My Struggles with Ethics (Application)

Wednesday 31 July 2019

This year’s Laidlaw summer was already a huge shift from that of last year — it was going to be my first time travelling to the United States to conduct an ethnographic study of the Smithsonian Asian-American Literary Festival, interview New York playwrights, and place my experience of New York into my research. Already, one of the issues that have been a problem was my ethics application. What I thought would have been an easy application process, due to the relatively low-risk and straightforward nature of my interviews, turned out to be a long-drawn one with multiple rounds of editing and correction that even my supervisor did not foresee, until the Modern Languages ethics department finally accepted my application.

The ethics application required a list of interview questions for my semi-structured interviews with the playwrights. As my questions were to be contextual and oriented towards their plays, which I had not read at the point of my application, I was unable to provide a satisfactory list of interview questions and was struggling to think of questions that were general but relevant enough. However, the ethics department sent me a previous outstanding application to refer to, and I realised that I was pigeon-holing my perspectives of the playwrights and their plays, and I had to be more open and creative when constructing my questions. For example, I brought in questions about putting up plays in general, and how the roles of the director and actors would affect the final interpretation of the play, and whether such creative differences that are inevitable between the playwright and those involved in the performance would be significant or not.

The ethics application process also led me to ponder about questions that did not even cross my mind, such as data-storage and the potential consequences of the interviews and my projects that I did not deem to be significant. I thought that my questions would be relatively safe, but the urging of the ethics department to consider more implications led me to realise that my research could have some, however small, backlash. For example, if I was interviewing a playwright belonging to the LGBTQ+ who was from Singapore, such issues would be sensitive as Singapore has not decriminalised homosexuality. Thus, how I store and release the data would be extremely important so as to protect this person’s rights and privacy.

Therefore, although administrative matters such as this are not really my forte, being required to submit such paperwork massively helped with the organisation of my research, such as giving me a rough skeleton of interview questions to consider before diving into my research, as well as to encourage me to think about the wider implications of including other people into my research.

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