Acknowledging that the wide range of methods and research settings requires ethical nuances
The range and variety of methods and field settings where social research is conducted highlight the problem of imposing a single standard ethics code. This range and variety run counter to the alleged usefulness and relevance of a rigid ethics-review scheme. Research-ethics codes, as contained in formal ethics codes worldwide, come from an entirely different species of research in which the clinical trial is seen as the gold standard. It should be noted, however, that there is ongoing policy work (such as in the PRO-RES Project) to address the critique of biomedical hegemony (see http://prores-project.eu/).
In addition to this range and variety of methods and field settings, another distinguishing feature that symbolic-interactionist research helps us to understand is that the social situations do not merely implicate evolving interactions with the research participant but also invariably apply to the changing interpretations of those evolving interactions between the researcher and the research participant. The study of these interactional intricacies is the particular strength that symbolic interactionists bring to the table of ethics in research. For many, the idea of developing a research-ethics scheme might lead some to think it is possible to have a single code or set of guidelines that would cover all research.
Wide range of methods
Symbolic interactionists use a wide variety of methods, and each method implicates a different ethical approach that is more nuanced toward that given method. Abbar Rukh Husain (2018) carefully identifies the variety of methodological interests as including the study of graffiti, cartoons, photo-elicitation, what is in your fridge, archives, neighborhood walks, listening to street noise, and using social media data. At the 36th Qualitative Analysis Conference held in Fredericton, New Brunswick, Canada, in May 2019, for example, the presentations covered seventeen research methods (Qualitatives, 2019).
Many of these methods embody symbolic interactionists’ interest in the analysis of the interaction order, that is, social situations or “environments in which two or more individuals are physically in one another’s presence” (Goffman et al., 1997: 235). Other methods include conversational analysis, human-computer interactions, and observations in mass settings.
Social interaction may be awkward or uncomfortable when it comes to interacting with research participants, but it is not a reason to avoid such research. Researchers take them in stride and do not shy away from studying human interaction to the fullest. As underscored by Amber Gazso and Katherine Bischoping (2018: 256), “when it comes to understanding awkward moments in interviewing — those that are embarrassing, anxiety-inducing, horrifying, or downright thorny — a reflexive gaze is rarely employed.” Goffman “considers emotions and feeling such as embarrassment, feeling bad or good, shame, pride ... an integral part of his analysis” (Gingrich, 2000). These individual factors spill into one’s research and fall under the routines of emotion. Research-ethics codes are more likely to see them as obstacles or as something that deviates from what they would consider part of ‘normal’ interaction. Rather than seeing them as problematic, symbolic interactionists are likely to include those interactional routines as data in their research (Holstein and Gubrium, 1995; D. van den Hoonaard, 2005).
As symbolic interactionists enter the stage of preparing their research proposal in the hope that it will be approved by an ethics committee, it is helpful to remember that these researchers potentially use a wide variety of methods that may well foster misgivings on the part of an ethics committee. Because the adoption of the medical research-ethics framework is the policy norm, social research is likely to be measured against the prevailing medical framework. Clinical trials and experiments are a far cry from the sort of thing that symbolic-interactionist researchers engage in. There is an insufficient appreciation or understanding of how each study in the social sciences calls for a different ethical ‘accent’: anonymity might be impossible, confidentiality unnecessary, and consent empirically troublesome with regard to employing methods that engage collectivities. To take an example, when an Icelandic author published his novel about a small village that put one of us in the plot of the book (Danielsson, 1972), any attempt at maintaining the anonymity of the village was blown away because many in that village were already apprised of the research. Some methods highlight individualistic aims, while others seek broader cultural facets. Researchers may do well to reflect on the unique ethical nuances that attend to each method, clarifying them to a committee that is more accustomed to clinical and experimental research methods.
One of the significant calling cards in symbolic interactionism is the always-present urgent need to use flexibility, something that no researcher (or ethics committee) can anticipate. It is inconceivable that any research can be valued as good without such a change in methods and plans.
Wide range of research settings
As is the case with the wide range of methods employed by symbolic interactionists, the diversity and multiplicity of research settings and social contexts also make it quite impossible to adhere to one set of codes of ethics in research. It is, indeed, difficult to conceive of a common application of formal ethics codes in all these research settings and contexts. One recent volume on qualitative research (Kleinecht et al., 2018) attests to the large variety of settings that symbolic interactionists typically research, as it covers the marginality of women and of others (Benbow and Hall, 2018), truck drivers (Fleming, 2018), organizational settings (Hillier and Milne (2018), transgenderism (Johnston, 2018), military personnel (Wright, 2018), pick-up artists and personal reputation (Kleinecht, 2018), the female-escort industry (Wojciechowska, 2018), action on streets (Landry (2018), childrens sense of place (Akesson, 2018), and the private space of home (Mannay, 2018). Each research setting discloses many unique layers that challenge conventional understandings about research ethics. What is more, each venue is not necessarily explored with one particular method, and there is an intermix of on-site observations, interviews, photo and textual analysis, online research, and ethnography, to name a few. Whether it is the method or the research venue, each situation calls for a unique application of ethics that best embodies the requirements of sound ethical research in that particular setting.