FULL NARRATIVE SUBMISSION EXAMPLE
“The Practicalities of the Situation”
Michael is a PhD cultural anthropologist who did his doctoral fieldwork in a large multinational company in the United States, looking at the relationship between economic globalization and workforce morale in two of the company’s main manufacturing sites. After completing his PhD, Michael spent a few years in academia before he became tired of his teaching load and decided to seek employment as a full time researcher in a government or semi-private institution. After a couple of stints working solo as a contract researcher for a government institution, Michael landed what he thought was his dream job: working in the research branch of a private contractor that performs a wide range of work for several large government agencies.
That was six years ago, and Michael tells his friends and family that he’s enjoyed every minute of his job. He manages several small research projects, each of which deals with different aspects of organizational change and technology issues in three different federal agencies that his company supports. He likes the diversity of the work, enjoys partnering across disciplinary boundaries with the sociologists and organizational psychologists in his work group, and gets to travel quite a bit. His employer likes the cachet of a “research” reputation, and actively encourages Michael and his colleagues to publish as much of his work as possible, and supports their participation in academic conferences and projects. The company Michael works for partners with numerous universities and even has its own internal Institutional Review Board, whose presence reassure him somewhat that private industry is interested in pursuing research ethically.
Michael does have some concerns about his work, though. Since the war in Afghanistan started, his company has increasingly looked for contracts with national security institutions. Michael hadn’t done any work with the military or intelligence communities – most of his work was with domestically-oriented federal agencies – but that started to change in 2002, when suddenly more and more of his colleagues started getting security clearances. In early 2003, his boss asked him to do a study in the military on how proposed changes in the military reserve’s logistical systems related to meals ready-to-eat might impact troop morale. The catch was that he’d have to get a Department of Defense security clearance – a very low level clearance, but a clearance nonetheless. The military client, a colonel in the reserves, explained that they were requesting the clearance only so that Michael could enter the facilities where he’d be conducting his study without escort; he wouldn’t be asked to do any classified work, and having the clearance would make it much easier to move around the research site without “having a babysitter,” she explained. “You’ll much prefer being cleared, or you won’t even be able to go to the bathroom without someone holding the stall door.” They all laughed. In the end, he decided to accept the security clearance and the project. The friendliness and openness of the colonel – a reservist who’d worked as a social worker, and who actually had a Masters in sociology – reassured Michael, but what sold him on the project was the colonel’s enthusiasm for Michael’s idea to develop a publishable paper based on the experience.
The project turned out to be a lot of fun for Michael, who never imagined that food issues in the reserves could be such a complicated problem. In 2004 Michael presented a paper based on 6 weeks’ of fieldwork with a small group of reservists in a professional meeting and was surprised at how interested many of his applied anthropologist colleagues were in the work. He’d even written a draft article and submitted it for publication in an organizational studies journal. So far, so good, he thought, pleased that he was able to do work in a classified setting and bring it to his colleagues without hiding any of the contextual information, except for the identity and confidentiality of his informants.
Perhaps more importantly, Michael discovered that his supervisors and colleagues were interested in learning about the historical events that make so many anthropologists wary about working for government institutions. He’d been following the American Anthropological Association’s debates around anthropologists doing work in war zones and developed a set of three talks that he presented to his fellow researchers. In these talks, he described anthropology’s fractious relationship with military institutions in the 1950s and 60s, and used that background to explain the uproar over the Human Terrain Teams to his colleagues. The talk was so popular that he had to give two encores in six weeks to packed conference rooms. At the end of one of his talks, the chair of the company’s IRB asked Michael if he’d sit in as a consultant and provide guidance on ethical issues related to social science research.
That’s when things got complicated. Until his involvement as a consultant to his company’s IRB, he’d felt the AAA’s ethical dilemmas didn’t really apply to his work or his company. After all, he was very careful to pick and choose projects that he could conduct and write about openly. Moreover, most of his company’s contracts focused on issues in US government organizations and large companies, not on foreign populations. He himself was working stateside on food issues among military personnel – not exactly controversial, he thought wryly; in fact, the biggest challenge was explaining to his academic colleagues why meals ready-to-eat were an interesting research problem.
