Contingency in Conversational Consent and Turbulent Collaborations

Posted confidentially on the author’s behalf by the ethics blog editors

This is the story of how my collaboration with a coauthor collapsed over ethical concerns. Neither of us violated any formal ethical protocols. And yet, our ethical sensibilities were divergent, premised upon different agreements and conversations with members of the community we both work with. The story shows that while taking an open-ended “conversational” rather than “regulatory adherence” approach to ethics might help researchers attend to the contextual specificity of particular ethnographic projects, conversations between co-authors about their respective ethical agreements need to happen early on in a collaboration, and even then might not solve every problem. Which conversations are had, by whom and with whom? How do these conversations change over time? What is left unsaid, and how do such things come to matter when researchers work together?

Early in my research, community leaders explained to me their worries about how my work could lead to harm. Their concerns mostly involved keeping out of the public eye: on at least one occasion, the publication of a news story about their small community had subjected them to a visit by ethno-nationalist vandals. I was urged not to do things that could potentially attract this kind of harassment.

As my research continued, I learned that individuals could differ greatly in their attitudes toward privacy. While preparing to publish my first academic paper, I included information about someone that she objected to. Fortunately, we discovered this before I submitted the final version, so I was able to take it out. Since then, I have asked community members to review my manuscripts before I submit them for publication. Interestingly, the community leader I am closest to objects to this practice. He thinks that some people have unreasonable privacy concerns and that I give them too much say over my work. Through my experience with these different perspectives over a period of years, I have become highly sensitive to the political nature of privacy concerns and the importance of handling them with care.

I brought this heightened sensitivity to the collaborative writing project that eventually broke down. I noticed that my colleague had included photographs of people in the community in some of his prior work. When I mentioned this to the people featured, they seemed unpleasantly surprised to learn that their photos had been used in this way. I knew my colleague had positive relationships in the community, so after bringing the matter to his attention I let it drop.

But in the context of our co-authorship, my concerns resurfaced when he wanted to cite his prior work with the photographs. I worried that readers could follow the citation trail to identifying information of a sort that I had promised to keep private. My colleague resisted removing the citation on the grounds that to do so was improper scholarship. He suggested that we go back to one of the leaders for advice, but for me this was not a solution, given the differences of opinion that I knew existed in the community. Later, my colleague assured me he had signed consent forms to publish the images in question. This surprised me, since it flew in the face of my own agreement with community leaders to keep such information private. I understood later that my colleague and I had begun our work at different times and that the stakes might have been described differently to each of us. Even individual persons’ concerns seemed to have changed over time. But by the point I understood this, my relationship with my collaborator had become too strained to be readily repaired.

What this case of collaboration-gone-awry shows is that the conversations in “conversational ethics” are subject to matters of power, temporality, and happenstance. My colleague and I had divergent ethical dispositions, senses of responsibility, and understandings of risk. In part these emerged out of the different conversations we had had at different times with different community members—and in some cases, even with the same individuals. We had different understandings of who speaks with authority, and even which moments of conversation we should hold ourselves accountable to. Because we simply took for granted that our perspectives would align, we had no consensus on the ethical issues at stake and no clear way to move forward. We were both blindsided and hurt when we found ourselves in a collaboration that could not be sustained.

Speaking with my colleague about our respective ethical assumptions early on in the collaboration might have helped us avoid this outcome. However, before such dialogues can even begin, researchers need to be able to imagine that there are a range of ethical issues, positions, and agreements at stake, even when working within the same community. I hope that sharing this story helps show how this can be so, and motivates others to recognize this difficult but potentially important aspect of professional collaboration.

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