Case study/Discussion: anonymity

Imagine the following situation:

A linguist is doing fieldwork in a small village. Some of the linguist’s consultants would like to be identified and acknowledged by name in publications relating to the work. However, publishing these names in connection with the language name will allow the identification of previous fieldwork participants who strongly wished to remain anonymous.

  • What are the ethical issues here?
  • How could the linguist proceed?

4 Responses to Case study/Discussion: anonymity

  1. chuckbert says:

    It is a question of the morality of veto rights.

    Society seems to have a disposition towards veto rights, ie. anything is fair game unless it a passive or active participant objects.

    What about the rights of the participants to be recognised for their work? When is issuing a veto immoral?

  2. Claire says:

    I had in mind here that there is a conflict between the right of recognition for work and the right to remain anonymous if a participant feels that their identification would cause them (actual or perceived) harm.

  3. James says:

    First off, ask the previous participants! It’s not unlikely that people might change their minds over time. Talking with the previous participants is the very first thing that should be done when this issue arises, because if they can be convinced to be nonanonymous then the whole problem becomes moot.

    Another solution is to use pseudonyms and make real names available only by request. This maintains the speaker relationships in the published data, but relieves some of the identity problems. Pseudonyms are likely to be deciphered by a small population, however.

    One solution that could work but could also potentially cause a lot of problems is to have the people who want to be identified confront the previous participants who wanted to be anonymous. Both groups are likely to have far more understanding of the problem than the linguist does. But the researcher needs to be very careful in not letting the discussion turn into something that tears the community apart. It would help if the linguist has extensive experience in the community and is highly respected, since a newcomer would be far less likely to know how to handle a rancorous debate. The presence of other highly respected community members is essential for the discussion as well.

    Alternatively, the discussion and decision could be handed over to a community leader so that both sides are obligated to come to consensus. The basic idea here is to not make up things as one goes, but to follow established procedures in the community for resolving disputes and disagreements. In other words, let them sort it out on their own terms, and go with whatever they decide.

  4. drword563 says:

    I like the pseudonym idea; the problem with asking previous participants is that they may be difficult or impossible to contact, for example, if you did some research 30 years ago and have no way to contact the informant,

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