June 14, 2006

the ethics of interviewing spirits

getting irb approval for anthropological research is complicated enough as it is considering the process hasnt really been designed for participant observation at - how do you submit one and a half years of informal interview scripts before even getting to the field?? - but what if some of your "informants" turn out to be spirits possessing human bodies? surprisingly it is irb that is suddenly having me think over these questions. do i think that the spirits that possess people in candomble are really real, and thus non-human subjects that dont fall under irb at all, or are they just a kind of delusion, a bout of hysteria that originates in the possessed human agent? and even if i believe that the different spirit entities exist, what does the irb think? or since it is anthropological research should we rather just take the "native's point of view"? if candomble adepts consider the spirits to be non-human agents, shouldnt we simply bide by their views? i'm happy to see that in fact this turns out to be the irb's stance on this issue too, at least in this case... i guess i'm lucky to be at the u of c, where we just happen to have such a wonderful person in the irb machine taking care of anthropologist's applications, and who also has a good idea of the occasional futility of such bureaucratic processes. Here's his great response to my query on teh status of spirits as anthropological subjects:

"It is an interesting question and is quite
telling about the bureaucratization of ethics that such considerations are
necessary. My sense is that the spirits you are discussing do not fall
under IRB review. The IRB reviews only research involving 'human
subjects'--although the spirits are living (in the sense of active agents
in the world), they do not consider themselves human and are not considered
human by the individuals whom they are possessing. Since they are not
human, your interactions with them don't fall under IRB review (although
your interactions with mediums and other human participants in possession
ceremonies do). That said, it might be a good idea to get their
permission, as one never wants to anger spirits, whether in the context of
research or as a general rule."

6 Comments:

Blogger Neil said...

That's awesome! Wouldn't it be horrible for a spirit to dislike your thesis?!

6/17/2006 8:20 PM  
Blogger Elina said...

:) Yeah, maybe I should consult them on that. But, I wouldnt think they'd have anything much against me taking a closer look at the lingustics of their communications. But of course better to be safe than sorry, especially when dealing with spirits.

6/18/2006 5:33 PM  
Blogger Matthew said...

Actually I think this question of how to handle "non-human" informants will become a bit of a trend in IRB work. I had to address how to handle "interviews" with bots while working on my thesis.

I hadn't thought about spirits until you mentioned it, but it's a similiar situation.

6/26/2006 4:51 PM  
Blogger Elina said...

Yep, I was definitely thinking about your research Matt when I sent in my request to IRB.

6/27/2006 12:59 PM  
Blogger Matthew said...

I was just revisiting Neils comment, and that made me wonder -- are you allowing your informants (or what every the going term is now a days) to see any of your work. And if so, it would be interesting (though I'm pretty sure not within the framework of Condemble) for the Spirits to comment on your representation of them. Damn, the metapragmatics of that one make my head spin!

7/12/2006 10:27 AM  
Blogger Elina said...

I hadnt actually thought the spirits would be interested in taking a look at my work, but thanks for the idea! It´s worth a try.
In general I have been sharing some of my stuff with the people I work with, even field notes, but of course that means I have to translate it all. But the conversations I have had have most definitely made the extra time spent translating seem worth while.

7/13/2006 9:51 AM  

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