I read a lot of social science journals. I’m probably not alone in that. There’s a lot of interesting stuff in there, including complex and detailed studies of individuals, populations, and phenomena. Sociology journals, for example, help me understand my own society as well as that of others, and they shed light on specific things I want to understand in my culture. Why do people think and act certain ways? How do specific events, social ideas, and attitudes affect people? Where do memes come from? Humans are fascinating and complex and beautiful and amazing creatures, and studying them is a truly fascinating field of work.
I am by no means caught up on every social science journal out there. There are a lot, some fields don’t interest me as much, and I have limited time. Also, subscribing to those journals to get access is expensive. And it requires some familiarity with the argot of the field, with the researchers involved, with the underlying work that will be referenced in a way that assumes the reader is familiar. Reading one 12 page article can turn into a multi-day project with reading the research behind the research, picking up a book that comes up in the text so I understand the context of what the authors are saying, looking up words that confuse me, calling up a sociologist friend and going ‘does this sentence really mean what I think it means?’
Not everyone has the ability, let alone the desire, to plow through academic journals, in the social sciences or otherwise. But some interesting ethical issues come up for me in sociology and related fields, because they involve studies of populations who may not always be aware that they are being observed, or who, if they are, may have little say in it. While research of this nature needs to be cleared by ethics boards designed to prevent abuses of human subjects, these boards are rooted in academia, not larger society, and thus they may not understand the way individuals within a specific community or subculture react to the knowledge that they are being studied[1. Hey, someone should do a study on that.].
I’m not the only person who’s been startled to encounter references to my name and work from people who’ve obviously been observing me and the subcultures that I communicate with, let me put it that way. And not in the sense of someone citing a colleague or referencing a consensual interview subject, but in the sense of discussing someone who was being observed; much as I might read about the behaviours of red warblers at a bird feeder, here I am reading about myself observed by an outsider looking in. And, in some cases, an outsider who masquerades as one of a community (or who straddles an awkward divide of being both a member of a community and an academic interested in that community) to collect data.
This becomes especially charged when we’re talking about marginalised groups like women of colour organising and working online, or members of the trans community, many of whom have expressed feelings of violation and dismay at the discovery of studies about their online communities. And even more dismay at the fact that these studies are often inaccessible to them; they’re individual theses with limited distribution, for example, or they’re locked away in journals so you need to subscribe or pay a one-time use fee to read a study about yourself. It feels weird to think that you might need to pay $50 to find out what some researcher said about you in a study that undoubtedly furthered her career—a study that may well be cited by other academics, that could become part of a canon of work.
You start to get paranoid, as an unwitting subject, wondering about how anything you do or say in public will be used. And therein, of course, lies the defense provided by many academics when explaining why they don’t obtain informed consent for observational studies. They don’t want their study subjects to behave differently, and they argue that all of these interactions took place in public, and are part of the public sphere. If a sociologist sits in a cafe for a year and watches all the human interactions that take place there, is that a violation of privacy? Would a regular customer be right to be offended if she encountered a description of her in an academic paper[2. The blonde who always orders a blueberry scone and a chai latte appears invariably at 7am…]?
Or does the issue become more charged when you are talking not just about the academic study of communities, but specifically of communities formed by and around marginalised groups, often with the express intent of engaging in activism, organising, providing support, or creating a safe(r) space for discussing specific social issues? What about groups who are functionally operating in public, but may be doing so under the impression that they are functioning sub rosa, in a private space nestled within a public one? These are issues that people in the social sciences need to be talking about and engaging with, because with the rise of studies based specifically on online communities, this problem is not going to go away. And I’m not the only one who’s felt sickened, misrepresented, and even angered by encountering outsider accounts of communities I belong to.
Flavia Dzodan posted an excellent and highly specific critique of a particular study last year, breaking down the problems with this kind of research and talking about various ways to approach them. The question is, will academia take notice? Especially social justice/feminist academia?