Undoing Ethics: Rethinking Practice in Online Research
In George Marcus and Michael Fisher wrote the book Anthropology as cultural critique: An experimental moment in the human sciences in which they were responding to what they saw as a new orientation in anthropological writings and ethnographic inquiry. They characterized this shift in the American practice of anthropology as such:. They go on to point out that the interpretative model of knowledge generation that emerged as a characterization of this new style was not the actual point but instead the point was to open the field to challenge the basic notion that a paradigmatic style, that a discipline-centric characterizing of knowledge generation, was insufficient for doing justice to the multivalent human phenomena anthropologists encounter.
I think those engaging in Internet studies implicitly know this as well. So that our work, like the sex metaphor you use above, often hinges on consent agreement to move forward with each other or risk harm. As Marcus and Fisher go on to explain:. These are clear tensions among Internet researchers. We were hoping to put the photos, videos, posters, various ephemeral documentation of that dyke-centric queer scene online, and realized: it turns out there are so many reasons this is a bad idea.
Or, this is an idea that we need to think through in a lot more careful and complicated ways. Do people want us putting their first and perhaps only drag performance from online? Do working artists who create careful and beautiful documentation of their performances want a grainy, shaky, terribly lit video of their work in its earliest draft forms shared online? Can we contact everyone in these photos and video files between 10—30 performers per show to ask them for permissions to put them online?
Can we even find these people who are often living names and lives that would be put at risk if we searched for them using their 90s markers? The process of working on this archive sort of tipped us off to the fact that there are not yet a set of ethical guidelines or understandings for doing queer and feminist politically accountable work in and on digital networks.
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So we started our research into what those accountable or ethical practices might be. Michelle : Yeah, yeah yeah. Jasmine : One of the main concerns TL and I have in our collaborative work is: what measure of accessibility and publicity is ethical, when it comes to queer cultural content? How do we imagine a framework of accountability for the practice of taking things texts, art, performance, stories, zines that were meant for a really limited audience — deliberately not meant to circulate too far beyond the feminist and dyke scenes in which they emerged — and putting those online?
Program in Human Sexuality and I have to think really broadly to answer such fundamental ethical questions like: what does the field need?
And what do these people who are studying this stuff need? As a researcher, right. My interests are more around intimacies, and what makes me so interested always is how high-level global, economic processes come down and impact our most intimate decision-making. And if we are being honest, there is no way to think about the global economy without thinking about the parallel development of information communication technologies ICT , which we just call among other things the Internet.
Processes like neoliberalization and globalization exist in a complex relationship with technological change and with the development of the Internet. But as you all know, these all lots of technologies working together in different ways that continually recombine to produce different social, cultural and economic impacts. Because most of us are in the economy, right. Most of us have not found a way out of it yet. And so, for those of us who are in it, and we have to deal with this, this crazy thing that classical economists identified as turning our blood and our sweat and our tears and our energy, our human energy, into a value that we then place a money value onto, exchange money through that energy.
And in terms of the way that marriage works on this is that since the passage of U. LGBTQ marriage, people are now able to evaluate each other through these formal exchange networks, queer people included. How has dating, hooking up and the like changed after marriage? These are temporal questions grounded in actual geographic specificity — as your archive is and even as texts produced in large quantities on the Internet are.
Jasmine : I think that it would be worth writing out what you just said: your interest in the way Internet studies might help you track a cultural and intimate shift, that you intuitively know has been happening, which has to do with rendering queer relationality to a kind of economic matrix that complements the structures of marriage. But using the Internet to pursue these research questions will likely bring you into all sorts of ethical quagmires, right?
So, what are some ethical ways into the research project that you would like to do? What are some ethical ways into the research projects that TL and I have been liking to do? What would be on your mind if you were turning to the Internet to try and to pursue your research questions?
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What would anthropology say you need to do? You would probably need to develop a clear ethics protocol and be reviewed by your university ethics board. But would you need institutional ethics approval if this research was done online? But exactly what you have just identified, Michelle, as very much working through a kind of history of experience of harm in anthropology — that thing of being embedded, so that you can dedicate your work to a kind of rich, contextual account — the rich context that anthropology has cared a lot about for a long time seems to be missing right now for Internet research.
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I mean, we have an attention to context, but not quite, not in the same way. In a very different way. Because if you identify yourself, then you have to go through the Research Ethics Board. So this is a problem, since there seems to be very little guidance or understanding at the institutional level about the lurking academic researcher.
So one of the guidelines in the ethics policy is that if the conversation or interaction is in public and has no reasonable expectation of privacy, then no ethics clearance is needed. Technically, many conversations on Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr etc. Michelle : In my research practice, I do deal with these ethical boundaries. As an ethnographer, I fundamentally place people at the center of the inquiry — not theory making, not deeper discourse analysis techniques, not statistical tests, not new data scraping fanciness, and so on.
What I am saying is that we can get lost in the techniques and idea-generating and easily lose sight of the fact that we as social researchers interested in doing work with people need to keep them at the center of our work as living, breathing, thinking, and acting not as straw people to make our academic careers or as afterthoughts that invoke liberal inspiration devoid of contextual action but as central, crucial and generative as they create their cultural worlds through their cultural practices.
