Q & A about Research Ethics

Some students at the University of Limerick have been kindly engaging God Hates this semester and have asked a number of great questions about research ethics with a hate group. I answer them in a Q & A format below.

How do you gain access to a hate group?

It really depends on the group, so the first step is knowing as much about the group as you can learn without doing person-to-person research. Safety is paramount, and it’s not safe for everyone to do research with hate groups. We’re not trying to pull a BlacKkKlansman here, so you need to know, as far as you can, if they will accept you at all as a researcher. You have to be honest about who you are and what you are going to be doing with the information that you gather. This may mean that you have to avoid gathering information that would endanger your research participants. If you are observing illegal behavior, for example, you don’t want to gather information that would let you identify a participant. This means you have to think a lot (and have to work with your IRB) to decide what you can ethically observe. But respondents have to know that your work isn’t going to endanger them.

I do a lot of work with churches, which, compared to other groups, are relatively open, though, of course, there is secrecy within religious groups, too. I just mean that much of what a church does is done in public. If you are struggling to gain access to a group, you might begin by narrowing your research project to the data you can public gather, such as an analysis of the group’s website (if it one) or speeches from its leaders made in public. After you demonstrate some knowledge about the group, they may be more likely to give you access.

How do you build rapport with members of a hate group?

You listen carefully for what they want to talk about, and then you talk about those things until they are willing to talk about harder things.

In survey research, we often put the most important questions up front since, if people begin their surveys with questions about demographics, they may get bored quickly and not finish when they get to the harder questions. If they’ve already answered the harder questions, they feel invested in the process and are more likely to finish the quicker-to-answer demographic ones.

In contrast, with interviews, you have to ask the easy questions first to help people find their voices. This is especially true if you are recording, which can feel awkward to people. At the same time, many hate group interviewees will not want to share the kind of information that small-talk is likely to reveal. They can’t talk about where they work because they don’t want their employer to know that they are part of a hate group, for example, and they may find questions about their families threatening.

To find what people are willing to talk about, look for cues that they give: the logo on their t-shirt or on a button on their bag, the tattoo on their arm, the dog they brought to the interview. Find something to show interest in. If you are meeting in a coffee shop, let them order first and order the same thing and then comment on how you share a favorite drink.

It can be tempting to prime your respondent to answer by sharing a bit about yourself. It’s fine to share the name of your favorite drink at Starbucks or let your respondent know that you’ve never heard of the band on their t-shirt but that you’ll check them out, but you shouldn’t trade personal information–first, because it may be dangerous and, second, because you don’t want to distract the conversation with personal stories.

Practice interviewing on easy subjects–Trust me: your grandma would LOVE to help you, so give her a call and ask her questions!–before you get to members of hate groups. You’ll want to have a nice balance of questions–mostly open-ended and friendly. You have to ask 20 easy questions (even if they are not getting to the information you most care about) before you can ask a tough one, and that’s okay. Ethnography is a long process.

Finally, remember that companionable silence can also build rapport. Do something together, keeping your body busy until talking becomes easier. If the person or the group is doing something that you can participate in, do it. Go for a run or a walk with them, pitch in making the group’s common meal, clean up the dishes afterwards, etc. While you don’t want to be exploited or do anything that would cast a doubt on your scholarly interest, activities like this can make it easier for people to talk because they aren’t focusing on their words alone but also doing something else.

Would you describe any of your relationships as “friendships”? Is it okay to be friends with the people you study? If not, how do you prevent your relationship from becoming too close?

When working with “unloved” groups, it can be easy to believe that these are people just like you. But that’s not true. They’ve committed a significant part of their life to advocating hate toward other people. No matter how much like you they may be, they’re also different in a really significant way.

Can you be friends, outside of the research setting, with people who advocate hate? I guess it depends on what you consider to be the meaning of friendship. I think you can be friendly with them, in the sense that you can treat them with kindness and even enjoy them in small doses. But, for me, friendship requires some agreement on core values.

That said, I really enjoyed being with members of Westboro Baptist Church, probably more than they suspected. They are smart, engaged, funny. Many of them are kind and generous. I love theology and appreciate other people’s passionate engagement with it, so my talks with church members about theology were always fun. I felt respected by them, and there were times when I felt genuinely cared for because, I think, I was. But all of those things can’t cancel out the fact that they also do damage to other people.

Some of the people I met when I was attending the church regularly for research have since left and I would consider them to be real friends now.

How do you get detailed information in ethnographic research?

Ethnographic work requires a lengthy time investment. Unfortunately, the increasing cost of higher ed in the US and a push to graduate students ever faster may endanger it, which is a shame, because I also think it’s one of the best ways to understand complex phenomena.

Ethnography also requires a sensitivity that can be exhausting. You are trying to notice all things at once, which can be exhausting. One thing that I found helps was having a ritual of some kind that marks the transition between research and non-research. For me, preparing to enter a church service, I’d sit in my car for a few minutes before entering the building and practice some mind-clearing techniques. I’d open to a new page in my notebook and get out a nice pen and a freshly sharpened pencil. Those items–the blankness of the page, the pen full of ink and the pencil with a serious point–reminded me to be open and aware and to write a lot. Other rituals would work just as well, of course, but the point is to have something that reminds you Now I am paying attention. 

