To Anonymize, or Not to Anonymize
My 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.