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.