“You Still Takin’ Notes?” Fieldwork and Problems of Informed Consent, Barrie Thorne

Although this article appeared in Social Problems, and is therefore aimed at people doing social research projects, I read it out of interest since I am trying to get to grips with the whole issue of informed consent. First of all, Thorne looks at the recurrent elements of informed consent and takes issue with them: “The three dimensions of informed consent – knowledgeability, voluntary and competent choice – are merely starting points, since it is unclear just how much information needs to be imparted or present for consent to be knowledgeable, or how to know exactly when a given choice is sufficiently voluntary and responsible” (p 286). He then analyses these issues one by one.

On the subject of how much information should be given, Thorne points out that it is difficult to determine the difference between uninformed and informed consent (apart from in extreme cases). He claims that fieldworkers “enter the field with an open-ended sense of purpose; they tend to work inductively and may shift interests and outlooks as the research proceeds; practical exigencies may force extensive change of plans.” I would argue that this is exactly how many documentarians work as well – indeed the two photographers I looked at in depth (Allard and McCurry) echo this view. Imposing strict limitations on the direction of work at the outset can interfere with the very positive aspect of retaining flexibility. On the other hand, Thorne notes that fieldworkers are rarely as honest or forthcoming as they could be, stressing the more innocuous aspects of their studies when informing participants about the goals of their research: “Self-introductions are bound up with efforts to gain access, and that practical motive, weighted heavily by investments of time, money and career, tends to squeeze honesty to the side.” (p 287) again, I would say that this is true of documentary as well, judging by what the filmmakers admitted in the previous article as well as from my own personal experience of gaining access.

Not only this, but very often differences in age, cultural background and knowledge awareness mean that the fieldworker/subject relationship is not balanced: “Gaps in understanding due to different experiential worlds may hamper a researcher’s ability to provide informed consent.” It may be impossible to convey the global importance of the documentary.

Fieldworkers tend to assume that if their presence is tolerated, if they aren’t told to leave, consent has been granted.” How true is this of all mass media representatives (an umbrella term I use here to include all makers of images), in much the same way that Wiseman did not stop filming unless specifically asked to, and his interpretation of silence as indicative of assent.

On the topic of whether consent should be renewed, Thorne looks at the very complicated issue of relationship building – particularly in longer-term projects. Aside from assuming multiple roles, the fieldworker to some extent may not have a great deal of control over how he/she is perceived. The most complicated and painful of all is when the fieldworker becomes good friends with those being observed. What Thorne calls ‘many-stranded
relationships’ can be the source of problematic ambiguities, not least when the subjects forget that they are talking to a fieldworker and not only to a friend or colleague – is the inclusion of information thus given ethical? Apparently many fieldworkers believe not, since they “often report experiencing guilt when they deliberately befriended someone, or manipulated a preexisting friendship in order to get data” (p 291); this problem is referred to as the “sociologist’s original sin“.

Thorne points out that social structures, as well as systems of sponsorship and introduction, can lead to a breakdown of the theory of voluntary consent – participants may feel uncomfortable not giving consent if those in authority or senior figures in the group have already given theirs, as was demonstrated by the prison staff who helped Wiseman.

Informed consent applies to individuals, each of whom is to be treated the same, and ignores social structure and deep-seated differences of power.” Does informed consent therefore extend beyond the systems of power to be able to undermine their authority and grant participants who want to take part right of veto over those who do not? A study into mistreatment at the hands of state officials that was conducted under false pretences would violate the ethical principle of informed consent. To shoot his images of child labourers, Lewis Hine gained entry to factory floors posing as a fire inspector, but the ethics of his gaining entry are not called into question (if they are ever mentioned, it is more in the sense of applauding his resourcefulness and bravery. “The abstract, universal and individualistic assumptions of informed consent limit its ability to help resolve this sort of ethical dilemma. The doctrine of informed consent does not take account of ethical dimensions of the knowledge a researcher may seek.”

Informed consent is considered to be a universal right, but it is most easily justified when extended to those in positions of relative powerlessness, as a counter to the sense of feeling coerced into collaboration. The powerless also have the right to say no, the right to be left alone, which has all too often been solely the propriety of the powerful (indeed, the very idea of power is tied up with the ability to guard one’s own interests and to protect oneself from unwanted intrusion). It has also been argued that informed consent ostensibly protects the rights of individuals, but in fact serves to protect powerful groups by neglecting to analyse the organisation as a unit. “While the doctrine of informed consent is central, it is not exhaustive, and we should not let it blind us to important questions about the responsibilities of social scientists and the ethical uses of knowledge in contemporary society.” In other words we should not stop at informed consent, but somehow analyse more deeply the mechanisms that dictate the ethical practices of people who are working with participants as individual providers of information to ensure that the latter are not deceived or exploited.

As Howard Becker points out (in Gross et al, 1988), most questions regarding image ethics only arise post-production, once the particular imagery has already been made public, while consent during production can only be truly ‘informed’ if the filmed subjects know at least as much about the documentary making process as the filmmakers and photographers themselves, since the latter have all manner of unimaginable tricks up their sleeves: “Image makers can use selective editing, framing, lighting, and the rest of the familiar catalogue to produce a result in whose making I wouldn’t have cooperated had I known what was coming” (p xiii). On the other hand, a system of ethical principles which have no sanctions attached to them would seem to lack any teeth, since those who need most deterrence are those most likely to commit breaches of ethics. Becker suggests that to be more effective as deterrents, official sanctions such as jail sentences or having one’s work removed from public showing need to be combined with less formal sanctions such as the scorn of co-workers, persons refusing to cooperate or give access to the necessary resources. He also appreciates that any set of ethical standards and working practices needs to be flexible in order to incorporate changes in technology and shifts in organisational structures.

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