This post takes up the question of what transparency would mean in the ethnographic research tradition beyond answering to DART. What is transparency in the first place? For whom, how, and to what end do we incorporate transparency into ethnographic research practices and production?
One of my students this past semester for her final research project compared political corruption in two countries. A starting point for her research was Transparency International’
s (TI) Corruption Perceptions Index
(CPI). Since TI has been on my mind in the context of her project as well as my own, I will take it as a starting point for thinking about the meaning and role of transparency in political ethnographic research.
At first, TI is less clear about what transparency is
as it is about what transparency is not
. Most simply, transparency is not corruption. The organization sets out to give “voice to the victims and witnesses of corruption. We work…to stop the abuse of power, bribery and secret deals.”
So, TI is primarily concerned with corruption, defined as “the abuse of entrusted power for private gain.” A little more digging reveals how the organization conceptualizes transparency, which “means shedding light on shady deals, weak enforcement of rules and other illicit practices that undermine good governments, ethical businesses and society at large.” However, transparency’s practical value in fact lies in its instrumentality, that is, facilitating accountability--a requisite of “public trust.”
Similarly, the Sunlight Foundation
aims to promote “accountability and transparency.” It “[believes] that information is power, or, to put it more finely, disproportionate access to information is power. We are committed to improving access to government information by making it available online, indeed redefining ‘public’ information as meaning ‘online.’”
offers a plethora of definitions of transparent. Here are just a few:
1a. Having the property of transmitting light, so as to render bodies lying beyond completely visible.
2a. Frank, open, candid, ingenuous.
2b. Easily seen through, recognized, understood, or detected; manifest, evident, obvious, clear.
Between TI, the Sunlight Foundation, and the various OED definitions (especially the figurative ones), we might start to see transparency as an ethic – a guide for action. Seen this way, transparency also invites consideration of the obligations it entails – for whom, how, and to what end is this ethic put into practice?
Practitioners of (interpretive) political ethnography tend to eschew the notion that (social) scientific inquiry is value-free
. We strive to be aware of and explicit about our positionality and the political motives that guide our research questions and relationships. My own work is guided by an ethic of transparency most closely aligned to being frank, open, and candid.
As researchers who work with living populations, but whom are nonetheless researchers, ethnographers incur ethical obligations to multiple communities. These include the communities where we conduct research, researcher communities, and the audiences of our work. To complicate matters, these can and do overlap, increasingly so. Yet they might also diverge and conflict with one another. In contrast, in twentieth century ethnographies, there is a baseline assumption that the communities are discreet
. I suspect, for example, that Clifford Geertz did not imagine his research participants as the intended audience of “The Balinese Cockfight.”
The first answer to the “transparency for whom” question, in my case, means the people who kindly gave their time and trust to participate in my research project. My goal was to be candid (transparent) about the motivations behind my research questions, including my own political commitments. My approach also meant being open about what I would do with the accounts and experiences participants shared with me. They have a say in how I use the data they provide, especially if their name is attached to it.
The second answer fits well with Craig Parsons’ invitation to “explicitness.” But there are a couple of problems with this concept on its own. First, as it stands, explicitness is only directed at fulfilling obligations toward the researcher community. The second problem is the question of how to assess whether an argument is sufficiently explicit (I’ll get back to this).
The third answer is unsettled. I expect my audience to encompass the communities contributing to the study and the scholars who read, engage with, and evaluate my work. I honestly don’t know yet whether the first two obligations will conflict with each other—but the communities do overlap substantially.
In terms of “how,” TI is again instructive, pointing out in its index that corruption is by nature difficult to measure. So it relies on surveys of “expert opinion.” The CPI therefore consists of just that – perceptions. I doubt there is a good way to measure candidness or explicitness. I approached my potential participants – including those whose political commitments might differ from my own – with a genuine desire to understand their perspectives. Only my research participants can determine whether I am open and candid enough to merit their time and trust. Not coincidentally, whether an ethnographer has supplied a convincing scholarly account has much to do with the audience’s assessment of whether the argument is sufficiently explicit.
The question of “to what end” is even more difficult. To come back around to where I started, I see transparency as not only a scientific ethic, but also a political one.
It’s perhaps unsurprising that in the post-financial crisis era, transparency is widely seen as a point of consensus and a force for democracy. But in 2010, just two years after a financial crisis blamed in part on endemic political corruption, the denizens of Reykjavík voted to send this assumption up, electing a protest/joke political party to municipal government that promised, inter alia, to be “openly corrupt
The recent Panama Papers rendered corrupt practices transparent – laying bare the now-former Icelandic PM Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson’s connection to offshore accounts (worth noting: he’s still an MP). In Russia, people seem to have merely shrugged at the similar implication of Vladimir Putin. In both cases, I doubt that the Panama Papers revelations came as much of a surprise – they “rendered completely visible” what was already “manifest” or “obvious.”
Even in the Icelandic case, which at least holds out the possibility of accountability, support for the Independence Party, the political party most implicated in the production of the financial crisis has actually increased.
In some research traditions, the “end” of transparency might be validity, conceived of as replicability. This might dissuade research “corruption” and promote accountability. For ethnographers, there is likely no single research goal of transparency. Some (political) ethnographic research sets out to shed light on the otherwise hidden, obscure, or unremarkable. Other projects might aim to resolve an apparent puzzle or paradox that was observable from a distance but could only be understood from up close. Still others might do both. Each of these approaches might entail a different role for transparency, with different answers to the “for whom” and “how” questions. It probably goes without saying that in ethnographic research, the answers to these questions will be very particular to each project.