The researcher is the subject.
January 25, 2014 11:41 PM   Subscribe

Social science research: How does researching a subject that affects you very personally impact your professional reputation and long-term employment prospects?

Example: having a sibling die on 9/11, and your research is about the psychological impact of losing a relative on 9/11.

I am curious, since I have a friend who is doing something similar to the above example. What made me curious was when she talked about how personally invested her subjects were in her well-being, as a fellow "survivor". It seemed like perhaps it wouldn't lend itself to being the most objective researcher, and others might look askance on the research in the future.
posted by tippy to Work & Money (9 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
While there is a huge amount of writing around the questions of researcher's relationships to their subjects/informants/etc. there is no expectation of "objectivity" in contemporary social sciences.

In fact, the central ethnographic method of anthropology (participant observation) requires blurring the boundary areas between subject and researcher.

In contemporary anthropology, a researcher writing about the topic you mention would be likely to be seen as having more credibility as a fellow survivor.

There's a lot of literature on this, if you're interested, and your question is also applicable to other areas of "insider" status: cultural, linguistic, ethnic, religious, etc.
posted by jardinier at 12:34 AM on January 26, 2014 [6 favorites]

Depending on your paradigm there is actually assumed objectivity. In anthropology having been a survivor might give you cred in some circles but not in others.

There is also the idea of 'me - search'... People that study father's had a bad relations with dad.

It is important to be reflexive at all stages.
posted by k8t at 12:55 AM on January 26, 2014 [2 favorites]

It's important to clarify that I'm only taking about qualitative research in contemporary anthropology. Claims based on quantitative research that aren't properly accounting for bias could be considered compromised by a researcher's involvement.

However, as a social scientist, I wouldn't take research seriously unless the researcher was deeply involved with the 'subjects.'

Qualitative work, ethnographic work, is not compromised by involvement but rather built on involvement. All such research in anthropology is necessarily 'me-search.' Reflexivity is not removing the self, but rather being transparent and reflecting on the positionality of the researcher, making it visible.

To answer the question more specifically, we would need to know what field we're talking about. Anthropologists wouldn't have an issue with the situation described above. Some sociologists might. It would be a foundation for a great career of research in my social science world, but a kiss of death in others. There is not only one social science...
posted by jardinier at 1:07 AM on January 26, 2014 [4 favorites]

Even as a mixed methods social scientist, and and even I do qualitative work, in my paradigm, objectivity is still important. My presence in the field in observing is important to acknowledge but I still need to think critically and objectively about what is going on.
I also research a topic that is harder to be neutral about (pro-democracy movements in authoritarian environments) and I'm coming in having been raised in a democracy and hold implicit assumptions about democracy having some benefits that authoritarianism does not. This obviously impacts my thoughts.
But my written product (in my paradigm) needs to be objective about my description and interpretation of the things going on. Do I have friendships with some of my subjects? Yes. But can I let thst cloud my writing? No.
posted by k8t at 1:30 AM on January 26, 2014 [2 favorites]

The differences revealed here so far are a great indication of the variety of approaches to social science. In my research world, we wouldn't use the words "objective" or "neutral," but I too work on social movements, activism, and also within repressive regimes.

Some of the most important social movement literature in anthropology and social movement studies is written by researchers who are/were also engaged activists, some even founders of the movements they write about. So obviously there is a career path for OP's friend, but also clearly not in every social science sphere.

For examples of success on this path - looking at the articles in the most recent issue of Cultural Anthropology, you'll find anthropologists deeply entwined in the lives of their informants and in the political causes they study. See especially the articles by Osterweil, Fassin, and Biehl.
posted by jardinier at 1:50 AM on January 26, 2014 [1 favorite]

Seconding jardinier. In contemporary social and cultural anthropology, in even the most standard venues, writing from a position of the so-called "native anthropologist" can never hurt your credibility. (With this term, here, meaning someone who comes from the same "field" she studies.) Absolutely no article in even the most standard journal in the field (American Anthropologist) would ever shy away from noting one's own identity in connection to the subject matter.

Since 1986 at least, there has been a complete rehaul in how cultural anthropologists understand the limits and ethics of representation. Stating "objectivity" as one's goal -- in the sense of no background involvement, identity, emotional investment, or first-hand relationship to the subject matter -- would not be seen in any mainstream anthropology journal .

However, writing in a style that is memoir-ish, or that foregrounds one's own subjective experience over an attempt to describe the external events scientifically: THIS is still a controversial move. Writing from a deeply personal perspective, in a way that doesn't attempt to use social scientific measures of the real, is an alternate genre in writing across several of the social sciences, and a way in which they can sometimes begin to merge with the humanities in certain spheres, in part because people are responding to the crises of "objective" representation that began in the 1980s. It's an approach that's gaining avenues for publication and employment, but is still controversial.

SO it's not about whether or not the author admits personal background as a tie as a to her field. It's only about how she writes about it.
posted by third rail at 2:55 AM on January 26, 2014 [3 favorites]

And so, in response to the last part of the question: having the informants care about your friend's well-being wouldn't hurt the outcome of her research. She might choose not to write about that part of her research experience. But the fact that any ethnographer would recognize today is: that she is a human being, her subjects are human beings, and they are going to respond to her as a human being. She is not a blank, empty slate coming in to study them without having them think SOMETHING about her. In fact they might open up more fully because they connect to her, and give her better ways to understand her data.
The question that will matter to her academic peers is whether she focus on writing about her own personal experiences, including her ethnographic experiences, or will she focus on the world of her subjects.
posted by third rail at 3:08 AM on January 26, 2014 [2 favorites]

I mostly agree with third rail, but I wouldn't draw a line between writing about the informant's world and the researcher's, or place those two forms of writing in opposition. I don't see any attempts to describe external events scientifically in contemporary ethnography either, but this may depend on your definition of science. I would also note that writing giving equal attention to both, or sometimes even more attention to the researcher's, has been pretty mainstream since the 1980s turn - a moment some have called the 'crisis of representation' (which was actually prefigured by feminism and feminist writing). However, it is true that some in social science aren't fond of that turn, and critique the inclusion of the researcher's world in the work. They are a small voice in anthropology though and probably will be gone entirely in another few decades (due to age, retirement, etc.)

But again, this is all contrary to the approach of some in Sociology where there is still a strong attachment to the idea of objectivity in some scholars, programs, departments. And probably other social sciences that I'm not familiar with. It is also true of the social sciences in many places outside the major universities of North America, Europe, and a few universities in other places. In part, this is because they are still teaching a social science of the 1950s or 60s.
posted by jardinier at 10:30 AM on January 26, 2014

I wouldn't draw a line between writing about the informant's world and the researcher's, or place those two forms of writing in opposition. I don't see any attempts to describe external events scientifically in contemporary ethnography either, but this may depend on your definition of science.
Actually I agree with this, as well. By "scientific" I meant not an outdated idea of pure objectivity. I meant a focus on empiricism, which is still dominant in a lot of anthropological writing -- even if the empirical data is simply recorded talk itself. And by the other pole, I meant a *focus* on self-referential writing as the subject matter, not that an author could ever escape her own perspective.
Anyway, yes, I agree.
posted by third rail at 12:48 PM on January 26, 2014 [1 favorite]

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