Documentaries and Social Science Research Ethics

I have a particular interest in social science research ethics and, in contrast to my perception of the views of many ‘(bio)ethicists’, I don’t think that biomedical research ethics provides a good model for the social sciences. It seems to me biomedical research ethics provides a rather blunt tool for understanding and addressing the ethics of social science research and particularly, perhaps especially, or even only, interpretative and qualitative social science. The kind that involves detailed involvement with research subjects on the part of the researcher. 

My concern for a research ethics appropriate to the social sciences is twofold. First, I think that the qualitative social scientist can be presented with particular ethical challenges that are not addressed, or too simplistically addressed, by the concepts of biomedical research ethics. A more ethical social science needs tools more appropriate to the domain. Second, I think that in some cases biomedical research ethics can prevent or stymie certain social science research projects. 

As I have an interest in social scientific studies of medicine and healthcare I am perhaps more often exposed to such difficulties. Such research is often reviewed by biomedical professionals more used to reviewing biomedical science and less used to understanding the meaning of the term ‘science’ in the social sciences. At the same time I have often marvelled at the kind of access television documentary makers have managed to aqcuire. Two recent examples are the UK programmes ‘One Born Every Minute’, that chronicles life on a labour ward, and ‘Junior Doctors: Their Life In Your Hands’, which follows newly qualified medics during their first years of practice. 

I also have an example from my personal life. I have a friend who is a film-maker and has been employed by the NHS to record various things for a variety of purposes. I have often marvelled not only at the simplicity with which she can gain access to various scenes but also the way in which she has been able to question individuals, healthcare professionals and patients, without much scrutiny or reflection as to the possible consequences. The first of these marvels is, pure and simply, jealousy. I wish my colleagues (and I!) were afforded the kind of access and cooperation she takes for granted (which is not to say that the healthcare professions are uncooperative, certainly this is not the case otherwise there would be no social scientific research on healthcare at all). The second of my marvels is a more nuanced concern for the ethical dimension of documenting sensitive contexts. Again, it is not that I think my friend is unethical, but I do wonder what sort of challenges she faces and if they are explicitly addressed. 

On the back of this general interest, erstwhile musing and occasional discussions with my friend it was with great interest that I first heard about a new documentary: ‘Protecting Our Children.’ The film was made in conjunction with the Open University and follows Bristol social workers for a year. The first of three parts went out last night (30/1/12) and the producer of the documentary, Sacha Mirzoeff, was interviewed on Front Row (a BBC Radio Four arts review programme). If you want to hear the full discussion a podcast of the programme (called “Front Row Daily’) is available from here or via iTunes (it’s the one dated 30/01/2012).   

The interview, and some of the other information available around the web, was very interesting. We might note that some of the things Mirzoeff says about the filming strongly resonate with the thinking in the social sciences. There was uncertainty around access, both initially and ongoing, which of course is troubling for any project that hopes to one day reach some sort of end point or ‘completion’. There is concern for the effect of conducting the filming (or ‘research’) has on the object being studied i.e. does the presence of the film-maker or research alter the observed events? Simplistically understood this issue appears to recommend some kind of neutrality, or emotional objectivity, on the part of the observer. However Mirzoeff is clear that he thinks documentary-makers: 

…have to get emotionally involved, personally. I feel that that’s part of the process. I feel to be completely clinical and removed and outside is unworkable if you’re going to make human films.

One can think similarly for qualitative social science. There is, of course, a degree of objectification of the research subject. As (social) scientific research transmutes its ‘subjects’ into scientific ‘objects’ this much is inherent in any such research or, indeed, in any documentary (which is here revealed as essentially a form of social scientific research). Yet when trying to scientifically study human social and cultural life it cannot be entirely objectified and we cannot be entirely objective. Were we to do so we would cease to understand the object of study at a human, i.e. subjective, level. We have to relate to our subjects in order to relate them to our audience(s). 