You also have to repeat experiences. You have to go back and see the same thing over and over. You can’t catch everything the first time.

How do you stay safe during research?

The physical dangers of work with hate groups are real. During my time research WBC, the church was the target of an arson, and they were stalked by a man who expressed the intention to commit a mass shooting. So, for me, the risks weren’t from within the church but from without it.

In other groups, especially ones where guns and misogyny and homophobia come together, the threat is from within. Researchers need to have a plan for every conceivable situation, formed from the insights of others who have done work with such groups. What if they demand you undergo a pat down when you arrive? What if they take your cell phone upon entry? What if the group engages in weapon play? What if they insist that you get in a vehicle with them and go to a new location? What if they demand that you drink alcohol with them? What if you are in imminent danger? What if you discover that they are planning imminent violence–that is, violence that includes a feasible plan of action against a known target? You need to have those phone numbers in your phone (but not labeled with labels that would indicate that is who they belong to) before you begin field work.

Your IRB team should be able to provide some help here, but I also think it’s a good idea to ask colleagues to review your plan with you. While gangs and criminal enterprises aren’t hate groups, sociologists, criminologists, and anthropologists who do fieldwork with these groups may have some helpful strategies to share aw well.

How do you care for yourself in other ways during research?

Many people have hard jobs working with tough people: prison guards, social workers, nurses, teachers. However, to a certain extent, we understand risk as part of those jobs, and we have done some work to mitigate that risk. Unfortunately, academia hasn’t spent a lot of time training scholars who work with tough topics on how to handle the emotional and mental part of our work. Oh, we learn how to locate and read items in an archive or how to conduct interviews, but we’re not trained to even be aware of, much less address, our own pain when we see a postcard from a lynching, hear a recording of a racist speech, visit a mass grave, or interview a person who has committed a hate crime. That’s something that higher ed needs to do much better, because the risk of PTSD from research is real. 

So much of what I have learned has come from other disciplines, like social work, and how they do this work, and from experience. From the start, you need to know yourself: What kind of things can you absolutely not handle? Be honest about those things and find ways to support the people who do that work while recognizing that it’s not for you. Also, once you begin your work, check in regularly with yourself. Have specific questions written out in advance that will help assess whether you are doing okay. Review those questions to see if there are new ones you need to add. If you aren’t caring for yourself, how will you know? Will it show up in your sleep? A jaw exhausted from clenching it or back pain? Stress eating? Drinking too much? Put those things in a list and check on yourself regularly. Also, put it in a list and share the list with friends. Ask them to ask after you, with a focus on those issues, and ask them to pay attention for you.

A good support team will be like a belaying partner in climbing; if you fall, they will feel it in their line. They’ll catch you, help you find your footing, and ask why you fell so you can figure out how not to do it again. You don’t need a huge support team, but you do need one with members who are committed to monitoring you and checking in with specific questions and who are looking for specific cues that you might not be doing well.

Finally, be aware that part of the work is the not-work. That is, you may have to enter and exit the work slowly, like a scuba diver who has to come up a bit at a time in order to avoid decompression sickness. That may feel like a waste of time, but it’s not. For example, after I left a Westboro Sunday service, I would typically take the next hour or so to type up my notes, which provided me with a chance to see patterns in what I was observing (and also notice if I wasn’t giving attention to something), translate my hurried handwriting into something I’d be able to read later, and also review what I’d observed with a little more distance. I’d do this in a little café near the church, and then I’d follow that by eating lunch while doing some other related reading–basically, stuff I needed to think about and that applied to my work but was a little more distant. Then I’d drive the 30-40 minutes home, putting even further distance between me and my observations.

Likewise, I’ve recently finished a project that involves watching a lot of videos produced by people who advocate for bombing abortion clinics. I had hours and hours and hours of videos to watch and code. You can’t zone out, because coding requires attention to detail–but you also can’t watch too many of these videos in a row. I just had to accept that about an hour a day on this project, from start to finish (which might be just 15 minutes of video watching) was enough. I also found that I had to watch them early in the day, because if I watched them later, closer to my return home in the evening and time with my young children, I struggled more to be present with them. I didn’t follow my own advice above (to have a list of things to pay attention to that would be evidence that I wasn’t doing well), and one night I came home from work, having just watched a bunch of videos that included images of fetal remains, and I started to make quail for dinner. The quail looked so much like dead fetuses (not really, I was able to see later, but my brain wasn’t believing it at the time), and I started vomiting. I’d been carrying the pain of those pictures with me, the pain of pregnant women, the pain of doctors who perform abortions, and the anger of people who bomb clinics, all represented in those images and how clinic bombers deploy them, and I didn’t realize it, but my body did, and it told me to be more careful.


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