How do you usually describe yourself? (wonderful world of ethics in today’s research institutions)

– part 1-

An hour ago, I’ve just had a meeting at the ORI (Office of Research Integrity), and took one step forward in the IRB protocol application. Feel better, a little relieved. Know some more “ethical” pitfalls at least: Be clear, be precise, be concise, do not rant, be direct and be detailed, do not ask questions for risky, personally identifiable information, be realistic of time and place constraints, tell them exactly what method will do what and how.  I do care about the safety of my research participants/interview partners (which is still called research subjects by many), and I am glad the research ethics board care about the risks and problems they may be exposed to. I also care about the soundness of my study, and I am also happy the same board wants to make sure about the accuracy of my approach to the population & my ways when I am conducting a survey/questionnaire/mapping exercise, etc. I am also pleased to hear that they are not arrogant, so they do not care about my study’s accuracy at the level of theory and research questions; instead, they just care about the ways and human subjects that become part of the research process. Wonderful.

– part 2-

10 minutes ago, I sat down to do some work and just had a reminder e-mail for a survey conducted by a university department. Okay, click, let me fill in the survey. At the beginning of the survey, they ask the following: “How do you usually describe yourself?”

In case you did not get it, they refer to ethnicity (problem 1, why should this question refer to ethnicity? Not clear. I may describe myself as grey haired, short and tiny, absent-minded, eccentric, silly, speak three languages, love to sing in the shower, etc. Yes, that is how I usually describe myself, and ethically, I should not be inferring the meaning of the question from the answers, since answers lead me to the question whereas it should be otherwise). Alright then. They do not care what you are – as would be sane and expected, given that ethnicity as a social identity will have to be constructed to some extent at some point-, they simply want to know how you perceive your ethnic category (problem 2, if this is a social construction, why do you care? If this is a social construction that you care because it affects real life, why do you want to know about my crooked perception, which already travels through a prism and reaches me or you or some public after many changes and breaking points and divergences? I will only further blur your collected data. If this is simply for reasons of knowing whom your respondents consist of, why do you ask about my ethnicity, since this will not be central to your analysis?) So you may have some Native American descent (1/4, 1/2, 1/8 or 1/1, you know), and you may “describe” yourself  as White, or as Native American, or perhaps Black – if you see that to be more definitive of you-. It just depends on your “perception” (problem 3, your perception as my reference point, because, you know, it doesn’t sound good, right or politically correct if I describe your self with my categories. Well, these are still the researcher’s categories, ha ha, but you know, I give you a little bit liberty “to choose”, make it a preference, a choice, not an immanent category… and this may be perfectly subject-oriented, bla bla. I do not even start with reminding that certain scholars argue that the way we categorize things and identities may be an troubled outcome of modernity. Then you would have BIG questions for the accuracy of the study). But of course, the research participant’s description is key here, and of course, this information may simply be tangential to the study, so no need to make a fuss about it. Right. Also, the study wonders smoking practices of participants – take some free time to think what kind of associations may be present there-

Well, the options in the ethnicity question in surveys in the U.S. usually consist of the usual categories. White, Native American, Hispanic, Latino, Black, Asian, Multiracial…  I’ve heard several people telling me that this is a silly thing to go with, but it is just something formal and for documentation. So, in these surveys, I’ve always picked White/Caucasian, even though I was sure I’d have several roots, not just one (have you ever heard of genotype/phenotype distinction? I am sure you have, but again for the sake of practicality, you may skip this part). Alright, I do define myself as white (problem 1, 2 & 3 staved off).

Oh no! This time, there is another option: Middle Eastern. Do I describe myself as Middle Eastern? Do I describe myself as White? Do I what? (problem 4, who am I?) Sure, this may be tangential; but if it is tangential, why keep it in the survey, since that is what I’ve been warned a couple of hours ago at the meeting?) So, this is how it feels inside my mind:

This is how I respond – after system recovery of course- : ‘I am afraid I perceive that I do carry multiple ethnicities, and I do describe myself with multiple ethnicities. But they are different than race, so I may not call myself as bi-racial or multiracial, either.’

  • Coming up next:  my real adventures with impossible mapping methods, committees, forms, etc.

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