There is a lot going on at the moment. My life is messy. It’s crowded with personal upheavals, work issues, family trips, kid stuff – the usual and then a bit more. We’ve had wildfires in British Columbia, the sun was hidden in an orange shroud, and the air smelled like smoke. It seemed apocalyptic.
In the middle of this I am working on my research ethics application and reconnecting with my participants before meeting them in person in September. I am doing this in another province, with limited time. In the past when I have done interviews I have sent an invitation, an email, advert, sometimes used a personal connection – followed by the arranging of a place and time. Somewhere in there I would send a consent form, to be read before we talk. The interaction would be approached as the interviewer trying to find the “truth” by extracting it from the empty vessel of the participant*. To avoid bias, I would strive to stay as neutral as possible – making noncommittal noises of encouragement, smiling (being careful not to lead) but not contaminating the pure data with my personal thoughts and feelings.
This time is different. My participants and I are friends, we have histories. The shared stories we hold in common are the heart of the co-created research endeavour. Among the chaos of everyday life I am picking up the threads of our past. But it isn’t as easy as sending an email and arranging a date. Time must be taken to weave our lives back together. Most of the many exchanges so far are catching up, how are the kids? Did you hear what happened to so-and-so? Still at the same house, oh, thinking of a move? It feels like getting back to the place where we are comfortable with each other, reactivating memories that have been dormant – in some cases for many years.
My ethics application is focused on obtaining consent, storing the data, issues of confidentiality and so on. Often we think of ‘getting ethics’ as a onetime hurdle to surmount, but my research plan doesn’t fit well with that. In autoethnography, ethics are ongoing and pervasive and the concept of anonymity is a slippery one. These so-called relational ethics require us to “act from our hearts and minds, acknowledge our interpersonal bonds to others, and take responsibility for actions and their consequence”**. Participants are friends, not subjects/objects to plunder for information and leave hollowed out. We have a duty to tread lightly, to be honest with each other and to work with love and respect.
As I begin this I also realize I am bringing my participants back into focus, as people with autonomy and lives as messy as my own. One is deep in a work project, our meetings will have to fit around that, but their project is part of my work reality as well – I want to help it succeed. Another has family issues and there are multiple responsibilities, anticipating next month is hard as everything is in flux. My Type-A self has to take a back seat, chill out, wait my turn. It’s hard! Although I haven’t even downloaded the recording app on my iPad this is getting messy. But messy is where the good stuff is.
*Holstein and Gubrium, 1995
**Ellis, 2007 (p.3)