The bonuses of singular ‘they’: anonymity and bias avoidance

by Jena Barchas-Lichtenstein

I love singular ‘they’. Back in 2016, the American Dialect Society named it word of the yearAnd we all use it all the time. But that’s not why I’m so excited about it right now. I’m excited because it can help researchers, particularly if they’re working with qualitative data and thus with very small samples.

How so? Singular ‘they’ can help us anonymize our data.

I’ve often ended up working with small samples: focus groups or small sets of interviews. In many cases, the interviewees are known to the people funding, or reading, the research. And that makes it effectively impossible to promise research respondents any measure of confidentiality or anonymity.

In these cases, I do what I can. For one thing, I tell interviewees that while comments won’t be connected to them specifically, the powers that be do know who’s being interviewed, and they might be able to figure out who said what. I also try to present individual data points in isolation: while one comment may not give someone away, considering a few in tandem just might. And the third thing is singular ‘they’: not specifying gender provides those research respondents with just a bit more anonymity. If half of my respondents prefer ‘he’ and half prefer ‘she’, using ‘they’ for everyone means it’s twice as hard to guess who said what. (And it’s especially helpful for the folks who use ‘they’, since there are generally fewer of them.)

Even so venerable a source as the AP Stylebook accepts this usage: “A singular they might be used when an anonymous source’s gender must be shielded and other wording is overly awkward: The person feared for their own safety and spoke on condition of anonymity.”*

There’s another benefit, too: gender bias is pervasive, and getting out of the habit of specifying gender is one of the easiest ways we can avoid it. Some companies, like Asana, use ‘they’ for feedback on all job candidates for this reason.

It’s not an easy habit to change, but it just might make our world more fair.

Other fun stuff about singular ‘they’

* Lest we be tempted to take the AP Stylebook as the end-all and be-all, they also say something really strange on this subject: “Clarity is a top priority; gender-neutral use of a singular they is unfamiliar to many readers.” This is … a bizarre assertion: everyone’s familiar with singular ‘they’ in speech. And even if they haven’t seen it in writing, they can figure it out just fine. (See what I did there?)

This post originally appeared on Everyday Linguistic Anthropology

An Ethics of Multimedia Practice?

Samuel Collins and Matthew Durington

Consider the following case.  As a class project, you decide to have your students videotape interviews with HIV+ patients at a local clinic about their experiences with treatment. The clinic wants to use videos for their volunteer training and assessment. It’s a good example of engaged anthropology, and you make sure to obtain IRB clearance before you proceed. In particular, you’re concerned about what happens to the videos — what happens to the edits, where the original material will be kept, how the consent forms will be organized, etc.  Interviews are awkward at first, with some students’ prejudices coming in the way of real rapport, but eventually there are some breakthroughs. Students report that they are “friending” some of the interlocutors on Facebook. Half-way into the project, material starts to show up on social media — photo stills of the field research on Flickr, video clips taken not by students but by patients on Youtube, extra-curricular interviews of relatives and friends who have HIV, all linked through keywords of place and activity. Some patients are demanding copies of the videos to share with family and friends. Finally, students are also writing many of their thoughts on your class and this research on Facebook, Tumblr and Twitter; these pop up immediately when you Google your own name.

This is “public” anthropology, but probably not the public you were thinking about. For a generation engaged with social media, the world exists to be recorded, shared and distributed: Facebook, Youtube, Flickr and other social media are testament to this documentary zeitgeist. But rather than attempt to clamp down on this and demand absolute proprietary rights over this material, we believe that we should adapt our courses to this explosion of social media. But how do we take this interest in communicating everyday life and reconcile it with more traditional ethical guidelines in anthropology and the social sciences?  In the above example, the anthropologist’s behavior may have been exemplary with regards to the University’s protocols on human subjects, but the students and the community didn’t necessarily share the same ethical concerns. How do we take a community’s interest in these tools and forge a partnership that is both socially beneficial and scientific?  While the tools and the desire to undertake multimedia anthropology have never been so readily available, the guidelines for our courses are conspicuously lacking.

