This week I am finishing up the first submission to my ethics review board, and let me tell you it has been a difficult and frustrating experience -- and I haven't even had to revise and resubmit yet. See, the thing is that ethics boards are used to talking to scientists -- social or, um, science scientists -- and although I've used the 'word' "ethnographish" to describe my research, it's more ish than ethnography. The interminable forms I have to fill out have questions like "will you be lying to your participants about anything?" (which made me question every study I've ever participated in) and "will you be using biological samples?" and while, yes, it's easy to answer those ones because the answer is a resounding "no," it's just one more hint that the people who wrote these forms never considered the kind of research I do.
Luckily for me, smart people have written about this elsewhere, so I at least know that I'm not alone. But that doesn't change the fact that institutional review boards are slow to change and I've had to try and shoehorn my project into a form meant for a very different kind of research.
I want to write my dissertation somewhat collaboratively. That is, I want to invite my fandom friends (many of whom are Real Life Friends, now), to comment on my writing and offer their own thoughts in response, in addition, or in opposition to the things that I say. It's important to me that I do what I can to decentralize my dissertation. I know I won't be able to remove myself from it entirely, or even significantly, because, well, it's my dissertation that I'm producing in order to receive my PhD. But I do hope that I'll be able to acknowledge the ways that my fellow fans have a part in the creation of my writing: the ideas, the orientations, the connections, the fandoms are only in my work because of them. I'm not going to be sending out a survey, or casting a wide net for respondents, either. The fandoms I study are ones that I'm calling "intimate fandoms" (thanks to Lauren Berlant and Aimée Morrison for tackling the ideas of intimate publics and online intimate publics respectively so that I don't have to), which means that they're small, reciprocal groups of fans who create and maintain boundaries around their group in order to immerse themselves in the fictions that they are interested in telling. That is, these groups of fans are mutual followers (they follow each other back) and they talk to each other one-on-one. They use idiosyncratic tagging so that people in the know can find the material, but people doing a general search won't just stumble upon their work. They have particular interpretations of canon that they're uninterested in proving because it's more fun to just believe them and go from there. These aren't massive groups that organize fan campaigns, or even that show up en masse to conventions: they're groups of friends online who play in a shared fictional world. No one is a bigger expert on these groups than the people in them, and I can't write this dissertation without including my fellow fans, my friends, my mutual follows, in the process.
It's hard to fit that into an ethics clearance submission, though. I'm not running a study, and I'm not even conducting interviews or surveys -- I'm just asking for feedback. If I were doing this with Official Colleagues, I don't think the question of ethics clearance would have come up. Partly because academics accept that providing feedback to our colleagues is part of the job, and partly because we all work in the same system, so the idea that I am using them in a study just doesn't make sense. And I'm not arguing that I shouldn't have to get ethics clearance, because I do think that is necessary. I am, study or not, using the labour of people who will not be compensated in the academic system for their participation. I am broke, so I'll be offering people gifts of fanfic and homemade crafty things in return, but I'm asking for more work than those gifts are worth. My research will be improved by their participation, so ethics is necessary.
What isn't necessary, though, is trying to cram my very simple objective (which is to get feedback from experts) into a process designed for medical research, psychological research, and other kinds of human testing that may or may not include biological material. Despite not actually interviewing or surveying anyone, I've had to submit a list of interview questions. Questions that I'm never going to ask anyone, but that I spent several hours writing. I've had to talk about risks to my participants in a form that assumes those risks are things like psychological damage or injury, rather than "Well you might have an online mob descend on you, but probably not because probably no one is ever going to read this but I guess that's something that could happen. I guess also you might get bored?" I'm expected to be able to answer where my field is and how I'll be "holding" my "interviews" and although "electronically" is an option, that doesn't encompass the different ways that I'll be getting feedback from my participants. I could get a direct message on tumblr, Facebook, or Twitter. I could get an email. I could get a comment on this blog. I could get tagged in someone's blog post. I could get any combination of these depending on how that particular respondent feels most comfortable talking to me. So I can't actually give a procedure, because it's literally just "I am talking to fellow fans as though they are also experts, which they are." And experts talk to each other without a procedure.
So I'll submit this proposal, and I'll revise and resubmit as I need it to, but I'm really looking forward to a time when those of us doing ethnographish research are actually invited to get ethics clearance. I'm pushing through, but I know there will be people who consider getting it, see the way that the form just sort of assumes their research doesn't need ethics clearance, and accept that as an answer -- and that will do harm, in the long run. Because I do need ethics clearance for this research. I need to make sure that I'm not abusing my position as a scholar and a friend to milk the intellectual labour of my fellow fans, and I need to make sure that other people know that what I'm doing is above board. I trust myself not to be a jerk to my friends, but that doesn't mean that they trust me, nor that other scholars should.