To Anonymize, or Not to Anonymize

The Journalist and the Ethnographer textMy responses to the comments on my post about ethnography and journalism were getting way too long (apologies), so I thought I’d throw them into a separate post, and also encourage more people to chime in. Thanks for all the thoughtful comments, folks, which brought up new issues from provocatively different vantage points. (If you haven’t read their comments, I’d encourage you to do so!)

I agree with @krippendorf’s comment that the use of anonymity can make it possible to exploit our respondents and twist their words, and that’s probably the biggest problem that my inner journalist has with this prevalent practice that ethnographers (myself included) engage in. (A caveat: there is clearly variation in how ethnographers do their work, as @olderwoman pointed out, which would even include the degree of anonymity we use. I’ll get into this more in a second.) At the same time, it’s interesting how journalism opens itself up to pernicious forms of exploitation of a different kind—what I think Janet Malcolm was getting at—in terms of using people and not considering more carefully the consequences of quoting them in a story. So it seems both fields have their own Achilles heels, and perhaps we just need to accept they go about things in different ways that are ethical on their own terms (though I do think that both fields can learn from the other and maybe find a happier middle ground).

Thomas Basbøll makes a good point that an ethnographer needs to be very cautious in making claims because of the inability in many cases to prove that what you wrote is, without a doubt, true. (Of course, in part that’s not even up to you, because of the ethical/IRB need or norm of protecting respondent identities that we’ve been talking about.) However, I do think one of the strengths of ethnography is its ability to stumble across unexpected situations or outcomes, which in turn can help refine or challenge our theories (with all the caveats that the sample is almost always small and unrepresentative, etc.). But those findings will naturally lead to skepticism because they don’t fit with people’s preconceptions—and, if they’re unflattering to certain people or groups, they may also lead to vicious pushback, however unwarranted it is.

As a former newspaper reporter, I would add that print journalism, as it is practiced from day to day, operates routinely with a pretty low standard of verifiability. Yes, sources often get recorded on tape or video, providing documentary evidence, but most of the time reporters are just writing things down in their spiral notebooks. They simply don’t have the time to do much else, given deadline constraints. Also, recording an interview changes the dynamic—encouraging the source to use her bland “on the record” voice—and journalists don’t want that. As a result, they typically reserve taping for remarks by politicians or other elites. But the result is that, in many stories, they quote people who then go on to say they were misquoted, and it becomes a he-said-she-said situation. (That happened to me once: a low-level government official made an off-the-cuff comment that he later regretted, and afterward started telling people I made up the quote. I called him and chewed him out for doing that, but there was no way for me to “prove” to other people he had lied because I hadn’t recorded him.) Nevertheless, this is something that happens more often than you’d think, and that’s because journalists (like ethnographers) are dealing with messy real-world constraints.

Now, to bring us back to that earlier point about variations in the practice of ethnography: it’s interesting how many different approaches you can find among the most ethical of ethnographers—all of whom, let’s stipulate, are trying to do right by both their respondents and their research. As @olderwoman pointed out, some people just use pseudonyms, some people change details (but only a little), and some people go all out and create composite characters. I can see the ethical rationale for all these approaches. (And in any case, I can’t imagine a room full of ethnographers could be forced to pick any one strategy as the professional best practice, even under pain of death.)

On the other hand, as one of the commenters in the Alex Golub piece that Thomas recommended wrote, perhaps we’re kidding ourselves that any of these strategies truly do protect our respondents’ confidentiality. Even if you create composites and change certain details, I think you’re still divulging a pattern of data that someone close to the respondent would recognize, and that person would therefore be able to figure out that their friend, etc., provided at least some of those details to the ethnographer.

Also, as another commenter discussed in the Golub piece, respondents are often disappointed to learn their real names won’t be published. When I was working as a journalist, I found that people would divulge sensitive details to me or other reporters—for example, about some trauma they’d experienced—and afterward they would tell us they were happy to see their name in print. It gave them a sense of validation to see their story out there and have other people know they actually experienced this. Sometimes, they were contacted afterward by people who related to their story or wanted to help them, and they said they were grateful for that opportunity.

Now, it’s also very true that many people need a promise of confidentiality in order to feel comfortable telling their story completely and truthfully. And it goes without saying that sources—even nonelites—will exploit the fact that their real names are being used in order to profit from the attention in some way. For example, a few times I had the hunch that someone was telling me a sob story in order to garner sympathy and get donations from the newspaper’s readers.

I suppose my overall, personal stance on the conundrums we’ve been talking about is that it’s important to recognize the various ethical and practical tradeoffs of all these approaches—and not just the distinct practices of journalism and ethnography, but also the different ones used within each tradition. I know that’s wishy-washy of me, but life, as they say, is multivariate.


Written by Victor Tan Chen

September 24, 2015 at 4:35 pm

Posted in ethics, ethnography

3 Responses

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  1. I have a lot of thoughts about this–Alexandra Murphy and I are writing a paper on this, actually.

