Ethical Dilemmas of Observation Method

How would you feel about being observed systematically, whether for research or any other purpose? There is an intuitive, hard-to-define sense of unease in that awareness which probably has its psychological roots in the feeling that being under surveillance is controlling and, in that way, dehumanizing. George Orwell employed this dimension of veiled threat in his novel Nineteen Eighty-Four (Big Brother is watching you); Alfred Hitchcock was a master of the ambi­guity of observation in his films (the impassive policeman with opaque sunglasses in Psycho). And the French philoso­pher (if that is what he was) Michel Foucault saw in obser­vation the fine grain of an impersonal social power of control, most clearly manifested today by the widespread use of closed-circuit television – interestingly, like most forms of indiscriminate control, justified as in the public good.

There is then an uneasy position for the researcher who adopts observation techniques. By what right do you use them; and what is the effect on the human relationship (observers observed) of so doing? So far we have gone ahead with the practical exposition of methods with only an occasional glance at the ethical dilemmas they pose. We now need to consider these in more detail.

1. The regulation and control of personal data

The past 20 years have seen an increase in awareness – among the wider community, as well as those engaged in ‘people’ research – of the ethical concerns surrounding what is done to people and how information about them is collated, stored and used. The area of personal information was dealt with in the UK at a legislative level in the 1984 Data Protection Act, further qualified by directives from the European Union. However, its implications have been slow to penetrate the detail of practice. It is a progressive piece of legislation in the sense that its powers are regularly updated and extended.

That’s a formal framework; at the informal level people have become more conscious of, and sensitive to, the issues surrounding personal information – however obtained. Requests by researchers and others can be seen as intrusive. ‘Observation’ in this context becomes another kind of intrusion, with a quality all of its own.

2. The issue of consent

Informed consent is now a standard requirement by uni­versities and other regulatory bodies when human subjects are involved directly, i.e. by their active participation or through demands being made of them.

The passive participation involved in most observation techniques may seem to be in a different case, particularly if what is being observed is ‘public’ behaviour. What you do in public can hardly be claimed to be private, so here, perhaps, observation should not be claimed as an intrusion into privacy. Put that way it gives pause for thought. Do we do not have a sense of privacy in public? Is, for example, being photographed against your will (like those high in media attention) not intrusive? And what is the photograph being taken for? If it is going to be published/distributed/ reproduced, isn’t an additional level of consent involved?

Ian, the Glasgow street beggar whose photograph appears on page 72, gave me his consent a few days in advance of the actual photograph being taken: I didn’t just turn up with a camera. In the same way I asked his prior agreement to carrying out a systematic period of observation. I also told him that I might want to include the photograph in a book.

In case this sounds too smug let me qualify it by saying that, to some extent, I was capitalizing on our friendly relationship: I gave him money (and cigarettes, which did feel like a bribe); something a bit uneasy there. But he knew what I was doing even if he didn’t fully understand it. If people don’t know they are being observed, or are the objects of research, does this not border on deception? And is that ever justified?

3. Covert and overt observation

We need to make a twofold distinction here:

  • covert observation (where people don’t know they’re being ‘observed’ in the research sense) and overt obser­vation, where they are being observed with their know­ledge or in a self-evident fashion
  • observation in an open setting, i.e. a public place – in the street or a department store or on the beach, for example; and in a closed setting which is not open to the public in any comprehensive sense – the professional side of a hospital, a school, a police station.

So there is a 2×2 classification here, e.g. overt/covert and open/closed. Covert observation in a closed setting is the most ethically contentious of all, and is commonly used in what, for want of a better term, is called ‘investigative jour­nalism’. As I write there is a news item about a journalist who obtained employment in a privately-run prison with startling results. Whatever the accuracy or general validity of the findings in this kind of investigation, the (presumed) ethical justification is that these are serious matters which would not have come to light in any other way.

Is such an approach justified in formal research when the concern is to construct a valid and balanced picture rather than to focus on sensational misdoings? A case in point is the study of a police force by Holdaway (1983). We are not proposing to recount this study but rather to focus on the ethical dilemmas it posed for him (as a police sergeant with supervisory responsibilities).

4. Holdaway’s study

The author of the study, published in book form, was in the unique position of being a serving police officer, with the rank and responsibilities of sergeant as well as a sociologist; and, incidentally, an ordained worker priest in the Anglican Church.

Not surprisingly Holdaway gives extensive consideration to the ethical issues surrounding his investigation:

… the case for covert research is strengthened by the central and powerful situation of the police within our social structure … [The present study] is justified by my assessment of the power of the police within British society and the secretive character of the force. This does not mean that covert research into powerful groups is ethical while that into less powerful ones is not … neither is it to advocate a sensational type of sociology in which rigorous analysis of evidence gives way to moral crusading. (Holdaway, 1983, p. 5.)

