Blog Post

Ethics and vulnerability in linguistic ethnography

by Kate Steel

My ongoing PhD research focuses on police-victim interaction during first-response call-outs in England and Wales. I take a qualitative, discourse-analytical approach to examining police body-worn video footage, supported by ethnographic research involving officers and victims who have first-hand experience of such encounters.

Clearly, research involving such sensitive personal data entails significant ethical challenges, ranging from the macroethical issues of consent and privacy to the complexities of day-to-day ‘ethics in practice’ (Guillemin & Gillam 2004). With the latest LEDS session, on 5 June, I welcomed the opportunity to share my ethical journey so far, with a view to generating some discussion around ethics – particularly in relation to vulnerability – in linguistic ethnographic research.

I came to the meeting armed with some rather methodologically-oriented notes, but was gladly distracted from this crib sheet by an animated and thought-provoking group discussion. Topics included the nature of vulnerability as situated, rather than a predetermined category; divergences in institutional perspectives on personal data ownership; methodological approaches to disconnections between ethnographic and naturally-occurring data; and how to represent ethical complexities in our writing. This is just a snapshot of an exchange which generated many insights and ideas to fuel future directions.

In the understanding that we are continually developing as ethical researchers (e.g. Kubanyiova 2008), I found the session particularly useful at this pivotal point in my project. I hope others also found it a valuable opportunity to exchange perspectives from different fields and research traditions.

Guillemin, M., & Gillam, L. (2004) ‘Ethics, reflexivity, and “ethically important moments” in research’. Qualitative Inquiry 10: 261–280.

Kubanyiova, M. (2008) ‘Rethinking research ethics in contemporary applied linguistics: The tension between macroethical and microethical perspectives in situated research’. Modern Language Journal 92 (4): 503–518.

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