    3 points

    1. Just to be clear, IRB does not make people use pseudonyms. It does seem to suggest it by asking how you will protect their identities, but I have had no trouble at 3 different IRBs with 3 different projects saying on the form, “I will give participants the opportunity to use their real names.” I find it problematic that using fake names and places is so automatic that many ethnographers feel no need to even justify the decision [e.g., a sympathetic portrait of public characters like hot dog vendors will have a footnote saying, “to protect confidentiality, and following ethnographic convention, I use pseudonyms].

    2. I also find it interesting that ethnographers rarely bother to stop and ask what our participants own conception of ethical research is: We think it is ethical to use fake names–and actually, we usually think our ethical obligation has been met once we have changed enough details [aka, created fictionalized characters or settings], but they may have a totally different understanding of what we owe them. For instance, what pissed off Lareau’s participants so much even though they were masked and no one else knew who they were is that they felt she did not portray them as real human beings. That is, it was her professional obligation [or prerogative] to generalize by reducing them to typologies that so upset them. Scheper Hughes found the same, and the story is similar for Small Town in Mass Society. This implies that perhaps part of our ethic should be portraying their humanity, and that may matter to them more than whether we use fake or real names.

    3. The thing about how fake names do not matter because we aim to generalize is also problematic because masking can hinder this scientific aim. For example, we celebrate the ethnographic revisit, which allows us to see how places or social groups change over time [and also, theoretically, enables a kind of replicability test even if there are observer effects], but it is often impossible to do because ethnographers mask the people and places they study [indeed, Burawoy’s celebrated revisit may have only been able to happen felicitously, as Roy masked the factory name.] For some claims, we would actually need to know the particular people to test some of the ethnographer’s claims–for instance, did Lareau’s concerted cultivation kids have the adult life outcomes she implied they would? For other revisits we need only know the place, but places are often masked too as part of the slippery slope that one slides down after committing to hiding identities. Masking also makes quantitative revisits impossible–we could imagine, for instance, a neighborhood effects scholar testing some of the ethnographer’s claims about a case study of a violent neighborhood by including the case study in their dataset, but not if the neighborhood is not identified [see the quant revisit of Klinenberg’s heatwave claims made possible because he named the neighborhoods].


    Colin Jerolmack

    September 24, 2015 at 11:18 pm

  2. Thanks for continuing the discussion, Victor. When you say that “many people need a promise of confidentiality in order to feel comfortable telling their story completely and truthfully” you remind me of something that struck me about Michèle Lamont’s How Professors Think when I first read it. She says that her respondents’ “frank” answers offered “a unique window into what academics—and academia—are all about”. Her subjects were, of course, anonymous. But I’m not at all sure that she got anything like the “complete and truthful” story from them. Rather, she seems to have gotten some highly “pragmatic” justifications for obviously imperfect judgments about research quality.

    I found Lamont’s completely open naivety a bit puzzling, and ultimately unsatisfying, but I’m starting to understand it better now. It’s as though many ethnographers don’t think people would lie (or just get something wrong) when they’re anonymous and, therefore, presumably “frank”. At least one reviewer let this occasion a very low opinion of “what academics—and academia—are all about” : “…the academic world is incurious, tired and trivial-minded, loose as to judgment, lax as to thought, kindly and liberal-minded, wanting to go home.” He wasn’t just talking about the impression that Lamont’s respondents left him with, I should emphasize.

    I think what people outside ethnography are expecting is something a little more critical and substantive, energetic and curious–something more rigorous and, well, less “kindly”. You’re right that this is both an ethical and a practical issue, but merely being pragmatic (rather than principled) about it may not be the rhetorically best way to meet the challenge.

    Liked by 2 people

    Thomas Basboll

    September 25, 2015 at 7:57 am

  3. @Thomas Basboll — I can only add, “well said.” Excellent thoughts on this difficult issue. As someone who did several large scale statistical studies of racially and ethnically changing neighborhoods in three cities in
    the US and then three cities in England, decades ago, I’m struck by the difference between the implicit invitation to others to confirm my descriptions and explanations of what happened in these cities, over time, and the completely closed story that I’ve told several times when I’ve reported on the results of ethnographic and field observations.

    For example, in a paper that Lance Kurke and I published in Management Science, replicating Mintzberg’s The Nature of Managerial Work, we thoroughly disguised the organizations and the locations. More than 30 years later, I can now reveal that the managers we studied were all in the Ithaca, New York area, and looking back, I can see that information would have been helpful to our readers. Nothing we said about their managerial activities would actually have threatened their well-being, but at the time, we were advised that making them anonymous was the right thing to do.

    By contrast, the hundreds of small business people we studied in the United States and England were individually anonymous, but the details are provided about where they were working and living were critical to understanding our results.

    Until we get a better handle on this, I think ethnography/fieldwork is going to continue to be seen as a problematic research method.

    Liked by 1 person

    Howard Aldrich

    October 4, 2015 at 5:00 pm

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