naming your ethnographic informants: a talk by colin jerolmack

It is rare that I sit through a talk and just agree with about 99% of it. That is what happened when Colin Jerolmack visited IU last week and gave a talk about naming people and locations in ethnography. The argument is simple: the standard practice of masking people and places should not be the default for ethnography. Instead, the presumption should be naming people. Fake names should be the exception not the rule.

Colin’s paper, co-authored with Michigan’s Alex Murphy, makes the following points against masking:

  • Promising anonymity is not honest. A lot of ethnographies can be hacked pretty quickly.
  • Masking people deprives them of the benefit of having their names listed in print. In most cases, people appreciate seeing their names in a book or article. Once in a while, people get a specific pay off from being in a book (e.g., one of Colin’s informants lists his appearance in a book on his website selling pigeons).
  • In practice, most respondents are not worried about privacy. They are concerned about how they are portrayed. Colin and Murphy use evidence from Annette Lareau’s follow up from her study. Some folks were angry about what she said about them, not the level of privacy.
  • Masking suppresses the voices of research subject. It is very hard to dispute an anonymous characterization of yourself.
  • Masking prevents accumulation of knowledge. Follow ups, return visits, verification, and longitudinal studies are made impossible. Colin has a nice example from his current research. He happens to be doing field work in an area that is covered in an earlier book. He wants to compare, but the IRB prevents that.
  • Access is not as restricted as you might think. If a journalists can write on Amazon, the White House and ISIS using real names and places, an academic ethnographer can at least ask if the respondent wants to use their name.

Now, you shouldn’t misrepresent Jerolmack and Murphy’s argument. They are not against anonymity in all cases. Rather, they want identification to be the default. If you really need anonymity, so be it. But at least seriously consider identification as your first option.

I’ll conclude with a few thoughts as someone who has done some field work and often uses qualitative methods. In general, when I interview people, I have a specific protocol where I ask people at the end whether they want their name used. In my black power project, I interviewed 19 people and 12 gave me permission to use names. And this includes activists who did some controversial things and spoke about some sensitive issues.  Of course, for public records, I used names. For the antiwar project, we also gave the option of going public or remaining anonymous. Most people used their name and we used names for all people speaking in public (for an example of our fieldwork, see here and yes, names were used). In both projects, the locations are well known, whether they are contemporary or historical. So overall, I feel that identification is a fairly intuitive default. I hope that other sociologists seriously consider this position.

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Written by fabiorojas

December 18, 2015 at 12:01 am

Posted in fabio, mere empirics

10 Responses

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  1. I think it totally depends upon the subject of the research. Perhaps one is studying a criminal network. Perhaps one is studying men on the DL. Perhaps one is studying sexual violence. Since ethnography is often a preferred method for accessing and studying “hidden populations,” the standard of anonymity comes with the territory. Colin doesn’t study anything particularly stigmatized or illegal, so it’s easy for him to suggest that, for the kind of work he does, anonymity shouldn’t be the norm.

    With that said, we would never publish the names of our survey respondents, even if we collected them, and we would never dream of analyzing an identifiable administrative data set, so why do we think that ethnography should be any different? It’s part of the protection of human subjects in research. I think if he finds anonymity and human subjects protections so objectionable, he should just become a journalist (which he already mostly is, re: pigeon book).



    December 18, 2015 at 1:35 am

  2. In my book, I feature case studies of 6 colleges, at least some of which are presumably identifiable to people moderately familiar with them despite my psuedonyms and strenuous attempts to mask identity. I did not promise anonymity to anyone I interviewed, but was STRONGLY encouraged to keep the institutions anonymous in my dissertation and my book. I’ve always been uncomfortable with the fact that I went along with this guidance–it makes me feel as if I am trying to get away with something, despite the fact that it wasn’t my idea to use the pseudonyms.



    December 18, 2015 at 2:07 am

  3. I do qualitative and quantitative research in the software industry and every organisation I’ve dealt with makes anonymity a pre-requisite to being involved and often the story is going to be very positive for the organisation, but they don’t care. As for my educational research, getting anything past our ethics committee is difficult, I wouldn’t even want to try to get an application through without promising anonymity.

    It’s clearly not ideal, but it is a practical necessity in the world of business and educational research.

    Mikaila, even if the anonymity can be guessed at, the organisation still has deniability about whether it was them or not, but if you didn’t promise why were you strongly encouraged to give anonymity?



    December 18, 2015 at 8:08 am

  4. My reaction is similar to Martin’s. Even if your individual subjects are okay with not being anonymous, you often have to go through gatekeepers to get to them – who often DO care a LOT about anonymity. Right now I’m doing work at a company. Even though I don’t think my work is covering topics that are all that sensitive, they are (rightfully, in my opinion) concerned that my findings could paint the organization in a negative light in some way.I don’t think they expect that I will do that (otherwise I’m not sure they would have given me the green light), but they really don’t know. The uncertainty is the problem. And with an ethnography, I certainly am not willing to make any promises about what exactly I will find – if I knew, I wouldn’t bother doing the research. There are also competitive concerns – I have access to information that competitors would probably love to get their hands on.

    I know in your original post, you admitted that the need for anonymity depends on context. But, I question the thought that the current norm of anonymity is unnecessary. Studying social movements might be a very different ballgame – I presume most activists are activists because they have something they want to talk about. Which is great! But, I am not sure this is the case in the majority of settings. It has not been true in my own experience – and I am certainly not investigating anything criminal, taboo, etc.

