Tuesday, September 25, 2012

The Ethics of Ethnography: A Transcript

VWER - August 30, 2012 
Location: VWER meeting

Image courtesy of Wrenaria

On August 30, authors Tom Boellstroff and Celia Pearce met to discuss their book, Ethnography & Virtual Worlds: A Handbook of MethodThe transcript of their voice interview with AJ Kelton is now available here.

Pearce, Boellstroff, and their coauthors have accomplished something important with this work. The ethics of working in virtual worlds should be paramount for anyone who calls him or herself an ethnographer. As I have opined here before, many folks in Second Life call themselves "educators," but what does that mean?

Whatever one's institutional affiliation or lack of it,  when doing research on human subjects, even those behind avatarian masks, two our VWER guests find essential the following points. The ideas were paraphrased by our transcribers, including me. Any faults are then our own, not Tom's and Celia's.

The Dangers Amateur "Ethnography"
  • "There is a danger…folks calling themselves researchers and publishing screen names of subjects" (Tom)
  • "one (person doing research) had sexual and romantic relationships (with subjects)" (Celia)
  • "One must have good research design and take care when generalizing. So there is no difference (between face-to-face and virtual research)" (Tom).
  • Both Tom and Celia use their real-life names in parts of their profiles to let subjects know who they really are. They do not use ALTs to conduct research.
  • "The popularity of people claiming to be ethnographers can undermine our work" (Tom)
One person at the meeting claimed that the point just made "sounds a bit elitist," and I'd prefer to say "no, it's merely professional." Anyone can turn a wrench or even replace parts on a car, but it takes a lot of professional training today to become a professional mechanic. The same is true for researchers.

Anonymity of Subjects:
  • In Indonesia, because gay men are ostracized, I often get pseudonyms from those I interview. This does not invalidate the research…and we cannot assume the same online " (Tom)
  • "My research ethics committee wanted paper signed copies and I could not do that, so this was new for the committee to get their head around" (Celia).
The book will provide benchmarks for all of us. I hope it starts a long and much-needed conversation as more and more virtual worlds emerge and researchers visit them. Even ones that be dressed as pirates, like Celia, and have that in their profiles! Avast!

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