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Ethics and the “Indigenous” Anthropologist: The Use of Friendship in Ethnographic Fieldwork

By: Edited by: Published: 2018 | Product: SAGE Research Methods Cases
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This case study raises critical questions about the ethics of using friendship in ethnographic fieldwork. It draws from the author’s experience of relying on friendships when researching her own community to reflect on whether relationships forged in the field are inherently instrumental in nature and compromises friendships that predate fieldwork. The case study also explores how, for indigenous anthropologists, the ethic of confidentiality is a lifetime commitment because the researcher continues to inhabit the social world of her interlocutors. Feminist researchers have highlighted the difficulties in reconciling ethics and methodologies in contexts that render informants more vulnerable, especially where “thick descriptions” depend on encouraging intimacy. Indigenous feminist anthropologists writing about insider positionality stress the importance of reciprocity. Little is said about the ethical dilemmas arising from the study of one’s own community and where access to information is predicated on relationships that predate the research project, that is, with family, neighbors, and friends. The case study will describe several field encounters to ask, is it acceptable to take advantage of people’s sense of obligation to researchers who may be a neighbor or friend? Should researchers take for granted the offer of hospitality people graciously extend and interpret this as consent to explore the most personal aspects of their lives? Although the researcher establishes trust by forming or deepening friendships, such a gesture is not reciprocated by informants with the research relationship foremost in mind. Friendship is extended within a specific context and has particular cultural meanings. Usually, not just prolonged contact and reciprocity, but a deeper sense of connection with another leads to friendship where one feels safe in sharing intimacies. When fieldwork ends, how do researchers maintain confidentiality in their day-to-day social relations? By supplanting friendship from a social setting to a research context, does ethnography transform friendships into inherently instrumental encounters?

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