The ethics of digital ethnography in a team project

Tagg, Caroline; Lyons, Agnieszka; Hu, Rachel and Rock, Frances (2017). The ethics of digital ethnography in a team project. Applied Linguistics Review, 8(2-3) pp. 271–292.

DOI: https://doi.org/10.1515/applirev-2016-1040

Abstract

This article draws on researcher vignettes to explore ethical decisions made in the process of collecting and analysing mobile messaging data as part of a team ethnographic project exploring multilingualism in superdiverse UK cities. The research involves observing key participants at work as well as recording them at home and collecting their digitally-mediated interactions. The nature of ethnographic research raises ethical issues which highlight the impossibility of divorcing ethics from project decision-making. We therefore take on board a re-conceptualisation of research ethics not as an external set of guidelines but as the core of research, driving decision-making at all steps of the process. The researcher vignettes on which we draw in exploring this process facilitate a reflective approach and enable us to identify and address ethical issues in our research. In this article, we focus on the potential impact that digital communications technologies can have on the kinds of relationships that are possible between researchers and research participants, and on the roles they can carry out within the project. In doing so, we explore the part that digitally-mediated communications play in the co-construction of social distance and closeness in research relationships. Our discussions around these issues highlight the need for an awareness not only of how our participants’ media ideologies shape their use and perceptions of digital technologies, but also how our own assumptions inform our handling of the digital data.

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