doing qualitative research as if counsel is hiding in the closet

A lot of my research studies political elites. As such, I am frequently conducting participant observation and open-ended, semi-structured interviews in the halls of the US Congress, offices of various federal agencies, political consultants, lobbying firms, and organizations that aim to represent the public’s interest. In other words, my data are collected from a highly educated group of people, an overwhelming proportion of whom have law degrees. Moreover, most of these offices employ some sort of “corporate” counsel that monitors access—or what I think of as my field site and my research subjects. As a result, I have learned to be extremely careful since these lawyers have made it clear to me on a number of occasions that I can lose access and be booted from my field site at any point.

In the 15 years since I completed my PhD, I have been challenged by research subjects regarding my use of their names or the data I collected from them in two particularly anxiety-inducing cases. In the first, a subject of an interview who worked for a Congressional Committee found a draft of a paper online that directly quoted him. While I was making the final edits on my first book, which named this subject and quoted him directly, I got a very aggressive email from him. In response, I passed on a copy of the transcript of the interview that included an exchange during which I asked if I could use the subject’s name and he affirmed. His concerns were alleviated after receiving the transcript that included his consent. Nonetheless, I removed direct reference to this research subject in my book. I also adapted the way that I approach political elites whom I study.

Although these interviews are usual seen as exempt from IRB requirements because I am asking about subjects’ political work and not anything personal, I have found I get better data (and avoid such interactions with JDs working in the political arena) if I grant all subjects confidentiality. When providing a description of my research before I begin an interview, I hand my subjects an IRB-approved information sheet about the research and tell them that nothing they say will be directly attributable to them. In journalists’ parlance, the interview is “off the record.” I state that I will email them directly for approval if I find there is any segment that I would like to quote directly in my work. Because so many of my subjects have experience speaking with journalists, I find that following similar norms about attribution puts the subjects at ease. Although this process adds some work when I am writing, it tends to yield more interesting data. This process also gives me an electronic trail if I am approached by subjects post hoc, which can be very helpful if I am contacted by lawyers.

I have also faced challenges when studying political organizations. The most stressful experience so far took place during my research on the experiences of young activists who worked as canvassers, recruiting new members and renewing existing memberships for a number of progressive campaigns. The findings of this study went into my book Activism, Inc. Most of the data used for the book came from open-ended semi-structured interviews with one cohort of young people working on the summer canvass and the participant observations conducted in canvass offices during summer 2003.

Preparing to enter the field for this study involved gaining access to the largest canvassing organization in the United States—The Fund for Public Interest Research—which had never before been the subject of an academic study, and likely never will be again. (I created a pseudonym for the organization in Activism, Inc. because the findings from the research were not very complimentary. Since the organization came out in an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education after the book was published, I named it in subsequent publications.) After many rounds of discussions with the organization and positive support from well-known activists whom I knew from my life before I became a sociologist, the organization agreed to be the setting of my research project. Before going into the field to do participant observation in offices and interview canvassers, however, the organization required that we negotiate a memorandum of understanding that would determine who and what I would gain access to and what I could ask about during my research. After some back-and-forth, the organization and I signed the agreement that stated, “The treatment of the data will be consistent with the protocol outlined by the Columbia University Institutional Review Board (IRB Protocol #02/03-998A).”

Although social scientists frequently complain that the requirements of our universities’ IRBs put unnecessary limitations on social research—particularly for projects that collect little personal data about the research subjects—I found the IRB provided me with a welcome shield with which I could protect my research and my subjects from the organization. Throughout the duration of this project, people from the organization made multiple attempts to get my field notes and interview data. In fact early on in the project, a representative from the organization offered to hide in the closet or surreptitiously turn on the office’s intercom so that she could listen in on my interviews.

Even though we had agreed from the beginning that my data would be kept confidential and both sides had signed the agreement that acknowledged that I would be following the regulations of the IRB, the organization persisted. Thanks to the university’s Human Subjects requirements, however, I was able to respond to these requests by pointing out that my protocol, which is required by the university and was clearly outlined in our agreement, would not permit such activities.

In addition to protecting my subjects, the IRB protected me when the organization threatened to take legal action. Right before Activism, Inc. was published, the organization’s legal team threatened to block the publication of the book (for which they had no legal grounds), stating that I had to turn over all of my data to them before they would approve any publication. Once again, the IRB and my human subjects protocol provided a welcome protection. It’s worth noting that, even though my IRB Protocol was protected through Columbia University, I was still required to hire my own lawyer, which cost me thousands of dollars. After enduring hours of phone calls with lawyers from the University and Stanford University Press to go over the research and my methods, our “legal team” agreed that I had done nothing wrong and the book could be published.

Given these experiences, I now conduct all of my research very carefully—basically doing it as if a corporate counsel is looking over my shoulder every step of the way. Moving forward, qualitative sociologists who study less privileged communities should follow the lead of those of us who have been studying elites and do their work AS IF they’re studying a group with their own legal representation. In other words, we all should treat our field sites as if they are populated by a privileged portion of the population who wield law degrees.

Dana R. Fisher is in the sociology department at the University of Maryland. She is the author of Activism, Inc.: How the Outsourcing of Grassroots Campaigns Is Strangling Progressive Politics in America.


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