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An Ethnographic Moral Dilemma?

The presence of injustice, marginalisation and social exclusion has always provided social science researchers with a rich terrain in which to critique society. This is especially true when research contributes to an emancipatory project for those who are subject to such injustice, marginalisation and/or social exclusion.

The ethnographic methodological approach is certainly no stranger to critiquing societal conditions with a view towards human emancipation and the eradication of injustice. However, and as with other approaches within social science research, ethnography can be fraught with ethical and moral dilemmas. While most of the moral dilemmas that confront ethnographers tend to centre on researchers being witness to abuse or illegal activities, we also need to consider the moral dilemma of whether a researcher desires an injustice to occur in order take advantage of a research opportunity. This is the very type of dilemma that I – as a researcher – am facing.

Currently, I am in the process of conducting fieldwork in Atlanta, Georgia on undocumented persons who are migrating to the United States from Mexico. As part of the process of gaining access into Atlanta’s Latino community, I have recently applied to volunteer with the Athens-based Freedom University. Established by several academics from the University of Georgia (UGA) in the wake of Georgia’s draconian anti-immigration law, the University is striving to provide a university education to former UGA students who had been expelled due to their status as undocumented persons.

It now appears that my application with the Freedom University is on-hold, pending the disposition of SB 458, which is being considered by the Georgia state senate.  In brief, SB 458, will deny undocumented persons the opportunity to study at any of Georgia’s publicly-funded universities.  As someone who is researching the relationship between the presence of structural violence in a country like Mexico and its effects upon migration to the United States, SB 458 (which would affect mostly Latino students) typifies the kind of structural violence (e.g. the avoidable denial of life chances) encountered by their parents in their country of origin.

The structural violence in their countries of origin could quite possibly have resulted in the emigration of entire families to the United States.  Herein lies this researcher’s dilemma.

On the one hand, the passage of SB 458 would not only be personally abhorrent, its passage would no doubt result in a grave injustice perpetrated on students with precarious legal status, and exacerbate their social exclusion. With these distinct ramifications in mind and its concomitant affect upon the condition of social justice within the state of Georgia, it goes without saying that SB 458 should not be passed by the Georgia senate.

But, on the other hand, the passage of SB 458 and its companion bill, Georgia House Bill 59, would reinvigorate Freedom University’s raison d’être. Moreover, with a renewed relevance of the Freedom University, my application for a volunteer position with its possible access into the Latino community would be greatly enhanced.

Given this moral dilemma, I feel almost ghoulish; a bit like those who watch a F-1 race wishing to witness a crash; or a football fan hoping that a player gets a red card to give their team an advantage.

The ethnography literature does stress the importance of reflexivity; yet, this dilemma may not be resolved by reflexivity in and of itself. The fact that potential research opportunities could come at the expense of injustice is personally problematic.  However, some solace might be found in Michael Burawoy’s contention that participant observation studies of social movements locate them within their political and economic context (Burawoy 1998: 6).  If, in fact, SB 458 is approved by the Georgia senate and becomes law, the purpose of the Freedom University will thrive.

While it remains unclear as to whether the Freedom University accepts my application to work as a volunteer; what is clear is that, to the extent that the Atlanta Journal Constitution reports that the passage of SB 458 will most likely affect only 300 of the 318,000 students attending Georgia’s publicly funded universities, injustice will most likely rule the day.

Peter S. Cruttenden

Published inInternational PoliticsMethodologyUSA

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