Integrating Ethical Guidelines and Situated Ethics for Researching Social-Media-Based Interactions: Lessons from a Virtual Ethnographic Case Study with Chinese Youth

By Lin, Ke | Journal of Information Ethics, Spring 2016 | Go to article overview

Integrating Ethical Guidelines and Situated Ethics for Researching Social-Media-Based Interactions: Lessons from a Virtual Ethnographic Case Study with Chinese Youth


Lin, Ke, Journal of Information Ethics


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In the Internet age, social and educational research prompt a range of ethical considerations, especially in relation to children, youth, and other vulnerable groups. Young people are increasingly using the Internet. Those who have grown up surrounded by digital media, relying on Internet-based communication and interaction are called the net generation (Tapscott, i998) or the digital generation (Buckingham & Willett, 2006). The field of youth studies has been expanded to include research about this generation of people in cyber space, where virtual communities are being built by and for young people. This expansion has raised many new challenges to research ethics in respect to persons, privacy, data, and research quality (Markham, Buchanan, AoIR Ethics Committee, & AoIR General Membership, 20i2). Investigations of human subjects with online identities involve more complicated processes and potential risks than those of people only holding offline identities. Although general ethical principles about both youth and Internet study have been highly addressed in different versions of ethical guidelines,i ethical dilemmas are constantly emerging in the practice of research. These include conflicts between guidelines and local ethics, contradictions between confidentiality and authenticity, difficulties of obtaining online informed consent, ambiguity of public/private spaces, and the limitations of both data storage and copyright protection. Furthermore, cases within different national and cultural contexts involve local ethical considerations that may conflict with normative guidelines. The use of British and American ethical guidelines may not fit the context in China, for example. In this context, personal oral agreements are sometimes more accessible, even more reliable, than written contracts; online authorship can be difficult to confirm making copyrights difficult to obtain. These contradictions challenge both the theory and practice of research ethics.

This paper reviews and discusses Internet and educational research ethics specifically at the micro-level. By drawing on concrete examples from a virtual ethnographic study exploring Chinese youth cyber civic participation, ethical issues from the following three perspectives are highlighted:

* how relevant ethical guidelines are taken into account in the design of empirical research;

* how specific ethical decisions are made in the process of data collection and research presentation; and

* how ethical dilemmas are dealt with or put aside for later discussion.

My approach to research is shaped by three types of dual roles that I occupy: Internet user and Internet researcher; online observer and offline communicator; UK-based researcher and Chinese citizen. Positioning this paper as a case study on Internet and educational research ethics, online and offline ethics, and research ethics in different countries, I argue that ethical issues are not isolated from, but intertwined with, research questions, methodology and concrete research contexts. Researchers who undertake research across different contexts may feel a need to respect existing ethical guidelines as operational in certain locations and take a "situated approach" when dealing with the relationship between "general principles" and "localized ethics" (Whiteman, 20i0, p. 7).

Situated ethics can be viewed as dynamic, diverse, localized, and constructive in the sense of being immune to universalization. Situated ethics do not exclude the relevance of general principles (Simons & Usher, 2000; Whiteman, 20i2). Yet, researchers may have little choice but to accept the processes and procedures laid down by bodies controlling research programs in certain locations. McKee and Porter (2009) argue that, in order to better comply with general principles when making ethical decisions, the researcher should "attend to the complexities of context, of place, of situation, of technologies, of methodologies, and of authors/persons/players/residents" (p. …

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