Our assumption is that a multimedia anthropology in the age of Web 2.0 needs to engage a networked public in an ethical way that recognizes that these materials are different from those conventionally produced in anthropological research. Currently, ethical guidelines for a networked anthropology do not exist, and will need to be formulated on the basis of a new way of sharing and communicating in a Web 2.0 age. This has important ramifications for ethics in anthropology in general, but we believe that this is especially important for teaching undergraduates — they have been enthusiastic contributors to a multimedia, networked anthropology. And they will continue to be, whether or not they have our “official” approval. The question is: can we come to terms with it, given the importance of ethics in anthropology?

Developing ethical guidelines for this networked, multimedia anthropology means adapting to key characteristics of research in a socially networked age: that information flows between networks of acquaintances, and that informants and communities are interested in a “privacy” that they define as keeping their material to a networked public. But the ethical issues raised move multimedia anthropology into grey territory. We would benefit from consulting with a variety of sources, institutions and ideas that lie well outside of anthropology, including associations that work with diverse media materials (the American Folklore Society, the Society for Ethnomusicology), copyright and intellectual property, Creative Commons licensing, art collectives, other community organizations and even major multimedia producers.

It would be helpful to formulate ethical guidelines that speak to the following questions: 1). Who is the networked public for multimedia research in anthropology? 2). How should multimedia materials gathered in the course of anthropological research be shared with this public? 3). How might this material be restricted according to the ethical obligations of anthropologists and networked participants? For example, under what conditions (if any) can thesematerials be altered? 4). How does this networked community, together with the media they share, alter, and comment upon, become part of anthropological work and research?

The authors are recipients of a 2011 AAA Ethics Grant.

The Ethics of Research on Facebook

AAA Committee on Ethics

Since Facebook and similar sites are explicitly public forums, does the analysis and use of imagery and text posted on social media sites require an informed consent process? Recently the AAA Committee on Ethics discussed this question in response to a query from a AAA member as to whether there exists a formal policy on ethical praxis and research with social media sites. The short answer: there is no such AAA policy or statement. So we asked current and former Committee on Ethics members for their views on this matter.

One commenter highlighted the fact that there are important distinctions in the terms of engagement people assume for public online forums vs. social media sites with restricted memberships. If there are thousands of members and anyone can join the conversation (meaning, you don’t have to be invited), then confidentiality is not an issue because the forum is a public arena, open for anyone to read the conversations, connect them to multiple areas of inquiry, and possibly quote them in their research or in other contexts. On the other hand, if membership in the group is restricted in some way, there would be a ethical problem if the researcher were pretending to be part of the community and then using its discussions without permission in her research.

Facebook poses an interesting dilemma in this regard because of the multi-tiered “friend” structure and multiple possibilities for security settings. There is legitimately no expectation of privacy on Facebook, yet, in practice, many users forget that.

As another committee member suggested, a reasonable person would not expect to find their Facebook comments reproduced in other contexts with interpretative frameworks applied to them. Thus, proposed research relying on Facebook content might prompt some human subject oversight committees (IRBs) to require that the researcher post an announcement of research intent on her Facebook page. Ethical praxis means active avoidance of deception or betrayal in the research/subject relationship, as well as avoidance of the perception of deception or betrayal. If a researcher does not tell anyone that she is collecting data for analysis and dissemination, that may amount to covert research.

A proactive way to confront these issues is to figure out a way to convey the message that users are researchers as well as participants in the social media forum. For example, the researcher might identify herself as a researcher on her own Facebook page, state that she is using quotes from the lists she belongs to and name those lists, and include a link to a pdf of her research design.

Other ethical issues arise when publishing quotes or imagery from such research. Given global access to “Google” and other search engines and software, it is far too easy to identify the original author of any Facebook or other social media post. Pseudonyms are inadequate. Best practice here would be to ask research subjects for permission to use direct quotes and imagery, indicating the context in which the material would be used, and giving subjects the opportunity to opt-out of direct quotation (in which case the researcher can always summarize or paraphrase).

For additional resources on this issue, check out these blogposts that explore the lack of consensus among researchers about the parameters and expectations of privacy and the boundaries of the public:

Michael Zimmer: Is It Ethical to Harvest Twitter Accounts without Consent?

Online Papers on “Research in the Facebook Era

See also federal advisory committee guidance on Internet research: Secretary’s Advisory Committee on Human Research Protections (SACHRP), “Considerations and Recommendations Concerning Internet Research and Human Subjects Research Regulations, with Revisions” (2013).