The shifting language of research ‘participation’

The relation of people like us–researchers in the social sciences–to the people we gathered data on and wrote about was beginning to worry us all. We had left behind the innocence of being happy when we used the tricks we had been taught, and continued to teach to our students, to “get access” and “gain rapport.” We rejoiced at our good fortune when people were willing to share their experiences and secrets with us, things they might have preferred the whole world not know about. We were proud of our ability to be “one of the boys” (or girls).

By the 1970s we all knew this relation was not so innocent as all that. What were the terms of this one-sided giving of information? Did we give anything back? Was the exchange as unequal as it seemed to be when we took a good look? Were we exploiting our superior educations and class positions to take advantage of innocent people? The answers weren’t obvious. Some people said that we gave, in return for data, our undivided attention and our caring acceptance of their lives, however unsavory those might seem to middle-class people who hadn’t achieved our level of “insider” understanding. Others thought that our research could lead us and others, perhaps people in positions of power who could undertake effective interventions, to an understanding that might improve the lives of the people who gave us our data, and so allow us to pay back their acceptance and even trust.

– Howard Becker, The Last Seminar, In Crime, Social Control and Human Rights: From Moral Panics to Denial – Essays in Honour of Stanley Cohen, edited by Christine Chinkin, David Downes, Conor Gearty and Paul Rock

Becker’s chapter responds to Stan Cohen’s weird story of the Last Seminar in which research participants ‘invade’ the campus to take their revenge on the hubristic researchers. One of many things I found useful about Becker’s chapter is the way in which he historicises the issue Cohen explores, situating it in time and space in order to make sense of the narrative “exposing in a raw and undisguised form the tensions that might exist in these relations we talk about so easily from the comfort of the Senior Common Room“. He also offers a useful corrective to the incipient victimology that might ensue from universalising the relation depicted in Cohen’s story by recounting his own experiences of having research participants of ‘equal’ or ‘higher’ social status to himself.

What has really piqued my curiosity though is this sense of the 1970s as a time of shifting languages of research ethics and participation. From the perspective of someone who was trained in qualitative social research in the late 2000s Cohen’s story had a curiously anachronistic quality to it. Not so much that the moral of the story wasn’t comprehensible or agreeable (it was on both counts) but simply that it seemed like ethical common-sense. So what I’m interested in now is whether it’s possible to do a periodization of changes in the language of research ethics and participation.


Categories: Sociological Craft

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