Wednesday, August 12, 2009

The Ethics of Participant Confidentiality

Cory Labanow's (2009) Evangelicalism and the Emerging Church (see here for my overview and review) raises again the interesting issue of participant confidentiality and anonymity in empirical research. The covering letters for Labanow's demographic survey and interviews contained a promise that anonymity would be preserved (pp.129,131) and he details the initial conversation in which the congregation's pastor asked that congregants be 'unrecognizable' in the research findings (p.41). Labanow is therefore careful to avoid 'any detailed description of specific church members which could lead to their identification' (p.41). However, the community itself (Jacobsfield Vineyard, JV) and its pastor (Mark Lawton) are likewise pseudonymous.

But JV and its pastor are easily identifiable by those familiar with what I call in my study the emerging church milieu. Such recognition stems not only from the community's classification as a UK Vineyard church involved in the emerging church conversation, but also from the narrative of Mark Lawton's personal religious journey and role in relation to a named emerging church organisation readily available through the Internet. These incredibly important situational factors relating to JV could and should not be completely masked (by, for example, excluding all historical or contextual data about the community and its pastor) in the name of protecting either the congregation's collective identity or the pastor's individual particulars, as it would considerably neuter congregational analysis. The necessary inclusion of these factors, however, thereby renders Labanow's attempts to provide anonymity redundant. Further, as an attempt at providing anonymity it is utterly unsuccessful.

It is unclear, therefore, why Labanow bothers. Why not just name this community and its pastor, whilst continuing to provide pseudonyms for the other members of the congregation that he surveys and interviews in order to successfully protect their confidentiality and anonymity?

Such an approach is taken by other researhers in their congregational studies, for example Mathew Guest's (2007) Evangelical Identity and Contemporary Culture: A Congregational Study in Innovation. In his study of St. Michael-le-Belfrey and Visions, York, Guest names the church and therefore its incumbents covering the last forty years, because the history and context of St. Michael-le-Belfrey (a church well-known as a 'vanguard of charismatic evangelicalism since the 1960s,' p.54) are 'illuminating factors' central to the sociological and theological study of its congregation (p.239). Nevertheless, beyond the four most recent vicars, individual congregation members are given pseudonyms to protect their identities.

Guest's method for dealing with the ethics of participant confidentiality is sensible, considering the likelihood of both "insiders" and academics being able to identify St. Michael-le-Belfrey even if anonymised and of significant factors being masked or lost through such a process of anonymisation. This seems to me to be a better way to protect the anonymity of the majority of participants whilst preserving important factors concerning the congregation in general and past and present incumbants that are readily available to the public.

While a congregational study can proceed using pseudonyms for, and a minimum of contextual data about the lives of, individual participants, my own interview-based study requires a different approach. As my participants are from a diverse range of religious communities and backgrounds, I cannot contextualise interview data through recourse to a shared narrative of collective context and history (given not only the diversity of participants' communities but also the diversity of the emerging church milieu itself). My readers can only make sense of the discourses and practices related to me in the interviews through a presentation of aspects of their life-stories. However, the provision of pseudonyms for those participants wishing to remain anonymous must be accompanied, therefore, by a narration of their lives constructed in collaboration with them so as not to reveal what they might regard as identifying factors.

This approach appears adequate for those participants for whom there are no other publically available sources of personal information which might threaten their anonymity. However, I interviewed several participants who have published print media, most notably emerging church, fresh expression, or alternative worship books, and/or write blogs. Whilst only one of these participants requested anonymity (I'll comment on this in a moment), I have for the following reason decided to reject the practice of anonymising all of my participants. I might quote from my interview with, for example, Pete (ikon, Belfast) and then quote a passage from one of his books (the same goes for Kester, Vaux, London; Paul, Foundation, Bristol; Sue, Visions, York; and a number of others). The problem goes like this.

  • I use a pseudonym for quotations from interview and e-questionnaire data (for example, my interview with Interview-Pete; Kester jokingly suggested Elvis for his own pseudonym before opting out of being anonymised, so we'll borrow that for now!).
  • I retain, however, the participants' given name for quotations from his published works (this is Published-Pete, i.e. I reference him as Rollins and then the date of publication, e.g. 2006).
  • The reader is thereby left with the mistaken impression that the view espoused by Elvis and Rollins 2006 is more prevalent than it actually is - as, in reality, they are the views of only one person, Pete Rollins.
I have rejected, therefore, the option of giving all of my participants pseudonyms. I am left then with the task of writing introductory narratives to those participants who wish to retain their anonymity that do not inadvertently reveal their identities. But I am also left with the dilemma of how to respect one participants' wish to be known by a pseudonym, whilst at the same time not giving readers the impression that the views he reveals both in my data and in his print and online publications are more prevalent within the UK emerging church milieu than they are. What to do?

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