(cross posted on Legal Ethics Forum)
Elizabeth Mertz and I have had a lively exchange about studying the ethics of ethnography, which you can read at the New Legal Realism blog. In brief, Mertz took issue with of some of my FL posts about Alice Goffman’s On the Run, mostly regarding its usefulness as a template for researching social science ethics, and I responded with a detailed comment. Rather than recap that entire discussion here, I am instead going to explore a related issue that was actually somewhat tangential to Mertz’s main argument. She wrote:
One thoughtful journalist has concluded that Goffman is more concerned with protecting her informants than with defending herself, which would mean that she’s observing an ethical norm that is being blatantly violated by those who have sought to publicly uncover her informants’ identities. (Note: this was a parenthetical in Mertz’s OP, but I have confirmed with her by email that she meant it seriously; she knows that I am following up with this post.)
Mertz’s position might be called “derivative confidentiality,” meaning that one researcher’s promise of anonymity binds all subsequent researchers, even if they are not at her institution, and even if they are not social scientists. This approach is untenable, as I will explain below.
If it is “blatantly” unethical to seek the identities of an ethnographer’s informants, then no ethnographer could ever be thoroughly fact checked. An author could say anything she wants, while attributing it to confidential sources without fear of contradiction. The creation of such a confirmation-free zone would ultimately undermine the authority of the entire field, as no assertion could reliably be distinguished from exaggeration, embellishment, or fiction.
It would be wrong, of course, to expose someone’s identity simply for the sake of embarrassing him or her, as it is always wrong to impose gratuitous harm. But that does not make it unethical to re-investigate an ethnographic report in order to determine the truth of the author’s claims. The latter sometimes requires learning real names, dates, and places.
This brings us to On the Run. It is specious for Goffman to maintain that she cannot defend herself without exposing her informants. Consider, for example, one of Goffman’s more implausible vignettes. She claims that she personally observed the arrests of three new fathers in the same hospital maternity ward on a single night, that the cops interrupted their sweep to answer her questions, and that they told her about their “custom” of checking patient and visitor lists for open warrants.
As I have explained several times, I do not believe that this story is true. It could be verified, however, without revealing anyone’s identity. Hospital security would surely have a record of such an event, so Goffman could prove me wrong simply by identifying the hospital and the date, or even just the month, when the alleged arrests occurred. The names of her informants would be unnecessary, so she is protecting nobody – other than herself – by withholding the information. (Strangely, she later claimed that the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia – manifestly not the site of multiple maternity arrests – made a practice of handing visitor lists to police, which turned out to be untrue.)
On the Run is filled with equally questionable scenarios. Of those I have checked out, many have turned out to be either highly unlikely, almost impossible, or seriously incomplete. The theory of derivative confidentiality would render Goffman’s accounts exempt from fact-checking, although in reality there is no way for me, or anyone else, to review her claims without tracking down the names of her informants.
Nonetheless, I have learned the true identities of many of the main characters in On the Run. At Goffman’s request, however, I continued to use the pseudonyms in my most recent article about the aftermath of “Chuck’s” murder, as it was not necessary to publish the real names in order to make the essential points about her unreliability as a narrator. But it certainly was not unethical for me to do the research into their identities, which alerted me to even more problems – including inconsistencies, omissions, and contradictions – in Goffman’s work. Nor would it have been unethical to use one or more of the real names, if that had been necessary to establish something important in the article. (I did include the names of the investigating detectives and the two men convicted of the murder, as is standard practice in journalism.)
You are clearly entitled to a cone of silence within your own department, protecting the identities of research subjects from outside disclosure in most circumstances. But everything changes when you write a book, and more so when you re-publish your university press book as a trade paperback. After that, your readers will begin to expect transparency – especially if you retain the Lyceum Agency to promote national speaking engagements. So if you don’t want anyone to discover the actual details of “Tim’s” alleged arrest and conviction, then don’t make him a central figure in your TED talk. Or to put it conversely, if you are going to make serious policy recommendations, then you have to accept serious fact-checking of the underlying events.
I would not trust a Tea Party affiliated ethnographer who cited anonymous sources for tales of in-person voter fraud. I would be especially skeptical if she refused even to identify the polling place or election involved, claiming that she had to protect her informants. And I would be triple wary if she was making policy arguments – say, in favor of voter ID laws – on the basis of unverifiable events.
As it happens, I agree with Goffman’s policy prescriptions concerning over-policing and mass incarceration. Valid social science, however, depends upon replication and falsification, which would become impossible if we were to accept the theory of derivative confidentiality.