Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Studying Postmodern Families: A Feminist Analysis of Ethical Tensions in Work and Family Research

Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Studying Postmodern Families: A Feminist Analysis of Ethical Tensions in Work and Family Research

Article excerpt

Through dialogue and reflexivity, feminist researchers aim to create knowledge that is emergent from people in relationship with one another. Reflexivity is a process whereby researchers place themselves and their practices under scrutiny, acknowledging the ethical dilemmas that permeate the research process and impinge on the creation of knowledge. Guided by these tenets, we analyzed the relations among our research practices, our participants, and ourselves to understand and reduce the ethical tensions we encountered in a multimethod research project designed to investigate work and family processes. Our reflective efforts underscore both the active nature of research participants and the importance of the sociopolitical contexts within and around the research process. We make suggestions for more ethical research.

Key Words: ethics, feminist methodology, work and family.

The complexity of ethical concerns inherent in family research is often minimized within conventional, positivist approaches that emphasize objectivity and value-free inquiry. Consistent with positivism, family researchers tend to downplay or ignore the relationship between themselves and participants and to decontextualize their research findings from the surrounding social environments (Leslie & Sollie, 1994). A primary assumption of conventional social science is that truth can be found through the separation of the researcher and the researched. Feminists believe, however, that science is a social activity embedded in a sociocultural context and shaped by personal concerns and commitments (Nielsen, 1990; Thompson, 1992). Feminists argue that there is no such thing as a disinterested stance to knowledge construction. Through dialogue and reflexivity, researchers aim to create a broader knowledge base (Baber & Allen, 1992; Neilsen, 1990), a base that is emergent from people in relationship with one another (Lather, 1988; 1991). Reflexivity is a process whereby researchers place themselves and their practices under scrutiny, acknowledging the ethical dilemmas that permeate the research process and impinge on the creation of knowledge.

Our concern is with the ethical tensions we encountered in a multimethod research project investigating the work and family processes of Northwest fishing families. We were drawn to these concerns for reasons both practical (recruitment and retention problems) and political (differing agendas between us and our participants). Although our study was carefully designed to meet fundamental criteria for good (positivist) empirical research, combined with a feminist goal of giving wives in our study an opportunity to tell their own stories, we met considerable resistance from both potential and committed participants, We came to recognize that our goal of understanding family processes within a particular work and family context was not shared by some of our participants, who seemed to focus instead on changing policies to increase fishermen's "rights" to fish.

In response, we engaged in a reflexive process among ourselves and with our research participants to expand our understandings of the tensions we encountered. We designed and carried out a qualitative study to learn our participants' views on the research process and to glean insights on how to conduct more ethical research. Below, we set the stage for our qualitative study by describing fishing families and our initial project. Then, we offer a rationale by reviewing the literature on ethical issues in research.

INITIAL PHASES: TREADING TURBULENT WATERS

The work and family contexts of commercial fishing families provide an opportunity to explore the diverse ways that couples with children adapt to the comings and goings of the husbands. Fishermen tend to be gone from home for long periods of time, depending on such factors as where they fish and the type of fish they catch. Consequently, wives of commercial fishermen tend both to run their households and to maintain heavy involvement in the business aspects of their husbands' occupations. …

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