Archive for January, 2012

Is Ethical Fieldwork Possible?

Catherine Lucas: February 2010



To approach this question, we must focus on certain common dilemmas faced by researchers in the field. For the purposes of this essay, I will investigate the following: how can field researchers obtain information morally when in difficult or dangerous situations? and, what can we do when personal safety or the continuation of our research, is in jeopardy?

I refer to two ethnographies from different times, situations and subjects, both facing the same problems of ethics concerning the use of covert research, questions of power balance, and protection of both the informants and the researcher themselves. These two ethnographies are Tearoom Trade (Laud Humphreys: 1970), and Mumbai Slums and the Search for ‘A Heart’ (Atreyee Sen: 2004)

In order to examine the ethics of the former study in hindsight of the field, I will be analysing the comments made by Punch in 1986, who explored in depth how to identity and overcome problems in fieldwork. His insights, I believe, lend useful understanding to the dilemma faced by Humphreys during his research, and consequently have a bearing on how I will approach and analyse Sen’s ethical issues in Mumbai.

Deception and lies:

The moral predicament of ‘Tearoom Trade’ (Laud Humphreys: 1970)

Through his research tactics Humphreys reinforces an image already prevalent in some circles that social scientists are sly tricksters who are not to be trusted…involving deception and manipulation… (Donald Warwick, in Bulmer: 1982:58)

Tearoom Trade (1970) covered covert research conducted by Humphreys in the late 1960s under the guise of being a homosexual man interested in engaging in casual sex in public toilets. He infiltrated a group using an alias and established himself as their ‘watch-queen’ – the man who would watch for police. During this time he took covert notes using a hidden recorder and was meticulous in his details, which included the license plates of the men involved. He later altered his appearance and used the information to conduct a ‘health survey’ on the men he had tracked from his findings. Although his research was an aid to understanding sexual practices, his methods left a lot to be desired and faced harsh criticisms.

Warwick’s comments lead us to wonder whether Humphrey’s methods of covert research led anthropologists and sociologists following after him to suffer from the legacy of so-called ‘deceit’ he left behind. Punch, in his 1986 examination of ethical fieldwork, questions whether some research subjects ought to be off limits altogether, which is another query raised by the content of Humphreys’ findings on homosexuality. His work was slammed by some critics not only for its methods of undeniably devious covert observation, but also for the immoral sexual nature of its content. Punch refers to Humphreys’ work as “well-known, if not now notorious,” (1986:31) so it is clear that his work has gained some notoriety amongst fellow anthropologists in a manner both humorous and as a subject of controversy. However, in 1980 Galliher notes that a strict ethics system for researchers may serve to protect certain subjects from being exposed, and that this could lead to harm rather than prevent it (cited by Wax, see references).

Covert research could be conducted by an academic in the interest of exposing the nefarious practices; but, even then, for some social scientists, certain areas are simply taboo because association with them is morally repugnant. (Punch: 1986:31)

It is clear here that Punch is referring to Humphreys’ research, however he does go on to admit that what some researchers may consider immoral subjects to explore, others may simply view as new challenges. This is one of the primary issues when determining whether a subject should even be considered morally acceptable to investigate: Humphreys, for example, may have seen no reason not to research ‘cottaging’ (secret meetings for casual homosexual sex in public toilets), indeed today we might not see it as such a shocking subject in comparison to the 1970s.

From this angle, then, perhaps we should consider the merits, if there are any, of covert research in this context, before dismissing it out of hand. Being such a secretive and taboo subject at the time, I do not believe that Humphreys would have encountered many men, particularly those apparently happily married, who would have accepted being interviewed on their casual homosexual encounters. Posing as the ‘watch-queen’ (guard) of the public toilet these encounters took place in may seem underhanded, elusive and immoral; however I do not think Humphreys would have collected such detailed data without securing this position.

The first area of true contention, starts I believe, with the use of a ‘health survey’ by Humphreys to collect further details on his subjects. To find the homes of these subjects, he also used the car plate numbers of men he had observed at the public toilets whilst working as ‘watch-queen,’ and recorded. This I feel is a gross violation of the trust the men bestowed on the ‘watch-queen,’ and damages the ethicality of his study more greatly than any of his former actions.

