By Rebecca Gordon, Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge
“…for much of history, anonymity did not protect the vulnerable, but excluded women and others from authorship and ownership of their own words, erasing them from the archive, even from history and in the process creating vulnerability through rendering people nameless” (Moore, 2013: 332)
Before embarking on my fieldwork, I felt that I understood the importance of researchers needing to carefully consider the place in which they will carry out their research, and their own positionality, so that the needs of their participants can be taken into account; however, in spite of having conducted research in Bihar, India previously, there were a number of ethical issues that arose, which I did not anticipate. Reflecting on these issues is particularly pertinent in cross-cultural research, due to having to adhere to Western research ethics which may not necessarily translate to another context, as has been argued by a number of scholars writing about a postcolonial research ethics. My experiences have led me to question certain ethical assumptions, particularly anonymity.
Part of my commitment to my PhD research stemmed from a desire to draw attention to the work of a small grassroots microfinance organisation in rural Bihar, India. As a White woman, born in a high-income country, I recognised the importance of working closely with the organisation to develop contextually appropriate research procedures. The members of this organisation are mostly scheduled caste labourers, experiencing interlocking class-, caste- and gender-based marginalisation; the assumption, based on Western ethical guidelines, is that I should assure them anonymity in my research. There is an argument to be made about the assumptions in Western research ethics about who constitutes ‘vulnerable’ and ‘marginalised’ populations, but in addition to this, the women who I worked with mostly told me that they do not want to be anonymous. To my surprise, I was often greeted with dismay and amusement when I stated my commitment to anonymity.
When I asked why they did not want to be anonymous, they gave me many reasons: they want to be recognised for the work they are doing; they want the promotion of their work so that it can help others; they wanted others to learn from them, including other agencies and NGOs; and they also wanted to tell their story, as they have not had this opportunity before. Indeed, in line with previous research, it seemed that participants perceived being named as being integral to having a ‘voice’ and conceived naming as a form of public acknowledgement associated with pride and empowerment.
As is probably the default reaction for most PhD students, I started looking for articles about anonymity. Authors have been increasingly questioning the default assumption of anonymisation of participantsas a straightforward ethical good. Assurances of anonymity can be an empowering experience, however, anonymity may reduce freedom of speech orcan operate as a form of silencing. This is related to the history of exploitation in social research as anonymity can shift the ownership of and recognition for ideas to the author, rather than the participants they came from. In a similar vein, anonymity may conceal the problems people experience due to marginalisation and in turn may protect dominant groups from confronting these problems. Not crediting participants’ voice could have a role in replicating these experiences of marginalisation and does not allow individuals to address these oppressive structures.
Whilst excited about the possibility of being able to recognise these women in my research, I feel that there are two major issues: I am concerned about whether I adequately explained how the research will be used and where it will be published. I am unsure whether my participants fully understand the ramifications of speaking as themselves, particularly given the power differentials between us in the informed consent process. I am also concerned that this is potentially a patronising worry – they may well understand the implications, and I can’t think of any specific issues that would arise with naming – the possible harms seem minor and unlikely. However, there may be situations where I cannot comprehend how the research will be read and received.
Secondly, others experiencing this issue have highlighted the importance of member checking interview transcriptions and analysis with those who wish to be named. However, the women in this situation are illiterate, and therefore will face a greater time burden in having their words read back to them. When I suggested checking all the transcripts, the gatekeepers within the organisation thought that this was not necessary and pondered about who would have the time to sit and listen to their own words again. Moreover, there are a number of case studies where when participants were re-contacted, those who had previously waived their anonymity, decided that they wanted to be anonymous after all, and so this is an additional consideration. Some suggestions I have received so far about what I could do include upholding anonymity within my PhD and publications, but to write a separate paper/blog/report using participants’ names. I welcome any suggestions in the comment section!
I am not trying to argue that anonymity should be discarded, but perhaps, in order to better recognise the politics of naming, researchers should question the general assumption that anonymity is always best. Additionally, given that many updated ethical guidelines acknowledge that participants may or may not want to be anonymous, I believe greater discussion about the ways in which researchers may (or may not) challenge well established principles of Western ethical practices, such as anonymity, would be particularly beneficial for early career researchers in negotiating these dilemmas.
Moore, N. (2012) ‘The politics and ethics of naming: questioning anonymization in (archival) research,’ International Journal of Social Research Methodology, 15(4): 331-340
Rebecca Gordon is a third-year PhD student at the Faculty of Education and Lucy Cavendish College. Her research focuses on the work of a grassroots Microfinance organisation in rural Bihar and explores the changes in women’s lives since being members of this organisation and further effects on daughters’ education.