Posted by: Nathan Dinsdale | May 10, 2013

Fade to Gray

It seems clear, pretty much from the outset of L&T’s Chapter 5, that the ethical boundaries of ethnographic research can be both a moving target and a particularly sticky wicket. As the authers reference, qualitative scholars are effectively “professional strangers” often simultaneously detached from–but inextricably tied to–the individuals, cultures and communities that they study. In citing Punch (1986), L&T acknowledge the view that virtually all fieldworkers “practice some degree of deception,” establishing murky boundary lines of empirical research.

In my mind, the delineation between the four “types” of ethnographic researchers (complete participants, complete observers, participant-as-observer and observer-as-participant) brought to mind certain hallmarks in journalism/literary nonfiction. From John Howard Griffin (Black Like Me) and Morgan Spurlock (Supersize Me) to Barbara Ehrenreich (Nickel and Dimed) and Hunter S. Thompson (Hell’s Angels), there is a pop culture totem that brings the kind of undeniable insights and uncomfortable realities that can accompany qualitative ethnography.

To what extent does a researcher’s participation influence or bias the “data” gathered through their study of individuals or groups? Could the same insights and observations be obtained without “immersion” techniques? Depending on the context, I suspect the answer is both “Yes” and “No.” However, in participatory ethnographic research, at what point do the ends ultimately stop justifying the means?

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