People v/s Project: The Ethics of Ethnography

Ethnography is a powerful tool. It puts the subject’s beliefs, thoughts and aspirations in the hands of the observer. And as the famous superhero once said: with great power comes great responsibility. When working on a healthcare assignment, the Future Factory team faced a unique dilemma and this brought up an interesting question. What comes first: the people or the project? And over a series of conversations and debates, we outlined 3 large concerns that seem to frame this very intense debate. This however, represents a start, and it would be advisable to include participation from a wider community of design practitioners, clients and partners.


Murphy and Dingwall, in their research paper claim that the ethnographer needs to be able to justify his approach to research ethics within the context of the study. This is because in ethnography, the research settings are often more complex and changeable than can be anticipated. They may be right. Consent is well interpreted in simple situations. But in complex and changing scenarios consent needs to be interpreted carefully. For example, consent to take a video for restricted use, not public sharing may seem clear. It might need more clarity to ensure that public sharing is not available to the client when the data is in his hands. And even less clearer, if research uncovers an unexpected privacy, which the respondent did not intend to consent to.


Anonymity is the fundamental principle of research. And ethnography, which might turn intrusive without warning, must be especially cognisant of this. While, guarantees of confidentiality and anonymity given to research participants can be honoured, it is harder to do this when their identity makes it hard to disguise them. Working with healthcare is complex and concerns confidentiality towards the patient, the practitioner, the institution even. Documenting a medical procedure might compromise any of these stakeholders if the procedure takes an uneventful turn, despite early consent. And often conflict may exist between the rights of several such stakeholders. There are institutions that take the trouble to formalise a creado of hierarchy. Needs of the patient before the hospital. Rights of the respondent before those of the project sponsor. While this may deserve debate, it is without doubt that it deserves attention. Probably more than the research industry gives it due.


It is widely agreed that respect is the basic guideline for research. Yet I have been in several meetings that show little consideration for the respondent. Ethnography is a privilege that we practitioners are allowed into. To be part of a person’s private life and share his life, his hopes; is to owe him both gratitude and respect. Often that disrespect manifests itself in the superior position of being the interrogator. Questions carelessly framed, subjects frugally studied, subtly show disrespect for respondents by placing them in embarrassing situations. The responsibility rests on the part of the researcher, to do the homework and ensure due sensitivity.

Ethics are not about legal obligation, but about a moral standing. And it might be useful to review the possibility of a body of ethnographers agreeing to a common moral ground. The heart of ethical scrutiny is the attempt to balance the risk of harm against the potential for benefits that can accrue to varied individuals, groups, communities, and even societies from research participation. And while we propound the benefits of ethnography, it might serve us well to first lay the guidelines to do it well.

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