The Last Seminar by Stan Cohen must surely merit consideration as the strangest paper ever to appear in a Sociology journal. It tells the story of a gradual invasion of the university campus by those who are neither expected nor welcome: research participants. Encountering  strangely familiar figures in their everyday working lives, befuddled sociologists suddenly begin to recognise that those who have been the objects of past research have gradually returned to confront the researchers who sought to repress them upon completion of the research:

Then Bridges, who I thought had been deliberately avoiding me, walked up to the desk at the end of a class in which he had participated with his usual intense stare.

‘You don’t know anything about it, do you? It’s all a game to you.’I asked him what he meant.

‘Prison’, he said, ‘You think because you’ve spoken to a few cons you understand it all. Well, you don’t, you just don’t.’

He was slowly shaking his head. The tone was polite, but condescending. I’d heard that tone before.

The ensuing confrontation is neither welcome nor pleasant. Those whose existence had been reduced to representational objects begin to subject the researchers to emotional torment, with their mere presence throwing the campus into disarray:

Those of us who had done any empirical research were being infiltrated by our subjects. (‘Infiltrated’, is that the right word? I’m still not sure how to describe what was being done to us. Penetrated? Visited? Invaded?) I could not explain how this had happened but they were certainly here, taking revenge against us for writing about them.

The story ends with Cohen’s narrator desperately bundling up his most treasured books before fleeing the burning campus as gun fire echoes in the distance. It’s a very strange story. But it asks an important question: what would involuntary confrontation with participants in past research look like? What would it feel like? How would a prior knowledge of such future rencountering (re)shape our practice? Certainly these are not new questions. But it would be difficult to find a text which considers them quite as dramatically as Cohen’s.

This is something I’ve thought a lot about in the context of researching the asexual community. I first encountered the notion of asexuality through two new friends who identified as asexual. As I got curious about asexuality – partly because I didn’t ‘get it’ and partly because of its conspicuous absence within the sexualities literature I’d encountered at that point – I started to search online. I very quickly found asexual discussion forums, blogs and youtube videos. I found a website that an asexual PhD student (who eventually switched topics to research the history of asexual identity) had setup in order to help encourage and facilitate what was, at that point, a fairly insubstantial amount of academic research on asexuality. In short: an awful lot was happening online.

It soon became obvious that the internet had been integral to the emergence of an asexual identity and the formation of something which, for lack of a better term, we might call an asexual ‘community’. However the internet was also crucial to the formation of an extremely loose but nonetheless identifiable asexual research community – e-mail, mailing lists, blogs, discussion forums allowed   geographically dispersed individuals with common interests to communicate. This has eventually led to some face-to-face meetings: a seminar at the University of Warwick, a conference panel at the Sexualisation of Culture conference, the formation of an interest group of the National Women’s Studies Association and numerous conference sessions which have emerged from this.

There’s a risk of overstating the point but there is, nonetheless, a clear homology here and it’s a really interesting one. In a way it represents a reshaping of the field of research – the same trends are identifiable in the formation of groups of researchers as can be seen in groups of the researched. It might be the case that asexuality represents an outlier but, even if this is so, it’s helpful because it foregrounds a change which might be difficult to identify elsewhere if it is manifesting itself more gradually. The institutional and territorial gap between researchers and the groups they research – the concern of Cohen’s story – is being radically narrowed by the internet in general and social media in particular. There are some striking examples of this within asexuality studies, such as the formalisation of the Asexuality Visibility and Education Network’s gatekeeping function and the Open Letter to Researchers written by the Asexuality Awareness Week committee, but I find it difficult to see how this could become anything other than a broader trend. Some elements of Cohen’s parable could seem anachronistic given the sensitivity and awareness which many social researchers, particularly insider researchers, exhibit in relation to this ‘gap’. My intention is simply to frame this recognised issue in terms of the many ways in which the technological innovations which are driving this process can be drawn upon to negotiate it proactively. By this I mean things like:

  • Single author or multi-author blogging
  • Tweeting about research
  • Setting up a tumblr blog about research
  • Podcasting (interviews, talks)
  • Facebook pages
  • Videocasting (interviews, talks, documentaries)
  • Live streaming events
  • Engaging with community blogs

These are possibilities which often come up in terms of ‘impact’ and ‘public engagement’. But I think these are often sterile concepts, redolent of top-down imperatives and an audit culture – it also risks subsuming the specific publics of the researched who have a stake in the content of that research under the general ‘public’ with whom we are ‘engaging’.

These are powerful tools which, increasingly, require little to no technical expertise to master. Martin Weller talks about these technologies as being ‘fast, cheap and out of control’:

Fast – technology that is easy to learn and quick to set up. The academic does not need to attend a training course to use it or submit a request to their central IT services to set it up. This means they can experiment quickly.

Cheap – tools that are usually free or at least have a freemium model so the individual can fund any extension themselves. This means that it is not necessary to gain authorisation to use them from a budget holder. It also means the user doesn’t need to be concerned about the size of audience or return on investment, which is liberating.

Out of control – these technologies are outside of formal institutional control structures, so they have a more personal element and are more flexible. They are also democratised tools, so the control of them is as much in the hands of students as it is that of the educator

In adopting fast, cheap and out of control tools we make the research process newly open and, in doing so, help ameliorate the methodological and ethical difficulties which can result from too wide a gap between researchers and the groups they are researching. Using these tools proactively helps ensure that changes in the broader field of research which are, by definition, unpredictable can be negotiated more actively than would otherwise be the case. Incorporating them into ongoing practice can also, somewhat paradoxically, lead to much greater impact than could ever be achieved by deliberately seeking ‘impact’ as a compartmentalised activity. The digital footprint which open research leaves manifests itself in a discoverability by activists, journalists, practitioners and policy makers which would be difficult, if not impossible, to cultivate through other means. But this discoverability is also achallenge – ethically and methodologically – one which I think Stan Cohen would have found very interesting.