Jasmine : And so many of the minoritized artists, activists, intellectuals, cultural worlds and cultural practices around which so much trans feminist, queer, critical race studies revolve do not need unsolicited or academically self-serving online exposure. So many of the anti-feminist super racist attacks we see online come from taking minoritized knowledges, cultures and conversations out of context — the decontextualized circulation of feminist analyses in gaming culture, or any anti-racist critique of police or articulation of abolitionist politics.
The knowledges, practices and intimacies that we most care about, academically and also personally, are only possible in a kind of smaller network. What is the position in terms of being an outsider studying a culture? Michelle : I touched on this a bit earlier but can definitely say more. Anthropologists in general think of participant-observation as starting as an observer but always ending as a participant, right. So in that sort of learning that happens, there is that understanding that at some point, the ethnographer is going to lose the perspective, right.
This is of course complicated a bit when you self-identify with a group but even then you are generally in a position of power as a researcher. TL : In the most recent article Jasmine and I wrote Cowan and Rault, , and which we sent to you, we tried to reckon with the convergence of the theorization of the Internet and digital cultural practice which coincided with the emergence of queer theory.
Personally, I was a much earlier adopter of queerness and queer theory than I was of the Internet. I shared an e-mail account with my then-girlfriend until about Y2K. So I guess the two were very entwined in my personal life. Jasmine : So yeah, this is an interesting historical argument. The Internet becomes both a social and cultural phenomenon but also an object of study at about the same time that queer activism becomes a social and cultural political force, and queer theory becomes a method, as well as a discipline.
There are a few people — our colleague Cait McKinney is one of them — who have been doing this work on the convergences of queer networks and the Internet.
Undoing ethics: rethinking practice in online research
Michelle : Yeah. So what it brings to mind for me is sort of the, kind of the fetishization of the universal, or universalizing tropes, which were only really made possible via neoliberalism. The idea of globalization is a positive spin on neoliberalism. But the ethics and class politics of all of that is rarely questioned or highlighted in such works: who is allowed to travel, who was allowed to work in these worlds, to gain materially, is of course not really discussed.
It was kind of at the tail end of the gay and lesbian movement in the s but before the LGBTQIA movement collapsed all into a limited set of identity categories. And so, it was so difficult to try to untangle all of that. For me, in my positionality as a student to try to pull all of that stuff apart across all of the different professors that I had to deal with was difficult.
That these strands even in the academy started then, they meshed up together, into an intellectual and emotional project. And, you know, what can I learn? It gave me a front-row seat to understand that theoretical, intellectual, personal and political projects feed each other — pretending these are separate just feeds systems of inequality and violence. Parallel to that, the Internet came along in San Francisco. And that was sort of the atmosphere I had entered into.
And there was a convergence between that queer activist and theoretical work I discussed above and the rise of the Internet. I lived through it. But at the same time, we were dealing with all of these, you know, this really super traumatized gay and lesbian community that had, you know, beyond their political differences, had found community through caring for each other, because of the epidemic, because people were just literally dying.
So you take care of each other, right. So the epidemic helped to heal some of that stuff, but I think in all of that work that needed to happen, there was some collapsing, but it was, like you said, all of these things just kind of came together in parallel motion, right.
But started rubbing together in our minds: emotion, sexuality, care, intimacy, economy, power, survival.
Jasmine : Researchers can scrape a hashtag from a Twitter feed, process and analyze that data without ever needing to be observed, or to out themselves as researchers. This method of research can be completely disengaged from questions of context or ethics — neither the useful methods of close reading that literary studies brings us nor the useful methods of engagement that ethnography brings us.
dhunoracthe.tk What can we learn about ethical research practices for queer Internet studies if we understand non-transcendence, embeddedness in and accountability for the structures of power that we seek to transform, as guiding our queer methods? That move could allow us to apply these methodological and ethical stances to understanding all sexualities and genders and to deconstruct these in time and space to see networks and linkages that are not apparent otherwise. What I am saying is that the queer road leads directly to questions of political stance and an ethical praxis.
Jasmine : Yeah. Academic institutions are quite central to this phenomenon — academics are putting things online but also activist librarians and archivists working with university collections. So many activists, archivists and academics have really good reason to put the materials online. And then, academics and sometimes journalists or bloggers have really good reason to engage with those archives.
But the question of how easily this stuff circulates now gets us into an area of risk assessment and risk management and risk awareness which is the history of minoritized subjects engaging in public forever.
Feminists have been concerned with risk and care and the unequal vulnerabilities of being in public for a really long time. We are talking about what I think of as screening techniques: how certain bodies take up spaces by screening out the existence of others. If you are screened out by virtue of the body you have then you simply do not even appear or register to others. You might even have to become insistent, wave your arms, even shout, just to appear. This leaves researchers who do not want to partake in such screenings, elisions, erasures frantically waving our arms, being insistent — shouting in pieces like this one to open the dialogue about this topic and to integrate methodological learnings from others who have explicitly grappled with these ethical quandaries like feminists, ethnographers and anthropologists — and now even queer Internet researchers.
TL : I keep thinking about queer method through a dyke, anti-oppression, anti-violence framework.