It is this relationship that complicates the ethical dimension of social scientific research. I don’t want to say that biomedical research is entirely objective or that there is no relevant nuance to the relationship between ‘patients’ and biomedical scientists. It is certainly the case that there is, despite the ‘clinical’ metaphor in Mirzoeff’s quote above. However the depth and complexity of the relationship between the researcher and the researched is central to the process of social scientific research, or documentary making. As Mirzoeff says: 

Well we always realised from early on the strength of the films was only going to be as good as the strength of our relationships with people. It took an enormous amount of time to develop trust and understanding.

The kind of trust and understanding required between biomedical researchers and research subjects differs from that required between social scientific researchers and research subjects. One way it differs is in the centrality to the research. The trust required for biomedical research facilitates access to the patient’s body and therefore the data, however the data itself remains independent of the trust needed to access it. In the case of social science the trust and understanding required does more than facilitate access but is central to the data itself. Social scientific data is a function of the ongoing relationship between the researcher and the researched and the nature of the data will, to a degree, change as that relationship changes. 

As such the ethical relationship between researcher and researched is complex and becomes more complex as the research (and relationship) progresses. It cannot be reduced to ‘four principles’ or slogans about autonomy and rights. Mirzoeff suggests that at times of greatest stress he felt the participant forgot the presence of the camera. This is good if one is concerned with producing an ‘objective’ documentary of social scientific data but troubling if one is concerned with the fully informed consent of autonomous research subjects. Do they really consent to being filmed in these situations? 

One way to deal with these issues is, of course, to allow research or documentary subjects the ability to remove themselves from the study/ documentary after the fact. This is, usually, an established ethical fact of biomedical research. However in biomedical research there is usually large number of participants and the withdrawal of one will not overly impact on the validity of the research. In the case of a documentary or social scientific research the withdrawal of a subject can have a devastating impact. This is something Mirzoeff simply had to face up to and he suggests he lost a large number of subjects during filming, both as a result of their own choice to withdraw or due to the development of events being such that the story could no longer be part of any future broadcast. What is more interesting is that everyone involved was able to review and contribute to the editorial process. Individuals were able to assess the way in which they were presented and, presumably, ask for changes or amendments. This is a more nuanced stance that the either/ or of participating in biomedical research and one that was accomplished without Mirzoeff fully abandoning editorial control. This again highlights the importance of the negotiated relationship between the researcher and the researched in facilitating social science and, furthermore, makes clear that the model of freely given, ‘uncoerced’ and fully informed consent of entirely independent research subjects that is, broadly speaking, valid in biomedical research simply does not transfer to the social sciences. 

The ethics of producing ‘Protecting Our Children’ is clearly, even if implicitly – I am not aware of the word 'ethics'  being explicitly used by the film-makers (although it may have been) -, recognised in the process undergone by the team. Mirzoeff discusses the fact that a 50 page protocol was produced be the film-makers, Bristol City Council, the social workers and ultimately a senior family court judge. This process took a year (which puts some complaints about the length of time ethical approval can take into some sort of perspective!). I would love to see that document. I imagine it is some kind of confabulation of a social scientific research protocol, some legal commitments and a series of research ethics statements. 

Obviously the nature of ‘Protecting Our Children’ is such that an extensive document and process such as this is warranted and whilst this unlikely to be required in the vast majority of social scientific research perhaps it does offer some salutary lessons. Rather than a one-size-fits all approach perhaps research ethics in the social sciences should be predicated on a more iterative and dialogical model. Indeed perhaps the professional ethics of social scientist are more like those of the journalist, or the social worker, than those of the medical doctor. The practice of both research and clinical medicine has been assumed to be the ‘paradigm case’ in applied ethics. This may be the result of nothing more than the fact that medicine (rightly) received first attention from the discipline of applied (Bio)ethics when it emerged in the 1960’s. It may also be because the nature of medical practice, which is presented as involving simple one to one individual relationships between a doctor and a patient, offers the dilemmatic structure preferred by the discipline. However it does now seem time to rethink this assumption and produce a professional (research) ethics suited to complex social practices such as social scientific research and social work. Perhaps documentary making is leading the way.