The problems encountered by Humphreys over the question of how to enter the field to carry out the research at all, is a problem Punch describes as a ‘situational dilemma.’ Referring to Humphreys’ work on Tearoom Trade in particular, however, Punch is quite contemptuous of the conscious use of covert and what he views as immoral methods. His main problem is also the recording of car number plates in order to track the men being observed. The idea of the group under observation being ‘relatively powerless’ (1986:34) highlights the issue of a wildly unbalanced power-play situation. Humphreys’ methods were not only covert, but also relied on not being discovered by the group in question, leaving them powerless to object to or approve the situation. Punch is inflexible in his insistence that some form of ‘informed consent’ should be adhered to, even if the true knowledge of the research is made clear to only one person.

Examining ethics in violent field settings:

‘Mumbai Slums and the Search for ‘A Heart’’ (Atreyee Sen: 2004)

While living and working with these women, I found myself a helpless, often frightened bystander to various forms of factional ‘war.’ Would, should, could I prevent this overt use of violence and threats? …The eerie spectre of ethics continued to haunt my work… (Sen: 2004:1)

Sen’s fieldwork was carried out in the slums of Mumbai and focused on the violent women’s movements that were rallying alongside the Hindu nationalists there, against the men they believed were making working conditions extremely oppressive and dangerous for women and children. Sen’s fieldwork took her close to the dangers of rape and physical harm, which she also witnessed amongst others. Her ethical dilemma became whether it was moral to simply sit on the sidelines, observing the violence being done to her newfound peers, or whether it was ethically unsound from an anthropological viewpoint to make any interjections.

She cites her aim as an anthropologist was to ‘make sense’ of her surroundings and “learn why young and old women in Mumbai slums became Hindu nationalists and engaged in collective, communal violence and urban conflict.” This violence was often in gang form against men in the community and also against other women who opposed their actions. Kondo’s 1990 description of how the fieldwork setting gradually becomes a familiar place you attach your familial emotions to, helps Sen to describe how attached she became to the women she was both researching and living alongside; how attached she became to the people around her: “…the ‘setting’ eventually becomes populated with people you grow to know, sometimes to love…” (Kondo 1990:7) This attachment to the ‘subjects’ of her field research made Sen increasingly unable to remain within the more stringent rules of ethics.

Some of the initial difficulties encountered in conducting her research, arose simply because the ethical manner of keeping all persons informed if they were being observed or recorded made her a target of suspicion. She was accused of being a ‘Bengali researcher rat’ by some of the movement’s leaders, as her data collecting began to arouse distrust in those around her. Given the delicate and dangerous situation of this fieldwork, therefore, we may forgive Sen for adopting what she refers to as “‘covert urban research.’ [Which] …gave rise to several paradoxes and grave ethical dilemmas.” (2004:3) She pretended to be an upper class Hindu woman in order to gain access to people she might otherwise have been unable to interview, and also used this role to protect herself personally.

However, when discussing the ideas raised by the ‘Sena’ women of the movement, she was careful never to offer any of her own opinions, which would not only have hindered her research but may have introduced a moral dilemma for the women being interviewed. Sen’s methods may seem unethical in part due to the by definition immoral practice of covert research, but on the other hand, her choice to do so was motivated not only for her own safety, but to protect others and to keep her findings as untarnished by her own status in the field as possible.

I made every effort to be fair to the Sena women and their circumstances. However in doing so I represented just one side of the on-going arguments concerning justice, revenge, forgiveness and freedom, and my work does not discuss the victims of the Bombay riots or their impotence while watching the Sena women wreak havoc and display their power. (Sen: 2004:4)

Sen readily admits the one-sided nature of her research findings, which was, I assume, a product of keeping herself seemingly ‘on the side’ of the Sena women, rather than putting herself in the middle of the conflict. I cannot see a problem with this, as the fact that she acknowledges this setback is useful enough an explanation. Her experience shows that although the field researcher must present as balanced findings as possible, they may be unable to do so in a situation that puts their own life at risk. For Sen, to fraternise with the other side of the conflict could also harm her allowance to collect information.

