Dina Pinsky, "Digital Ethnography and the IRB"

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Digital Ethnography and the IRB: Regulatory Limitations Confront Changing Technological Affordances

Digital Ethnography and the IRB: Regulatory Limitations Confront Changing Technological Affordances

ESS 2016 Presentation: Digital Sociology Mini-ConferenceMarch 17, 2016 12:00-1:30, Boston Park Plaza Hotel

Dina PinskyAssociate Professor of Sociology, Arcadia University, pinskyd@arcadia.edu

Goals of the paperExplore relationship between research ethics and qualitative online methodologies

Raise questions rather than determine answers

Inspired by experience gaining IRB approval for teens and social media project

Question IRB policies and practices re digital research, while appreciating IRB work

Background on projectInterviewed high school students about digitally mediated communication with peers

Special interest in social media and gender

Follow on social media: Facebook, Instagram, TwitterDo not interact with participants online

n=57 for interviews, 55 for online observations

IRB response to my projectMore than two months of revisions and discussions

Concerned with issues of internet privacy, consent, and mandatory reporting

As if I would be observing diary entries or private conversations

Would I ask participants to post on social media that I am observing?Would have prohibited my research

Adolescents and online privacyTeens exert control over online privacy through social steganography (boyd 2015)

Difficult to discern true meaning of intentionally obscure posts, tweets, comments

Privacy level of platform level of social steganography, type of username, amount of sharingE.g. Twitter vs. Facebook: impression management

Result: agency over presentation of self & boundaries

Social steganography: Linguistic and cultural methods of encoding. Song lyrics, inside jokes, double-speak, code words. Accessible to subculture, meaningless to outsiders


IRB ChallengesInsufficient compensation for work and legal responsibility

Biomedical sciences bias

Under-representation of ethnographers

Protocols vs. inductive design of ethnographic methods

The gap between regulatory definition of research practices and ethnographic methods has grown wider with the advent of qualitative digital research.

Internet research as challenge to ethical regulationGame changer for IRBsLack of clarity in OHRP guidelinesDifficulty of relying on precedentsThus no best practices

Ethical decision making may exceed IRB protocolsExploratory ethical decision making after data collection

Ever-changing technological affordances, privacy agreements, and cultural practices Lack of agreement on classifying online spaces as public or private

In fact, it makes more sense to classify the distinction between public and private as a continuum rather than a dichotomy.


Is the internet public space?Three paradigms:

All searchable online content is public data

Internet users as amateur artists, online content as cultural text

Digital ethnography: online content is social interaction and potentially sensitive due to searchability and traces

How does the concept of public space apply to the internet? This question is complicated by a number of factors. Federal regulations permit direct observation of public behavior, even of children, to be exempt from IRB review if the researcher does not interact with participants. By this logic, observing teens interacting on a subway or in a park would be exempt.


1. Searchable content = public

Users know their words are read by the public

Exempt from IRB: researchers analyze digital interactions without interacting with research participants, and de-identify data

direct observation of public spaceor archival research of publicly available existing data

Therefore not human subjects research (Walther 2002).


2. Online content = cultural production

Humanities scholars: online material like published texts

Cultural artifacts rather than social interactions of human subjects

Internet users like amateur artists rather than human subjects (Bruckman 2002)

No need for IRB reviewHumanities scholarship should be included in discussions of internet research ethics (White 2002).

But, what about rights to privacy and consent?AoIR 2012 Guidelines (Markham and Buchanan 2012)Perceived privacy - expectations of privacy, control of personal info, and protection from harm

Shifting and Byzantine privacy agreements on social media platforms

Increasing awareness about internet surveillance in media and warnings to adolescentsThus, is perceived privacy on the decline?Is it reasonable to expect privacy online?

I find the critiques made by this group of scholars compelling, especially in regards to clearly public spaces on the web. However, varying affordances leads to a range of risks for digital research participants. For instance, research in certain online contexts carries more potential to create risks to privacy than others, with the ever-present flux of shifting technologies. If we are concerned about protecting privacy and consent of online research participants, where can we find appropriate strategies? 11

3. Digital ethnographyMy approach to social media research: subject to IRB review even if no interaction

Varying degrees of privacy on internet

Searchability and digital traces

Confidentiality even more crucial with minors

Yet online research is not more risky than ethnography

Lastly, to pursue furtherU.S. IRB standards compared to other countries?More restrictive, because of litigiousness?Sensitive data = culturally variable, e.g. Danish Data Protection Agency (Lomberg 2012)

Adolescents lumped in with younger minorsYet, research shows 14 and older similar to adults in ability to understand complex material and be informed (Battles 2010, Santelli et al. 2003)

Lack of ethical clarity ambiguity in field and terminologyDigital ethnography, internet archive, or textual analysis?

Thank you for listening!Questions or comments?

Dina Pinsky pinskyd@arcadia.edu


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