Apparently, though, his company was actively pursuing a project in which several of his colleagues would be supervising another company, a subcontractor, as it gathered data related to religious extremism in a foreign country. The government client was involved in distributing foreign aid with several nongovernmental organizations, and was concerned that its mission might be undermined and its workers endangered if local populations were radicalized. Michael heard rumors that the subcontractor had something of a shady reputation in research ethics; that they’d used deceptive tactics with local populations in gathering information that was used in advertising campaigns for consumer products, mostly personal grooming products like shampoo and toothpaste. Why on earth, thought Michael, would you have to lie about toothpaste? And why would the government sponsor get an advertising firm that sells US deodorants to gather data on religious extremism? For Michael, the lack of appreciation for the subtleties of selecting good research methods was as disturbing as the ethical implications of lying to informants.
The project came before his company’s Institutional Review Board, and the review meeting was contentious. Several of the IRB members felt that the project’s potential for deceptive methods made it impossible to approve, while others felt that religious extremism was one of the most dangerous problems that the United States faced. “Isn’t it better to understand how it’s moving through a population before we get some weird fanatic deciding to bomb a Peace Corps camp?” one of the board members asked. “We could be saving lives here.” When Michael – the only anthropologist on the IRB – pointed out that the research design didn’t have any good justification for human subjects data; and that moreover the firm had a reputation for shady dealings, the Principle Investigator (PI) explained that the government client insisted on having the firm involved. “Apparently they’ve been very successful in the past,” the PI said, “and that’s part of the contract – we have to work with them. In any case, all they’re doing is a series of focus groups.” The other IRB members disagreed with that rationale. “There’s a high potential they’ll lie to the people being studied,” the IRB chair pointed out, “and that’s unethical.” “And beyond that,” he continued, “the location of the study and our workload preclude any sort of monitoring after approval. We would simply have to take the subcontractor’s word that they’re following the approved protocol, which is worrisome when their track record is sketchy.”
After several weeks of arguing, Michael’s company’s IRB came to a compromise with the project’s manager, who asked if the project could be declared exempt from review if Michael’s company did nothing more than analyze the data. “We won’t have any role in the data gathering,” he said, “and we’ll urge the government client to insist that the people gathering the information be as clear as possible about what they’re doing and why they’re doing it. Beyond that, we can’t do anything else.”
Michael continued to argue that any affiliation with this project was unethical, given the potential for deceptive practices involved. While several of his colleagues agreed with him in principle, several pointed out that the project seemed to have excellent moral intentions. “They’re not trying to brainwash the locals,” said his friend Sheila, an organizational psychologist. “They’re just trying to figure out how best to distribute aid to stabilize the area. Look, I lived in that area two decades ago. I taught English in a small school and I still have friends there. Anything I can do to help stabilize it is good in my view. The religious movement that’s spreading in the area is really hostile to women’s rights and the US has been very supportive of girls’ schools in the region. Come on, do you want local women held hostage to a bunch of ideological nutcases?”
Michael agreed uneasily with Sheila. Still other colleagues felt that compromise the IRB had reached with the PI was the best that they could expect, given the practicalities of the situation. “Yeah,” said Michael somewhat bitterly, “the practicalities. It’s a long-term contract with a client that has deep pockets and we’d like to maintain a relationship with them.” But he also felt that the project’s goals – getting aid to the right people at the right time, to prevent the emergence of a radical religious movement in a region whose economy seemed to be on the edge of stabilizing – were in some sense laudable.
Later, Michael’s manager told him that the team doing the work would benefit from his advice on how to design the research approach and analyze the data. “You raised a lot of good points about the differences between the way an advertising firm approaches data gathering, and the way an anthropologist might. We could really use your help.” Michael politely explained that he didn’t feel right about participating in the project. “I’m sorry, Jim, but I think this project raises real ethical concerns. I don’t feel that I can participate; it’s against my scholarly principles, and I’d prefer not to be affiliated with it.” Michael’s manager told him that he respected his decision, but also took the opportunity to remind Michael that company proprietary rules meant that he could not use this case as part of his writing on ethics and applied research. Michael agreed not to write about the case, though he felt that this story would be of great interest to many of his colleagues in their discussions about ethics and applied research for government agencies.
QUESTIONS TO CONSIDER
- How does this case illustrate the relationship between research ethics and research methodology?
- Let’s say that Michael agrees strongly with Sheila’s perspective. Is there a way he could be involved in the project, and do so ethically?
- How do moral, political and ethical principles conflict in this case?
- What else could Michael do to impact his colleague’s thinking?
- Should Michael challenge his boss’s advice about sharing this experience with his anthropological community? Why?
- Is there a way that the research proposed by Michael's colleague could be conducted ethically and morally?