Threats on her life were also made, should she misuse the information she had gathered for any other use than that she relayed to the Sena women. She was “tailed by a Sena ‘detective’ for days before [she] …was allowed to live in the slums,” and this highlighted the power struggle between anthropologist and informer: Sen possessed information that gave her power over the Sena women, yet they also possessed the threatened power of violence against her and the ability to cut her off from further information. She constantly felt the push-pull of her work and her own quality of life during the fieldwork period, noting that she “…did not keep that [emotional] distance from the Sena women and whilst this made my ethnography richer it made my life poorer. A researcher who lived partially in fear of her subjects.” (2004:4)

Sen was also unable to conquer her own personal emotional reactions to certain events around her, where violence occurred that she had to witness, or where she watched children being taught to act violently. In the latter case she intervened, which on reading her account I believe she found relieving: “…just for a while, I felt I had suspended notions of cultural relativism and objective ethnography and climbed down from the role of ‘the non-interventionist anthropologist.’” (2004:5)

This admission of freedom in intervening against a violent action shows Sen not as an anthropologist but as a human being first. Unfortunately, there are many arguments we could explore as to the ethicality of this intervention, not least of all that had this action had a unfavourable outcome, it could have not only hindered or halted the research Sen was involved with, but also might have had a more fatal outcome for the researcher herself.

Although Sen did intervene on the actions of her subjects in this one circumstance, her notes suggest that she generally attempted to remain a placid observer to all
situations, even where violence occurred. She is not insensible to the fact that silence is often taken as alliance with a cause, a fact that she addresses at the close of her paper:

Through their construction of me as a friend, a sympathiser and an agent of the bhari duniya, the wider world, did they also construct an image of the duniya that would support their aggression? (2004:6)

The power balance throughout Sen’s fieldwork remained more securely in favour of the Sena women than the anthropologist studying them. Would it have harmed Sen personally to take affront with what was happening in the Mumbai slums? We can only truly focus, after the event, on the information gathered. This information, although somewhat one-sided in content, nonetheless represents a strong insight into the inner-workings of a dangerous political movement, and in this case we might more readily bend the rules of ethics. In addressing whether ethical fieldwork was possible in the case, I cannot say that it was unethical, as Sen clearly acts in a manner she believes safest to both herself and her subjects, whilst diligently attempting to expand her access to greater in-depth research.


Punch notes that in some cases of fieldwork it may be “situationally inappropriate to repeat continually that purpose [of the research] and to identify oneself.” (1986:37) By this he means that the researcher may be unable to constantly introduce themselves as an anthropologist, and should use the rule to do so as a guideline that may be varied under difficult circumstances.

In Sen’s case, it would have been dangerous to continually announce herself as a researcher, although she did ensure that those she interviewed were aware that she was making a study of them. If we look at Humphreys, on the other hand, he makes no attempt to suggest that he is conducting research, and in fact consciously hides this by adopting disguises.

Despite his dubious methods it cannot be denied that Humphreys’ research gave us a far greater understanding of human sexual activities outside of ‘normative’ practices. At the time of Tearoom Trade’s publication, the AIDs epidemic was about to hit, and until that time barely any attention had been given to ‘cottaging’ or the idea that married men might perform homosexual activities in secret. The main issue to contention must be whether or not his records ensured to sufficient degree the confidentiality of his subjects, for as Punch stresses: “What is trivial to us may be of vital concern to the researched.” (1896:48)

Words: 2,432.

Essay produced for Goldsmiths College, London. 2010.




Hunt, Jennifer. C. (1989) Psychoanalytic Aspects of Fieldwork. Sage University Paper.

Laud Humphreys (1970) Tearoom Trade. UK: London. Gerald Duckworth & Co.

MaCall and Simmons (eds.), (1969) Issues in Participant Observation. USA: Addison-Wesley Publishing Company.

Punch, Maurice. (1986) The Politics and Ethics of Fieldwork. Sage University Press pp.29-48

Sen, Atreyee (2004) ‘Mumbai slums and the search for ‘a heart’: Ethics, ethnography and dilemmas of studying urban violence,’ in: Anthropology Matters Journal 2004, Vol 6. (http://www.anthropologymatters.com)

Wax, Murray. L. ‘Some issues and sources on ethics in anthropology,’ from: Cassell, J. and Jacobs, S.E. Handbook on Ethical Issues in Anthropology. (http://www.aaanet.org/committees/ethics/toc.htm)

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