Thinking about ethnography and ethics

I had one more thought on ethnography, before we move on…
When reading the Shaffir and Stebbins articles I kept thinking back to this mini-saga I had with the Lyndon LaRouche Youth Movement back when I was an undergraduate.  I was taking a feature writing class, and I thought it would be a great idea to write a profile of a member of the LYM, as it’s called.  I’m assuming students in Toronto will be familiar with them — they seem to be widespread, and spend a lot of time on campuses, ostensibly to recruit new members.  To be clear, I went into it knowing that the LYM is a badly misguided and even potentially dangerous political cult, but all the weirdness made me all the more curious about what it was like on the inside.

I found them on campus, started chatting casually, and before too long told them that I wanted to write something about them, and could we arrange to talk some other time.  There was one woman who seemed most willing to talk, she gave me her email address and I followed up.  Long story short, there were several phone conversations and a couple in person meetings with campaigners, and then the local leadership got wind of what I was doing and clamped down hard.  Very soon everyone knew my name and knew that I was trying to do, and they were forbidden to cooperate in any way.  The reason given was that it was a waste of time to talk about or do anything that didn’t further the cause of fighting fascism in the U.S. (their understanding of politics, history, and ideology is completely addled, but I don’t have time to go into it).

I had my ‘aha’ moment during one of the last face-to-face encounters I had with them.  I had asked if they saw any value in simplifying the content of the literature they distribute, to make it more accessible — even to someone like me who loves reading about economics and politics, it’s very hard to follow.  There was a particular look of glee in the face of one woman as she explained “we don’t want it to be easy to understand!”  At that point I realized that the cohesion of this group depends on feeling that they are outcasts, that the rest of the world cannot understand them.  I never liked it when someone referred to the LYM people as crazy or stupid, because from talking to them I could see that they were neither.  What I think is that they’re very lonely, and when you’re intelligent and lonely and have a leftist outlook and George W. Bush is the president, a tight-knit group of similar individuals who say they’re working to change the world can seem very attractive.  But once you start spending every waking moment with them (they all live together), it can seem like the only place you belong.

So from that standpoint, it seems to me that being genuinely sympathetic, respectful, and interested in what they had to say was just about the most threatening thing I could have done.  Thinking back, there were a few moments when I started arguing with them about something, and that seemed to be when they opened up the most.

I still think about writing that story someday, but after my experiences I seriously doubt anyone could do it without concealing their intentions.  You could talk to people who had left the group, and you can find those interviews online, but obviously that’s not a representative sample and it doesn’t get at the meat of what it’s really like to be on the inside.

As an undergraduate, they taught me journalism ethics, which basically said deception is almost always inappropriate, but that there are situations where the story is important and there’s no other way to get it, and those have to be considered on a case-by-case basis.  What interests me about ethnography is it seems like a very similar process in some ways to journalism, just on a much larger scale.  I didn’t notice the authors we read last week taking a stand one way or the other on outright, conscious deception in ethnography, and I wonder if that’s because it’s taken as given that it’s unethical and should never, ever happen?  It’s clear that there is a large grey area, but I wonder where the ethical boundary lines are.


One thought on “Thinking about ethnography and ethics

  1. bradleymcilwain

    Hi Milo, thank you for your post, and sharing your interesting personal experience. I liked your comment that, “deception is almost always inappropriate, but that there are situations where the story is important and there’s no other way to get it, and those have to be considered on a case-by-case basis…ethnography is, it seems, like a very similar process in some ways to journalism.”

    I have often wondered this myself, throughout the readings. It does seem like a large grey area for ethics, but its often those journalists who seek to not only document but become part of the story that people find all the more riveting, and gets to the heart of the matter. Luker speaks to the difficulty of being accepted through ‘the front door’ or proper channels, and calls it a mixed blessing. “True, you’re legitimate, and no one can officially throw you out. On the other hand, because of the fact you came in under the aegis of ‘the boss’ people will often be suspicious of you, wondering what you are really up to.” (Luker: 163) That suspicion could very well alter a persons behaviour, if they know they are being studied, and affect the trust of the participant in respect to the observer.

    One extreme example that comes to mind is Hunter S. Thompson’s Hells Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga of The Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs, published in 1967. An reviewer in the New York Times wrote: “Hunter Thompson entered this terra incognita to become its cartographer. For almost a year, he accompanied the Hell’s Angels on their rallies. He drank at their bars, exchanged home visits, recorded their brutalities, viewed their sexual caprices, became converted to their motorcycle mystique, and was so intrigued, as he puts it, that “I was no longer sure whether I was doing research on the Hell’s Angels or being slowly absorbed by them.” At the conclusion of his year’s tenure the ambiguity of his position was ended when a group of Angels knocked him to the ground and stomped him.” (The full article can be accessed at:

    In Chapter 2, Knight admits that: “one implication is that there is no hard and fast divide between research and other inquiries. Journalists, for example, (should) do research, which means that the distinction between research and journalism becomes one of degree,” (Knight: 16) and goes on to say, quite interestingly, that “the difference between a novelist and a ‘researcher’ can also be slimmer than you might assume, the main difference being that serious novelists sometimes make substantial inquiries before presenting their findings in a creative and entertaining form. Few researchers have the ability to write that way and fewer are prepared to risk representing their findings through fiction, though it is not unknown” (Knight: 16).

    It would definitely be interesting to read any studies of ethnography that was passed off as fiction, comparing ethnographic studies presented through institutions and its effectiveness when blurring the lines between ‘fiction’ and ‘reality.’ Does anyone know of any studies like this that are out there? How often does this occur?



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