation: A Reflection on Ethnographic Fieldwork. Contributors: Li, Jun - Author. Journal title: The Qualitative Report. Volume: 13. Issue: 1 Publication date: March 2008. Page number: 100+. © 2009 Nova Southeastern University, Inc. COPYRIGHT 2008 Gale Group.
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