Agile Ethics

I advocate an agile research principle for working in the digital social sciences. This is a mode of engagement, a sensibility for good practice, more than a formal list of procedures or protocols. An agile research approach emerged as an attitude within design driven software development. It is form fit for the broad programme of eResearch in the eSciences. It also adjusts to the specific settings of analysis. Such flexibility and practice related contingency are integral to agile research. They follow from its core value: researchers ought to immerse themselves by working and being familiar with the technologies and practices they study. This is not to subscribe to Garfinkel’s “unique adequacy” for ethnomethodology, whereby a sociologist must meet a standard of expertise as judged by peers in the field under study. Instead it nurtures an anthropological intimacy that attenuates the distance between researcher and the practitioners, instruments and institutions s/he is working with. By being both participant and observer, mingling the domains of “insider” and “outsider,” the agile researcher contributes to positive consultancy rather than negative critique.

As anthropology-meets-design driven practice, agile research enfolds ethical conduct is several ways:

  • Vulnerability – Negotiating a new research setting is always awkward. Learning how to use the tools and techniques that practitioners are involved with makes us especially humble, exposing us to even greater anxiety. It also draws out the ‘learning curve’ of new research projects. Nevertheless, an agile ethics helps flatten the hierarchy between ourselves as researchers and those we research. This humanizes the researcher and places us more in the role of colleague and collaborator rather than spectator or critic.
  • Publicity commensurate to research – The public and private realm are mixing with digital research, particularly research concerned with the Internet-as-database. As never before, the anonymity of ourselves as researchers and the individuals and settings we work with is difficult to maintain. Most protocols and perspectives discuss how to raise firewalls and maintain discretion despite increasing connectivity. An agile ethics makes the counter-intuitive move to increased openness and transparency. To expose ourselves equally with those wrapped up in our projects. If we generate, study or deploy potentially personal information in our research, then our level of privacy ought to match that of the individuals involved in the project. For example, Twitter APIs provide individualized information about “tweeters,” down to the photograph on the profile. This data is only provided, however, if we opt-out of keeping our tweets “private.” I am involved with a group who perform spatial analysis on tweets; their data depends upon users going “public.” Though I don’t want profile information and the content of my tweets to be public – especially considering I’ve seen the Excel files provided by Twitter API – I ought to use the technology in a manner consistent with my research. So I’ve opted for public disclosure. I am now a data point in those Twitter APIs and a potential subject for analysis by others.
  • Relations – As an agile researcher, we become part of the network we work within. Our network contracts expand our relations of accountability beyond the funding agencies, peers and ethics boards to include the individuals/collaborators, institutions and technologies we research with. Responsibility to our informants has long been upheld in anthropology. But our web of responsibilities extends beyond the lens of anthropocentricism.
  • Embedded disclosure – Anthropology has long debated the virtues and vices of “going native.” Where once we returned from the remote (and possibly exotic) field, now we perform this boundary work whilst still embedded in our research networks. Connectivity makes the “field” a more and more anachronistic concept. While much of what the agile researcher does blurs the normative distinctions between “insider” and “outsider,” research goals remain different. It is therefore even more urgent to remain honest and disclose intentions. This is done in a manner appropriate to the research setting. For example, I work with a project developing “the clickable world,” or attaching QRTags to objects which can be scanned with a smart phone and are linked to websites. The lab I work in has a tag for the work place, and individuals leave notes, tasks and other comments pertaining to the day’s events. When I come to study the project, I scan the tag to let them know what I am up to and where they can find more information about me. As an agile researcher I perform disclosure via a medium of communication relevant to their practice.

Digital social research poses many questions for how we as academics ethically conduct ourselves in settings where data and technologies are rapidly transforming. The agile researcher accommodates these challenges by adhering to the very old principle of thinking-with-hands.