Research Ethics in the Arts & Humanities: Challenging the Hegemony of Scientific Models

It’s extraordinary to think that only a decade or so ago, rigorous ethical regulation in arts research was practically non-existent.  At no point during my PhD studies (2004-8) was I required to submit ethics application forms, or in some other way specify the precise nature of my methods in terms of ethical implications, for the purposes of institutional scrutiny and approval. Furthermore, offering a verbal explanation of the project’s aims, and obtaining recorded verbal consent from interviewees to allow quotation of their responses was deemed perfectly appropriate and sufficient.

Times have changed, and they have changed for the better: at my institution – and, I would imagine, every other UK HEI – any research involving “human participants” must undergo a rigorous peer-review screening process, during which potential problems and concerns can be highlighted, and examples of good practice can be shared among staff and students. As well as a detailed application, for the purposes of the ethics review procedure, staff and students are required to present “participant information sheets” and “participant consent forms” to demonstrate how the aims and data-handling methods of the researcher will be communicated to the participants, and how the latter’s agreement will be established. Great. I wish that such a scenario had been a requirement during my PhD days.  The procedure is valuable in more ways than one: all staff are involved in the review process, meaning that our awareness of each other’s research activities is improved considerably. We are routinely called upon to think about the methodologies of our colleagues in our own and other sub-disciplines: my department is very varied in its approaches to the study of music, and I am regularly involved in peer-reviewing ethics applications for research methods ranging from quantitative demographic analysis to psychological experimentation. The result is a greater understanding of different research approaches at a practical level, as well as a regular reminder of the possibilities for arts research in general.

But the process sometimes highlights (often considerable) differences in approach and expectation in ways that are potentially less constructive – particularly when one set of expectations is presented as “the norm”.  A key example of this is embodied by the presence of anonymity as a fundamental concept. The procedures from which institutions commonly derive their ethical review policy are drawn from a pan-scientific model, clearly developed to cope most usefully with research ethics considerations relating to the collection of (e.g.) bio-medical data. It’s a no-brainer that this sort of research would have participant anonymity built in to methodology. The trappings of the procedure – the application forms, the template information sheets and consent forms, and the accompanying guidelines – are, of course, necessarily available for use in relation to other kinds of human research, but the underlying discourses of quantitative (or semi-quantitative) research are obvious throughout.  For many research fields in the Arts and Humanities, this works just fine – quantitative research is to be found in every corner of the A&H academy, particularly where that work is adjacent to the “social sciences” or psychology. It is not, however, a panacea for ethical considerations across all disciplines…4.0.4

The area of ethnomusicology is a classic example of a field of study which cannot reasonably be expected to operate with a “default setting” of anonymity for all participants. There are a number of reasons why anonymity might be an inappropriate expectation of ethnomusicological research. Firstly, enforcing the anonymity of the participant can be detrimental to them.  Ethnomusicologists regularly work with musicians who would wish to be identified as carriers of a musical tradition, authorities on that tradition, and performers to be sought out by new audiences. Particularly where an individual informant performs within a bounded local context, named exposure to the ethnomusicological fraternity of Western academia can sometimes open the way to new listeners, new performance and travel opportunities, and ultimately increased personal, social and economic prosperity. Elsewhere, it may simply be the case that the individual wishes to exercise their right to have their views attributed. It is interesting that, in the context of a well-established academic culture which sees the attribution of published research (via citation) as the very bare minimum of acceptable practice, ethnomusicologists’ research ethics applications should have to “make a case” for naming our participants in our research – participants who are often significant authorities in their field, and without whose interpretative input our research would simply not be possible. It is for very good reasons that, in ethnomusicology, we commonly refer to “informants” rather than “subjects”.

The second reason why anonymity is often inappropriate in ethnomusicological research is that obscuring the identity of the participant can be detrimental to the research project. Now, this is likely to be a more contentious argument, because a basic tenet of ethical research practice is that the ends do not justify the means, and that no research (particularly in the arts and humanities, where we’re not, e.g., developing a cure for cancer) can ever be acceptable where it puts participants at physical or emotional risk. And that’s fair enough. I’m not suggesting that we put the needs of the research before those of participants. If, however, “the needs of the participant” are assumed (via a bio-medically based hegemonic discourse) to be best served by anonymity, then ethnographic research runs into big problems. The vast majority of the people I have interviewed and quoted in my research on English folk music, for instance, are only significant informants and respondents because of who they are.  In many cases any attempt to render them “anonymous” in my writing would require stripping back so much contextual information about that person that their relevance – and the relevance of their views and musical activities – would also be erased, making the research nonsensical.

The assumption that anonymity should be the benchmark procedure is largely based on an assumption that there will always be an uncomplicated power imbalance between the researcher and the researched: this narrative portrays the researcher as the all-powerful authority figure, while the researched are relatively powerless and largely reliant on others (i.e. the researcher) to manage their public representation in a fair (and preferably  “beneficial”) way. But that traditional relationship, whilst present in many cases, has been disrupted in modern times by, among other things, the democratisation of publication and recourse (particularly via the internet).  This is especially the case for any professional artist in the West, whose online profile is likely to far-outweigh that of any new academic literature published about them. And within larger professionalised music scenes, the spoken and written views of many high-level artists are (a) already being published by themselves in other forms such as blogs and media releases, and (b) are likely to be of far greater interest to their audience than the interpretations of an academic researcher. In many such occasions, ethnographic and arts-based research is about responding to, questioning and critiquing existing published discourse, rather than the slightly two-dimensional narrative of thrusting the unwitting and defenceless “little person” into the limelight.800px-thumbnail

Once again, I am not suggesting that the needs of the research should ever overrule the needs of the participant. But I might suggest that the risk assessment needs to be a realistic one, and that there are questions to be asked about the responsibility of the individuals on both sides of the research fence.  It is the responsibility of any researcher to fully inform his/her participants of the methods by which research is being conducted, the way the information gathered will be used, and of any significant likely consequences. But to suggest that, having done those things, our default response as researchers in the arts and humanities should be the provision of anonymity is to assume that participants must be (effectively) protected from (a) their own inability to self-regulate or (b) valid interpretations of their input which differ from their own. In some cases this is perfectly appropriate. In others, this has the potential to project a patronising, dehumanising, disenfranchising image of participants as faceless vessels of knowledge. And such a projection would be, well, unethical.

I may seem to be overstating the case, given that the provision of anonymity is not a requirement of research in the Arts/Humanities at present. One can reasonably expect to name participants in research, so long as those participants agree with it, and so long as various safe-guards are put in place (and explained in an ethics approval application) to ensure the security of that agreement.  ‘So what’s the problem, Simon?!’

The problem is that, as long as the scientific anonymity model remains the dominant discourse within research ethics literature, engagement, bureaucracy, etc., it’s status as “normality” will be reinforced.  In turn, research that relies on the naming of participants is likely to become seen as in some way transgressive… I have recently fielded a number of questions from students, all concerned that the templates for participant information/consent form sheets that they are being asked to use seem to be “instructing” them to offer anonymity to their participants, something that in some cases could be highly problematic to their research. The natural human response, of course, is to take the path of least resistance, and so students often instinctively try to rework their methodologies to fit with this dominant expectation. Given time, and a few generations of brow-beaten A&H researchers, there seems to me to be a genuine risk that ethnographic research which dares – needs – to “name names” will be relegated to the status of dodgy journalism. This is something that I don’t think should be allowed to happen. Instead, a variety of approaches to research ethics should receive equal acknowledgement, celebration, representation and support from research institutions.