Current Issues in Criminal Justice 9, Geis, G. Private prisons, criminological research, and conflict of interest: A case study. Crime and Delinquency 45, Introduction to Sutherland, E. London: Yale University. Gelbspan, R. Hot Air on Global Warming: science and academia in the service of the fossil fuel industry. Multinational Monitor 18 11 November. Gill, S. The Global Political Economy. Hemel Hempstead: Harvester Wheatsheaf.
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Researching The Powerful In Education : Geoffrey Walford :
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Capital and Class 58, Pearce, F. Holy wars and spiritual revitalisation. There may be fewer compelling grounds for extending guarantees of privacy or confidentiality to public organisations, collectives, governments, officials or agencies than to individuals or small groups. Nevertheless, where guarantees have been given they should be honoured, unless there are clear and compelling public interest reasons not to do so.
Those codes, then, at least identify the core problem that we tackle in this article: often the only way of obtaining key information about the activities of powerful respondents is by breaking the rules. The way exemptions and concessions are linked to a higher principle of the public interest is significant, since here we see an explicit recognition that the normal rules of engagement might not apply when researching the powerful.
This assumption is based on prior claims that social research, the generation of knowledge, and so on are always in the public interest. In most advanced capitalist states, the private interests of corporations are increasingly being represented by governments and policy makers as the same thing as the public interest. If private corporations create wealth, jobs, and so on, then it could be argued that it is all of our interests to promote their interests. Of course, this notion of the public interest is not only highly contestable but is in practice a focus of popular struggles to limit corporate power in the contexts where such claims are made.
Furthermore, many public and not-for-profit organisations are now adopting similar practices to private profit-making organisations. It is instructive in this context that a number of codes of ethics explicitly justify suspending the normal rules of informed consent when research is based on general observations of public places. Confidentiality is not required with respect to observations in public places, activities conducted in public, or other settings where no rules of privacy are provided by law or custom. Similarly, confidentiality is not required in the case of information available from public records.
Unmasking the Crimes of the Powerful
Could, for example, a construction site, a factory floor, an industrial chemical complex, or a dockland site be generally regarded as public if those sites are owned and run by large private corporations? This is an interesting question, since those are sites that, for very obviously reasons, are places of major public interest and concern. Many of us spend a large proportion of our time within or close to such sites, and depending on the types of activities that go on there, they may have a major impact on communities and environments.
This is a point that, as Laura Nader indicated, is crucial for understanding the difficulties of studying up. She suggested that the study of institutions, organisations, and bureaucracies that have a broad public impact should not be protected by the same rules that protect individuals and their families.
If this argument was compelling in , then the growth of the social and economic power of the corporation since then makes it even more compelling today. And yet, our codes of ethics do not recognise this fundamental issue explicitly.
The institutions we are mainly interested in here—government or public institutions and private corporations—are often referred to in codes of ethics exclusively in relation to their role either as funders of research or as the employers of researchers. This is a familiar repeated theme: that the production of knowledge as an end in itself is a common goal. A common interest is, therefore, asserted around the aim of enhancing knowledge production. Moreover, if such conflicts do arise, a common theme across codes of ethics is that they are to be dealt with through consensual agreement.
Such assertions do not resemble the reality of our experience as researchers.
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Disputes between researchers and their universities and disputes between researchers and their funders are not so easily avoided or resolved and are themselves structured by unequal power relations. If we just reflect for a moment on our own careers, we have both been censored several times and had research projects blocked on the basis that they are likely to damage relationships with elite research subjects.
Our experiences are well known to social scientist who research elites see, for example, Geis and Goff, Such conflicts are a professional hazard that is constant, particularly for researchers, like us, who research the crimes of the powerful. A more insidious effect of this common interest approach is that the power to adjudicate over ethical deviations recommended by a code of ethics is given over to the employer institution—that is the university or the research institute. Codes of ethics tend to assert that such derivations must be approved by a university ethics committee.
A more likely outcome will be to place more power in the hands of institutions that may not be willing to upset corporate partners and funders Geis and Goff, This article has reflected on the ethical paradoxes faced by those researching elites within corporations and other organisations. Indeed, it is common for the codes of ethics produced and promoted by the key professional organisations that represent the interests of social researchers to at least acknowledge institutional and organisational power.
But as we have also seen, such forms of power are represented in very particular ways.
It is in the failure to present a nuanced understanding of how power shapes the entirety of the research process that codes of ethics underestimate the degree to which there are contradictions in the research process. As we have seen in the preceding discussion, there is some distinction made across different types of research subject in reference to a general notion of power. But those problems of power are not specified or developed in codes of ethics. The danger is, therefore, that a moral and practical equivalence is established between a range of research subjects that are fundamentally unequal in character.
We question the proposition that elites and the organisations they work for should be given the same protections as vulnerable research participants. Institutions with significant control and influence over our lives cannot, when they are research subjects, expect the same protections as victims of crime, or homeless people, or users of a leisure service, for example.
This assumption of moral and practical equivalence between relatively powerless and relatively powerful research subjects also fails to recognise fundamental differences in the substantive concerns of research into elites. Those of us who research the powerful are generally not interested in their personal lives. Vulnerable research participants are generally included in a particular study because of an experience, or experiences, they have had in their lives: drug users, prison inmates, residents of a particular housing area, users of social services, or whatever it might be.