Sunday, January 1, 2012

Fieldwork Challenges of the 21st Century: Why I Can’t Keep my Blog Up-to-Date

In short – I often don’t know what to write.  This is not a writer’s block, not exactly.  What I have is an ethical dilemma of content. The importance of anonymity to protect research subjects has been drilled into my brain over many years of college and graduate school. This makes it difficult for me to blog about my experiences in the field while I am in the field. My fear is that it would be too easy for anyone in Taipei to figure out the identity of anyone I mention (and I happen to know that there are people in Taipei who have looked at this site).

This is something that was never covered in any of my classes unfortunately. When the classics were written there were no blogs. Malinowski did not have to worry about keeping his informants’ identities safe.

So, why then did I start a blog?

I started this blog just before leaving for Taiwan fall semester 2009. The main reason I started blogging was because my adviser suggested it. Actually the only reason was because he suggested it, but I understood immediately all the benefits. It could give me the chance to keep in touch with the academic world back home, possibly help expand my academic network, and share my experiences with other researchers/students who may benefit from what I’ve learned (all assuming anyone ever read this). It was also another way for me to record my fieldwork experiences and something to look back on and use while writing my dissertation.

For all of these reasons I want to have this blog, but for these reasons to be relevant I need to be writing about my fieldwork. In walks my ethical dilemma. 

Suppose I want to write about something that happened yesterday.  I had interactions with about 15 people yesterday - not including shop clerks, the baby I played with on the subway, and other strangers who happened by. Now as it just so happens, it was a conversation over dinner that inspired me to finally sit down and write this post (I’ve been mulling it over for a while). Without saying anything more, it is likely that at least a third of those 15 people could figure out who I was having that conversation with, assuming anyone cared to think about it. So how do I protect anonymity? 

Or maybe I am asking the wrong question.  Perhaps I should be asking: Where and when is anonymity important? All of the people I spoke with yesterday know I am doing research and that I blog about it (or try to anyway) and most of them know each other as well. So they all know that everyone else is talking to me.  There is no absolute anonymity within a social group. This has nothing to do with whether or not I say anything about anyone or not. So, since everyone already knows that everyone else is involved in my research, what is the problem with blogging about it?     

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