    A final point, is that I tend to feel like I have to bend over backwards in terms of anonymity to get things through the IRB. Even if I am convinced people aren’t going to be too worried about speaking with me, the IRB is very concerned (perhaps rightfully so), that I provide adequate protection anyway. And (at least in our institution), the IRB isn’t made up of just ethnographers. So changing the norm of anonymity in ethnography also might require changing the norms of IRBs. Maybe an even more difficult task?



    December 18, 2015 at 12:37 pm

  5. First of all, I did not have to have organizational approval to do my research–the only figures I had to get past were archivists (I began in the archives and then interviewed people who came up in the course of the archival research) and archivists often have very clear policies about when to approve research requests.

    As far as I remember, the reasoning behind anonymity for the colleges was to play it safe…



    December 18, 2015 at 2:21 pm

  6. […] about the challenges of anonymizing names and identities of persons and organizations, including guest blogger Victor Tan Chen’s post, guest blogger Ellen Berrey’s post, and Fabio’s most recent post […]


    December 18, 2015 at 5:27 pm

  7. Another reason why you may not want to name your ethnographic informants (especially in organisational research) is to minimise the bias (positive spin) that would result from your informants trying to use you and your research publications as a publicity vehicle. You are more likely to get a “warts and all” account of their organisational practices once they know that they won’t be getting any column inches or Google search results from their input.

    This is especially the case if you are studying very media and marketing savvy people, such as entrepreneurs (although who is not media savvy and publicity-seeking these days?), who would be inclined to want to ‘enrol’ the researcher into their projects. Researchers need to allow for the possibility that their informants are clever than them and anonymisation reduces the informants’ motivation for such manipulation.

    Yet another reason for anonymity would be to minimise the possibility of causing commercial (or other kind of) harm to your informants, e.g. by revealing information that might lead to the loss of a contractual relationship with one of their clients. Why would you want to risk that and do that to people who were kind enough to give you access, accept you as a participant observer (consider you a sympathetic listener or even a friend), and bare their soul to you? Once the names and situations are anonymised, it’s a lot harder to work out e.g. which client a supplier was complaining about, and the names won’t turn up in search engine results.



    December 18, 2015 at 7:29 pm

  8. On the one hand, it is hard for me to see how non-anonymity could be the default for organizational ethnography or really any study where people’s livelihoods are at stake, because in these kinds of settings there are tons of things that everyone knows, but also knows not to talk in front of certain people. Lets say that one of us took part in an ethnographic study about the politics of universities. Lets say that we spent days talking with an ethnographer and one of our many discussions was about different deans’ preferences in hiring or something… would anyone feel comfortable having a verbatim quote on that topic appear when one’s name is googled? But in certain contexts, academics gossip about this kind of stuff all the time and it would be hard to explain to someone how a university works without talking about what the deans are up to. Realistically, all of us would end up saying things in front of the researcher that we would never say if a dean were actually in the room. In such cases, there are good reasons to report what people say in informal settings anonymously or at least not for attribution… so in some ways, I worry that this discussion could be read as really being about what counts as good or default ethnography rather than about realistic and responsible professional standards for all ethnographers. We don’t need to give reviewers another superficial reason to reject our papers or dismiss our arguments out of hand, amiright?

    On the other hand, I agree that the IRB is a problem and that a little bit of collective action could be a good thing. For instance, it would be great if IRB would allow other ethnographers to re-study the same field sites even if they were anonymized in print. The issue of people not being able to verify one anothers research or to explicitly write about the same field site is a big problem, I think.

    On an unrelated note, there is apparently a sociologist with the same initials as me who likes to lob ad hominems and hate on journalists!



    December 19, 2015 at 1:58 am

  9. @JoshPacewicz: I disagree that IRBs are a serious problem. How can we be taken seriously as social scientists if we are unable to take seriously standards of ethical research as held across biomedical, clinical, and social disciplines? If somebody wants to allow their research participants the option not to be anonymous, just apply for an IRB waiver and write it into the protocol. Or if somebody wants to restudy the same field site, just apply for a waiver and justify it to the IRB. Write it into the goddamn protocol. Both of these are possible and have been done. I don’t see what the big deal is.



    December 19, 2015 at 5:31 am

  10. I sometimes get strange anonymity requests from my informants – e.g. ‘use your judgment when you quote me’ or ‘don’t quote me by name if something I said is provocative, quote the rest’ etc. I eventually took the stand to anonymize more than requested – sometimes respondents say something to me 5 years ago, they might not even hold the same opinions. Sometimes they say something silly as a joke, but it links to something someone else said. I don’t want to embarrass them in the way that I use their comments. So I prefer to anonymize. I have found that my data is never questioned, it is my interpretations that are challenged. And unfortunately in qualitative research, my interpretations are challenged by those that prefer to make up their minds without data – so the real divide here or the real methodological question is not these silly ones of falsifiability but really of those that don’t believe in data or empirics at all, that haven’t talked to a single person but have plenty to say. Thats the problem.

    I think CJ is getting on the political science and DART bandwagon, quick quick quick before it gets to sociology. I will anonymize the way I want. Its my ethics as a researcher that I’m upholding, not IRB – my study was exempt since I interview experts.



    December 19, 2015 at 9:01 am

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