During one of my classes on ethics, I tell my first year students that I am facing a variety of ethical dilemmas in my own research on gossip.
“Why not choose a few colleagues that have the reputation of gossiping really well,” one student suggests. “Get to know them, gossip with them and take notes.”
“Without telling them that you are doing research?”
“Of course not. Otherwise they won’t talk to you.”
The class laughs. “This is not necessarily a bad idea, but is this ethical?” I ask, adding that ethnographers and social scientists regularly face this type of dilemma, especially if they want to study behavior that is considered shameful or taboo (without mentioning criminal behavior). On one hand, researchers are obliged to respect a code of conduct and obtain informed consent from their subjects. But when using deception, researchers cannot get informed consent, so there is a conflict right there.
Moreover, Hammersley and Atkinson (2007) note that for many, using deception for research purposes is never, or hardly ever, justified. “Such objections may arise from the belief that this kind of work contravenes human rights of autonomy and dignity.”
However, the authors point out, if researchers reveal their role and intentions, this will certainly affect their subject’s behaviors and skew the results of their research. (See Babbie, 2010; Hammersley and Atkinson, 2007).
“If I ask you to tell me whether you have gossiped about certain classmates and what exactly you have said about them, would you tell me truthfully? ”
Several students point out that gossiping “is not such a nice thing to do,” and that they would not readily admit doing it themselves (even though they do it, of course). Others assure me that they would speak to me truthfully if the results were confidential.
Since guaranteeing subjects’ confidentiality is another ethical requirement, “why not do the ethnographic study anyway and simply guarantee confidentiality?” another student asks.
“Imagine my colleagues recognizing themselves in a paper about gossip, a year later… I don’t think they would like me very much, to say the least. Even if your study is confidential, subjects may still be recognized. If I did an ethnographic study on my direct colleagues at ICM, for example, management and other colleagues may be able to guess who said what, since we are a small team. And this could be harmful.”
After a brief discussion, students decide that questionnaires may give the best results, as the researcher could guarantee confidentiality and anonymity. “We would feel more comfortable discussing our behavior there, and would not feel worried about being harmed or judged.”
Other students say they prefer the idea of one-on-one interviews. “In this way, a researcher can ask follow up questions and can eventually clarify certain issues.”
“I guess you have to trust the researchers and feel comfortable confiding in them… What if that is not the case?”
“Can you not get around all of these issues by not using the word gossip but its definition?” another student asks. “I wouldn’t necessarily want to admit that I’m gossiping about a classmate, but I would be a lot more willing to say that I’m talking about an absent classmate with friends.”
Indeed, many researchers have used this strategy. For example, Martinescu et al (2014) told their participants that they were doing a study about ‘informal group communication’. Cole and Scrivener (2013) asked their subjects to take part in a study about ‘sharing information about others,’ and Farley et al. (2010) said that their survey was about ‘informal communication in the workplace.’
Beersma and van Klef (2008) asked their respondents to “briefly describe the last occasion where they had talked about a person with someone while the person about whom they talked about was not present.” The authors explained that they “explicitly avoided the word gossip in order to avoid social desirability effects.”
Similarly, just before handing out their questionnaires, Wittek and Wielers (1998), emphasized that “talking about colleagues or classmates is a natural thing to do,” in an attempt to take the moral weight off the word gossip.
In all of these studies, after the participants filled in their questionnaires, all authors debriefed their subjects and told them their studies were about gossip. Participants still had the possibility to withdraw from the study.
“But aren’t you also using deception here?” a student asks. “After all, I would be participating without giving informed consent, since I am not totally informed about the study. And how do you retrieve your (anonymous) survey from the pile if you decide you want to withdraw?”
“So in the end what will you do?” a student inquires.
“I don’t know yet,” I answer. “I am still weighing all the options…”.
So what would you do?