The Civic Responsibility of Ethnographers

By | 9th January 2019

…The core issue, then, is whether social scientists have some kind of moral duty to act as whistleblowers or, more pejoratively, as snitches, grasses or stoolies. Lubet’s position appears to be that accommodating or condoning criminal actions is inherently wrong, although it may on occasion be tolerated. Many participant observers would argue that a greater good is achieved by not volunteering information about criminal actions in order better to understand them. It is not our job to second-guess the street-level decisions of law-enforcers

Wherever the line is drawn, all ethical decisions in research risk contributing to the creation of ignorance. Researchers may forego knowledge that would otherwise be of value to their society. Even within a framework of ethics regulation that makes ignorance structured and systematic, fieldworkers have to make street-level judgements about what IRB or REC policies mean in practice. The line is created by these decisions. The people who make them should be able to expect that any subsequent debate will respect the circumstances under which they have acted.

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