What should be expected from social science researchers, ethics-wise? How much compromising between access and sworn secrecy is appropriate?
In this project we have from the beginning said that we will not begin by approaching any organization, for example LKAB, to ask for any type of permission to conduct our research. Why? We think that it will jeopardize our role as independent researchers and affirm an existing power asymmetry. It is based on concrete experience from previous projects were we’ve had that type of approach. First, negotiate access. Second, do the study. Third, go back and tell management about our findings. This bias wasn’t healthy for knowledge-making about the particular phenomenon or for how we could interact with people (as if we were sent from management). It also complicated writing in terms of empirical restrictions and anonymity (not necessarily persons, but organizations and industries), draining the possibility to consider the particular context in the cases. This is a serious limitation considering that we like to see ourselves as context-sensitive case study researchers.
Not seeking approval from management does not, however, indicate a sloppy or reckless attitude towards the people we study. On the contrary. Studying the ethical guidelines from the Swedish Research Council, the most commonly referred to research ethics standard in Sweden, it seems rather straightforward: protect the individual. The person must be informed about the research (purpose, how to store data etc.), give his or her consent to participate, but can whenever he or she feels like it withdraw from the research, without giving any reason for this. Click here to access the document we use before any interview commences.
So, access, trust and keeping to agreements are at the core in all our previous – and on-going – case studies.
So this regarding individuals, but what is the relation between an organization and research ethics? A short and perhaps brute answer is: none. Of course, we must not act dishonestly, e.g. circulate lies or loose speculations about organizations, but an organization is an artificial corpora, a construction in and through which people act. An organization does not contain any ethical resemblance to humans. Practically, however, organizations matter and sometimes it is impossible to get access to individuals without formal agreements with an organization (in some of our previous projects we’ve signed such agreements), but our view is that it is a scientific slippery slope, trading secrecy for access with an artificial corpora. It’s always possible to meet people outside, in our case, the labour process to talk about the labour process, but at the cost then of losing some context sensitivity. It’s always possible to work the case outside formal organizations and their management if no access is given. Doing this might also arouse some curiosity from them, which hopefully lead to the researchers being invited (what we call an outside-in movement, see “About this project” on this website).