Friday, 28 October 2011

The AFS on proposed changes to research ethics models

The American Folklore Society have recently issued a statement on proposed changes to consent requirements for fieldwork. The AFS's response, with their existing statement of principles on research ethics, can be found here.
Fieldwork ethics is important. It's about how we deal with people as humans, how we document, report and reflect their lives accurately and respectfully. The AFS statement is well worth reading, as it is a sane and humane approach to research ethics in this field.
It also bears reading here in the UK, too, where the marginalised character of Folklore in academia means that university research ethics policies may also be designed primarily with laboratory research models in mind. The absence of legislative guidelines may not mean there isn't a general trend in that direction, particularly in the absence of an authoritative and respected body which represents a recognised field of study. (The Folklore Society here is certainly respected, but is perhaps easier to ignore in the absence of Folklore departments).
When discussing ethics clearance for my recent doctoral fieldwork I initially came up against a number of expectations that clearly derived from scientific research models: some academics seemed baffled when I said that anonymisation might not always be appropriate, and might in fact be insulting depending on the nature of the tradition being examined. I'm happy to say that a school-specific ethics committee (which has been more active since the introduction of oral history modules there) worked with me in a constructive way, helping me to move away from this 'human subjects' laboratory model. Anybody who is undertaking field research needs to think about these questions, and needs to think about the ethical structures they require.

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