Accepted paper:

Ethical dilemmas and moral conundrums: negotiating multiple subjectivities in the field


Jocelyn Avery (The University of Western Australia)

Paper short abstract:

I conducted fieldwork at a Special Needs school. As my research evolved I became interested in new strands of inquiry which could breach ethics guidelines. Ethics approval can help refine the research methodology and analysis but cannot prepare us for the moral conundrums that arise in the field.

Paper long abstract:

All researchers have multiple and intersecting subjectivities that enable us to view our subjects through a variety of lenses. This positionality shapes our research interests and goals as much as the material we gather in the field. My research was conducted at a special education needs school where I hoped to discover something of the sense of self of adolescents with severe intellectual disabilities. I aimed to do this through participant observation at the school, guided conversations with the staff, and interviews with the parents. I could then compare and contrast this material with my own experiences as the parent of a child who attended a similar school. Using a case study of the interactions between a young female staff member and one of her students I illustrate the challenges of these competing subjectivities. On the one hand their interactions were potential ethnographic 'gold' but on the other they challenged me as a concerned human being, a parent, woman and feminist. To do no harm was to do nothing, but to act meant deciding where the least harm was done; none of which rests easy on any researcher. My various crosscutting subjectivities enhanced my fieldwork experience, but also resulted in challenges to the need to adhere to ethical practice, and my desire to do no harm. It also challenged me morally as unforeseen situations emerged to undermine my own self, and worldview.

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