Reflection: Tackling the ethical conundrums of research at the Digital Economy Network Summer School

By Angelika Strohmayer

Building a City of Ethical Conundrums

Doing research is difficult, and no amount of training is going to prepare us for every single potential ethical question or incident in the field. While applying for ethics approval from the university is supposed to help you think about potential issues that may arise in your research, they don’t always make you think about all the little details, the small things that can happen when doing fieldwork.

When looking at ethics as a constant conversation you are having with yourself, your supervisors, your colleagues, and maybe even the ethics board, it helps you address these conundrums that come up through the process; the invisible questions.

These conversations are hard to have with colleagues or supervisors, let alone the official ethics board of the institution, as many of the issues that come up may be very personal and complex. On top of this, it seems to be that safe, judgement-free spaces to talk about these types of issues openly are also sometimes lacking.

To address this issue, three PhD students from Highwire Doctoral Training Centre (DTC) at Lancaster University and Centre for Doctoral Training (CDT) in Digital Civics at Newcastle University put together a workshops for other PhD students studying in DTCs and CDTs within the Digital Economy Network (DEN) at the annual DEN summer school (this year hosted by Open Lab at Newcastle University) on the 19th of July 2016.

This workshop was an opportunity for students to have a safe space to address any ethical questions, conundrums, or concerns that they may have come across in their work so far, or are worried they may come across in any of their future work.

Since we knew this was going to be a difficult topic to talk about, we addressed the topic in a serious, but fun and creative way: We built a city of ethical conundrums.

Using ideas from anarchist and critical pedagogies where embodiment, creativity, reflexivity, communication, and collaboration are important, we came up with the idea of creating a common language among participants to talk about these personal concerns.

The workshop started with a short activity to get to know one another, and a longer conversation on the importance of safe spaces including how we were going to make sure our workshop was a safe space. After this, there was a short period of individual reflection where participants created unique pieces of art to represent their own ethical concerns in silence. After sharing these with the rest of the group, the building of the city began.

Materials

Starting with simple language and concerns, we used black building blocks and markers to document the conversations that came out of the individual presentations. To address invisible issues that arise throughout the research process we added little clay ghosts, and to further complicate the conversations we ended up building in some Lego figurines to populate our city of ethical conundrums. After all these conversations, we tied balloons to the ghosts and came up with strategies of addressing these invisible issues. At the end of the day, we ceremoniously popped these balloons to let the glitter that had been filled in them fall onto the hostile-looking city we had built throughout the day. This made the city prettier and shinier, adding to the metaphor: while the kind of research we are doing in sensitive settings is difficult and at times may look hostile, when we talk about and address these concerns the research will be less hostile and more beautiful.

Picture

This workshop helped us learn from one another’s concerns and allowed us to address many difficult issues in a safe environment. The workshop was a great opportunity to exchange experiences, reflect on ethical implications of previous, current, and future projects, and to engage in discussions around these concerns. We were able to map commonalities between the different research projects we addressed in the workshop, and to see that while all participants were working in very different environments, many of the ethical concerns appeared in all of our work. The safe space we created through the workshop allowed us to address both very detailed and unique concerns, but also broader ethical issues we see in academic research as a whole.

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