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Participants can respond. Uh-oh.

Posted by: on Apr 24, 2009 | No Comments

This article about Jared Diamond being sued for libel should serve as a warning for qualitative researchers:


Two New Guinea tribesmen have filed a $10 million defamation lawsuit claiming Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jared Diamond wrote a New Yorker magazine article that falsely accused them of murder and other crimes.

Henep Isum Mandingo and Hup Daniel Wemp say in a single-page filing in Manhattan’s state Supreme Court that Diamond’s article published April 21, 2008, accused them “of serious criminal activity … including murder.”

The article was titled, “Vengeance Is Ours: What can tribal societies tell us about our need to get even?”

This incident is similar to, though not exactly the same as, the scenario I described in my chapter “The Genie’s Out of the Bottle: Leveraging Mobile and Wireless Technologies in Qualitative Research,” published this year in Amy Kimme Hea’s collection. There, I argued that although institutional research boards have historically been conceived as a way to protect participants from researchers’ representations, social media mean that the danger is now bidirectional – participants can represent the researcher in damaging ways as well, and those representations could easily circulate more broadly than the researcher’s. The nightmare scenario I described in that chapter was one in which the participants could openly contest (and ridicule) the researcher’s representation, publishing their own competing accounts and evidence.

The obvious implication is that researchers must think seriously about confidence-building measures such as member checks, and even about bringing participants into the analysis, not as a matter of noblesse oblige but as a matter of self-protection.

Based on the linked article, Jared Diamond’s situation sounds a bit different. He essentially accuses an interviewee of murder, and he uses the interviewee’s real name – clearly not something that would be sanctioned by an institutional review board, since it could cause damage to the participant (and to the institution). Yet in other ways, the case carries a huge warning even for qualitative researchers following institutional guidelines. Diamond apparently didn’t expect the participant to respond. And now the participant is not only responding in court, he is garnering considerable attention online.

The implications for methodology:

  • Institutional review boards are your friends. Human subjects protocols are a contract between you and your institution; stand by those protocols and the institution will stand behind you.
  • Methodology should include confidence-building measures, not as a matter of politeness or nicety, but as a matter of self-protection. You don’t have to give away the farm by trying to achieve consensus, but you should be able to provide feedback loops and demonstrate how you’ll take that feedback into account. That’s especially true if you’ll be using real names – a practice that is frowned upon by IRBs, but occasionally necessary.

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