FINDING COMMON GROUND?

Research Ethics across the Social Sciences: Conference and Workshops

The British Library, London NW1 2DB

Friday 10th January 2014

This major conference will build on the outcomes of the Academy of Social Sciences’ 2013 series of Ethics Symposia and consider important debates around Principles, Values and Standards.

The one-day event is organised by the Academy of Social Sciences in partnership with the British Library, with support from the British Sociological Association, the British Psychological Society, the Economic and Social Research Council and the Open University. It will consolidate the discussions held during Spring 2013 among representatives of learned societies and other organisations across the academic and research communities.

The symposia papers and discussions have been reported in a Professional Briefing which can be accessed below, along with full outputs from the symposia series. Conference participants will define the next steps towards sharing approaches to research ethics principles and practice across the social sciences.

Programme

09.30-10.15  Registration and coffee.

10.15-10.20  Welcome to the British Library. Jude England AcSS

10.20-10.30  Introduction. Ron Iphofen AcSS

10.30–11.00 Discussion of the ‘Principles’ report. Introduced by Robert Dingwall AcSS and John Oates AcSS

11.00-11.30 `Reflections and developments in research ethics and Governance: a US perspective’.  Felice J Levine, Executive Director, American Educational Research Association; Member, National Research Council (of the National Academies) Committee on Revisions to the Common Rule for the Protection of Human Subjects in Research in the Behavioral and Social Sciences.

11.30–12.45 Workshops to discuss the morning’s presentations and one to discuss AREC’s document on A Framework of policies and Procedures for University Research Ethics Committees led by Birgit Whitman, University of Bristol.

12.45–13.45  Lunch

13.45–15.00  Four parallel workshops to open up discussion on ethically:

  • Researching children and vulnerable adults Gemma Moss AcSS, British Educational Research Association and Institute of Education.
  • Using social media led by Kandy Woodfield, NatCen Social Research
  • Data sharing led by Libby Bishop, UK Data Service, University of Essex
  • Researching across cultures Lucy Pickering, Association of Social Anthropologists and University of Glasgow.

15.00-15.15   Tea

15.15-16.30   Plenary Panel. To be finalised but including Felice Levine and Jonathan Montgomery of the HRA.

16.30            Close

16.30-17.30   Wine reception supported by Emerald Group Publishing Limited and an opportunity to find out more about key social science publications.

Book and pay via Eventbrite by clicking here. [If you experience any problems, please contact Helen Spriggs at the Academy]

A small number of bursaries are available for graduate students or the unwaged. Please send a letter of application to the project team via Helen Spriggs, the Academy administrator on administrator@acss.org.uk. Please put ‘Bursary application for Ethics Conference’ as the subject line.

The relation of people like us–researchers in the social sciences–to the people we gathered data on and wrote about was beginning to worry us all. We had left behind the innocence of being happy when we used the tricks we had been taught, and continued to teach to our students, to “get access” and “gain rapport.” We rejoiced at our good fortune when people were willing to share their experiences and secrets with us, things they might have preferred the whole world not know about. We were proud of our ability to be “one of the boys” (or girls).

By the 1970s we all knew this relation was not so innocent as all that. What were the terms of this one-sided giving of information? Did we give anything back? Was the exchange as unequal as it seemed to be when we took a good look? Were we exploiting our superior educations and class positions to take advantage of innocent people? The answers weren’t obvious. Some people said that we gave, in return for data, our undivided attention and our caring acceptance of their lives, however unsavory those might seem to middle-class people who hadn’t achieved our level of “insider” understanding. Others thought that our research could lead us and others, perhaps people in positions of power who could undertake effective interventions, to an understanding that might improve the lives of the people who gave us our data, and so allow us to pay back their acceptance and even trust.

– Howard Becker, The Last Seminar, In Crime, Social Control and Human Rights: From Moral Panics to Denial – Essays in Honour of Stanley Cohen, edited by Christine Chinkin, David Downes, Conor Gearty and Paul Rock

I found this reflection by Howard Becker (a very grateful HT to Lambros Fatsis who realised how interesting I would find this & kindly e-mailed it to me) extremely helpful for a line of thought I’ve been pursuing recently. Becker’s chapter, like the blog post and conference presentation I’ve done on this, responds to Stan Cohen’s weird story of the Last Seminar in which research participants ‘invade’ the campus to take their revenge on the hubristic researchers. One of many things I found useful about Becker’s chapter is the way in which he historicises the issue Cohen explores, situating it in time and space in order to make sense of the narrative “exposing in a raw and undisguised form the tensions that might exist in these relations we talk about so easily from the comfort of the Senior Common Room“. He also offers a useful corrective to the incipient victimology that might ensue from universalising the relation depicted in Cohen’s story by recounting his own experiences of having research participants of ‘equal’ or ‘higher’ social status to himself.

What has really piqued my curiosity though is this sense of the 1970s as a time of shifting languages of research ethics and participation. From the perspective of someone who was trained in qualitative social research in the late 2000s Cohen’s story had a curiously anachronistic quality to it. Not so much that the moral of the story wasn’t comprehensible or agreeable (it was on both counts) but simply that it seemed like ethical common-sense. So what I’m interested in now is whether it’s possible to do a periodization of changes in the language of research ethics and participation. I’d be very grateful for  reading suggestions if anyone has encountered work that falls into this category. I’m (slowly) writing a paper and a book chapter about the way in which social media is transforming the landscape of social research (particularly vis-a-vis sustaining relationships with research participants and research communities) and it seems it would be remiss to only look at these shifts prospectively rather than, as Becker does, retrospectively.