Research or creative practice? The ethics of innovative research using new technologies

In a recent issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education, two creative research projects, both being carried out by academics, are highlighted. I found these particularly interesting as the cases demonstrate the challenges that many ethics review boards are facing as they try to differentiate between research and creative practices, especially with the increased use of new media in projects.

Here’s the story (The Chronicle requires a paid subscription to read articles but it also offers short term free on-line access via this link): <a href="
” target=”_blank”>Two Professors Rock Out Online to Study Fame — and Us

In the first of the two studies highlighted in the article, Nick Trujillo, a professor of communication studies at California State University at Sacramento, has created what he classifies as a new kind of ethnography in which he has created a false persona, “Gory Bateson”, an aging rock star, with his own band, rock videos, Web site and group of followers — mostly fellow colleagues who are “in” on the project. According to the article, the goal of Trujillo’s study is to use his methods of performance art to explore important social issues, although it’s not clear what social issues are being explored here. Trujillo, as Bateson, has posted his own videos on YouTube and then has taken the step of sending out mass emails to student computer clubs at universities to try to get as many viewers as possible.

The project fits into an academic practice called performance studies, in which fiction or music or dance is created to critically explore social issues. By jointly writing the stories of an aging rocker and his groupies, these scholars say they are revealing shared cultural memories and social stereotypes.

What’s unusual about this academic project is how big a stage Mr. Trujillo wants his fictional character to perform on. In my talks with the professor-turned-fake-rocker, he mentioned that he hopes for at least a million hits on his videos, and for someone like Eric Clapton to start riffing on his fictional story, pretending that he once jammed with the Ethnogs back in the day. So far, though, most of Mr. Trujillo’s videos have about 100 views each, and no participation from actual celebrities.

In the second study, a MySpace web page for a goth industrial band called
Blood Jewel has been created by Neil Whitehead, a professor of sociology at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. The website features images of violence and sexual bondage and a video commentary on the Virginia Tech shooter. Before the videos were pulled from YouTube for profanity, they attracted over 50,000 viewers. Whitehead characterizes this as a new kind of participant observation, in which a researcher first becomes embedded in a culture and then reflects on his or her experience from that particular perspective. Whitehead claims — and many would agree — that there is no way for a researcher to observe on-line phenomena other than by participating actively in cyberculture. While some have questioned his use of provocative and unsettling images to achieve his ends, others have lauded Whitehead for spearheading a new kind of anthropological ethnography.

Michael L. Wesch, an assistant professor of cultural anthropology at Kansas State University who has studied the culture of YouTube, called Mr. Whitehead “a wild guy” but argued that his approach is worthy of serious discussion.
“I personally think that that may be sort of the future of fieldwork in anthropology,” Mr. Wesch told me. “What he’s doing is, he’s kind of entering a culture and actually participating in it. It gives him an insight that I think others can’t have. And he still maintains his ethnographer status.”

From the article, it isn’t clear whether the two studies have undergone research ethics review, although both professors label their work as “research”. A professor from the computer club at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada wrote a letter to Trujillo’s university, claiming that principles of research ethics had in fact been violated, as the mass email had been sent out to Waterloo’s students without first getting clearance from Waterloo’s ethics review board. The Waterloo professor also stated that the project lacked rigor and would produce only “meaningless” results.

Although both professors consider their work to be research using innovative methods and new technologies, it’s not clear that any ethics review board would have pushed for review of either project. Performance art carried out in a public sphere accompanied by the researcher/performer’s self-reflection, while often important and worthy, may not need ethics review. Furthermore, millions of people log onto YouTube and view videos and images every day without having an ethics review board overseeing this activity or offering protection.

It’s also not clear, from the article, what kind of data are being collected in either project nor is it clear what exactly constitutes a participant in either study. While anyone can view the images and videos created by both researchers, I’m not sure that there is any kind of risk involved — other than the risk that the researchers/performers may endure extensive criticism of their work and credibility by less open-minded colleagues.

The Panel on Research Ethics (PRE) has produced a document with guidelines on Internet-based Research. However, projects like these ones involve issues beyond the use of the internet in research. An important challenge these two projects demonstrate is the difficulty deciding — for the purposes of research ethics review — what is performance art or creative practice and what is research. Furthermore, while the PRE document is a helpful beginning point to think about some of the issues of internet-based research, technology changes quickly and this limits the degree to which a static (and therefore instantly “dated”) document like this one can guide the deliberations of ethics review boards. With this rapid rate of change, the emergence and adoption of new media in research and the extensive use of the internet and social networks in research, it may be that rich discussion, dialogue and sharing of decisions between research ethics boards may be of greater value than static guidelines.

~ by Nancy Walton on May 5, 2009.

2 Responses to “Research or creative practice? The ethics of innovative research using new technologies”

  1. Hello Nancy–This is Nick Trujillo, aka Gory Bateson of The Ethnogs. Thanks for writing about my project. I will answer some of the questions you raised. The purpose of the project is to study what happens to fictional–though we prefer the term “mythic”–characters on the Internet. Many people are creating them, and I thought what better way to study this phenomenon than to create one myself and study what happens, and in the process get a better sense of what it means to be “viral.” In this sense, it is a kind of virtual participant observation, similar to other ethnographic studies though obviously different as well. I have not gone through a research board for this project, mostly because I cannot conceive of any harm coming to any human subjects. No one at my university has called for me to submit the project for review either, though a head administrator for research at my university said in the article in the Chronicle of Higher Ed that this was a “crazy” way to do research. It certainly is different, but I wish he wouldn’t have called it “crazy.” The project is very organic in nature as the character evolves, so what constitutes “data” is also evolving, though I am keeping accounts of people’s responses to the YouTube videos as well as other responses, such as the sexual harassment complaint against me that was investigated and dismissed. I find it incredibly fascinating that some people are having extreme reactions to this project, from very negative ones such as the sexual harassment complaint to very positive ones from colleagues who call the work “brilliant” and “cutting edge.” I’ll settle for “interesting.” Anyway, thanks again for the blog and I’ll keep you posted! nt/GB

  2. […] Just a link- “Research or creative practice? The ethics of innovative research using new technologies” By Tracey… […]

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