Academic journal article Journal of Information Ethics

Ethic as Method, Method as Ethic: A Case for Reflexivity in Qualitative ICT Research

Academic journal article Journal of Information Ethics

Ethic as Method, Method as Ethic: A Case for Reflexivity in Qualitative ICT Research

Article excerpt

While philosophical writings are useful for academic conferences and esoteric papers, they too often provide too little substantive direction for researchers and others in the trenches.

-Jim Thomas, 2004, p. 189

"Fool, Fool! Back to the beginning is the rule!"

-Inigo to Fezzik, The Princess Bride

Generally, when and if one thinks of "ethics," one imagines codes of conduct, guidelines for attitudes and behaviors, rules for dealing with others or for knowing the difference between right and wrong, good and bad. As moral compasses, ethical guidelines function prior to action. As a part of research design, ethics is often considered prior to the conduct of a study.

Taking a sideways glance at this practice (through critically filtered lenses), this article approaches the issue of ethics in Internet studies from the perspective of a methodologist, specifically focusing on premises and practices of interpretive qualitative inquiry. From this perspective, all social research involves a great deal of encapsulation and control in that the scholar harvests data, sends this information through a set of categorical filters, makes sense of the phenomenon within a particular disciplinary trajectory, and writes research findings as rhetorical appeals to specific audiences. Even as the enterprise of knowledge production is conducted to better understand the social world, it changes the world, creates reality, and writes culture (Clifford and Marcus, 1986). As Van Maanen aptly notes about one common form of qualitative inquiry, "Ethnography irrevocably influences the interests and lives of the peo- ple represented in them -individually and collectively, for better or for worse" (1998, p. 19).

As public interest in and access to the Internet grew during the early 1990s, ethical issues rose quickly regarding practices and outcomes. People have been rightfully concerned about such practices as the widespread collection, archiving, and selling of one's personal information; the loss of privacy from surveillance technologies; the rise in cut and paste plagiarism in education; questions of authorship and credibility in the publication of information and layperson journalism; and copyright issues raised by the easy sharing of music over the Internet.

Qualitative research concerning the social use and impact of new communication technologies has also raised many ethical questions. The Internet provides ready access to textual data for various types of analysis: Who owns this data? The Internet provides easy access to special interest groups and communities: Are these communities private or public spaces? The Internet provides a global capacity for sending surveys and conducting interviews: How do we gain informed consent? How does one verify the age or vulnerability of participants? Do international boundaries influence the way one collects information? Internet users are in themselves an interesting and readily accessible social group to study: How does one consider issues of authenticity? Should one consider the textual or visual representation of participants, or is it necessary to match their online personae with their drivers' license photos? As Johns, Hall, and Crowell note, "The Internet, simply put, poses issues, problems, and concerns that were not anticipated when regulations were established" (2004, p. 109).

Existing codes of conduct or methodological guidelines for researchers have not translated well into these new social domains. In pondering the opposing viewpoints offered by colleagues about what constitutes ethical practice in citing online participants without their permission and using or not using pseudonyms to identify them, Bruckman (2001) asks: "Could it be that the framework itself is inadequate to handle the issues at hand?" The absence of clear guidelines makes ethical dilemmas even more important for Internet researchers to consider: Gaining informed consent in chatrooms is an elusive, if not impossible act. …

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