So his stance is very far from that of the sensation-seeking of journalists whose aim appears to be to expose and humiliate; whatever the rights or wrongs of what they report, it is cer­tainly not appreciative in the sense of being even-handed. Holdaway reports going with colleagues to see a young mother whose baby had died suddenly, describing their reactions: ‘incidents like this reminded me of the demand­ing work required of the police, and of their humanity … * {op. cit., p. 7).

What comes out of his study is an appreciation of the ethical problems for front-line police officers who have to enact legislative requirements and the high profile policies of the senior ranks. One senior officer said to him: ‘police­men must be willing to cut comers or else they would never get their job done* (p. 8); and he cites an American study (Westley, 1970, p. 17) which argues that:

… even if the law were refined and clarified to ease the burden of enforcement… the intentions of legislation or of any police instrument would be retained in the process of their translation from the written word to police antics on the street … police organization is directed not by legal and administrative rules to which police actions approximate but by a series of inter­pretations by lower ranks which vie with legalistic and other rules.

Within Holdaway’s study there are accounts of illegal police behaviour (physical abuse of suspects, mainly witnessed only by other lower-ranking officers) but he attempts to maintain a morally even-handed perspective; that is, achieving an understanding of what serving police officers have to do to manage the demands and stresses of the job.

Witnessing illegal/criminal behaviour

There is a conflict here, not confined to covert research. Any ethnographic study of ‘deviant’ groups within our society is going to put the researcher in the morally ambiguous position of being a witness to criminal behaviour. Taylor (1993) gives a number of examples of this and her dilemma in doing so: witnessing the sale and distribution of illicit drugs, shop-lifting by some of the women drug-users, once in her company. What does the researcher do in such a situation? Because the conflict of responsibility is real.

Observational research presents moral dilemmas which are far removed from an antiseptic observance of the ‘ethical rules’ governing research practice; and they are apparent, with a little reflection, at every turn.

5. ‘Ownership’ of the observations

If people are aware they are being observed, and have ‘consented’ to it in one way or another, does that dispose of the ethical issues? In two key respects it does not.

In a research interview there are several layers of consent and, of course, the person being interviewed largely deter­mines what they have to say, i.e. there is a degree of control on their part. More than that, it is good practice (not just from an ethical standpoint) to give interviewees the chance to check a transcript so that they know what they’ve said, at that level, and have the opportunity to check or correct it. In a sense they come to ‘own’ it.

Observation in written form does not have that same quality of ownership. More than that, and without indulging in the intellectual rhetoric of constructivism, it is the obser­ver’s account – and interpretation – of what has been observed. This issue was discussed in Chapter 7 and we do not need to go over the ground again, but it does indicate the practical and ethical need to check out the observational account with at least one member of the group involved. An ethnographic report is ’constructed’ in two ways:

  • what is selected (and conversely what is excluded) in the report
  • the significance or meaning attached to what is reported.

At a commonsense level and when expressed like that, the need for those under scrutiny to know and perhaps chal­lenge what is recorded is obvious. If you have ever had the chance to read a report written about yourself – perhaps as a testimonial or reference – these points will resonate with you.

The opportunity to challenge such reports is recognized, though in the case of job references it can lead to a bland­ness which at one level says very little even if the practised reader can detect (unfavourable) coded messages.

But if the ethnographic account is seen as a partnership then the checking function serves a different purpose. Whyte (1993, p. 341), as so often, provides a model in this instance:

As I wrote, I showed the various parts to Doc and went over them with him in detail. His criticisms were invaluable in my revision. At times, when I was dealing with him and his gang, he would smile and say: ‘This will embarrass me but this is the way it was, so go ahead with it.’

That short quotation demonstrates how this form of con­sultation deals not only with the ethical dimension, but also the challenge of individual construction that can be levelled at ethnographic accounts particularly in written form.

Intrusive questioning

One of the tacit assumptions current in our society is that people can be asked questions about anything – even the most intimate matters and their most personal feelings. This appears to be a consequence of the kind of intrusive, aggressive journalism, daily portrayed in the media, which seems to have acquired a degree of normalcy.

In my dealings with Ian (see pages 59-61) I have felt that I couldn’t interrogate and challenge him, that I should be sensitive to his privacy and that my (research) relationship with him should not be an inquisitorial one. Reading the research reports of Kennedy and Fitzpatrick, and Murdoch and her colleagues (see pages 63^1), and despite their clear concern to do something about the ‘problem’ of begging, I did feel that they were as determined to get their research data as a journalist is to get his/her copy. Perhaps I overstate the case but there is something not quite easy there that bears reflection.

No consideration of ethical issues in a particular style of human research can cover all the ground, especially in the restricted scope of one short chapter. What has been dis­cussed here is intended not just to deal with the specifics of the issues considered, but also to raise awareness of the need to be alert to ethical issues that may only be apparent on careful reflection.

Source: Gillham Bill (2008), Observation Techniques: Structured to Unstructured, Continuum; Illustrated edition.

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