The politics of anonymity

Does anonymity help or hinder the research process? Is it always in the participant’s best interests to have their identity hidden?

Nicky Sim is a doctoral researcher investigating partnership work between galleries and youth organisations in Circuit. This post reflects on the ethics of identifying participants and organisations in research and evaluation.

I’m half way through the final year of my PhD, currently stationed in various London libraries, writing up my thesis. The third year signals a series of exciting and daunting moments: the realisation that you could write three PhDs from all of the data generated; a growing sense of responsibility to make a useful contribution to the field, and most distressingly, it marks the beginning of the end of the research!

One aspect of this research that has given me a few sleepless nights is the issue of anonymity. In most education research, the standard practice is to anonymise participants and organisations, in order to protect their identities and reputations. But in the case of this research context – a highly public programme involving well-known institutions – my ability to guarantee anonymity seemed highly compromised.

When I started the PhD I tried to make the argument to my supervisors that it wouldn’t be possible or appropriate to conceal the identities of participants and organisations. Aside from the fact that it was already in the public domain that Tate’s programme Circuit would be the subject of my research, I believed the practice of anonymisation went against the culture of openness and honesty that the programme was working to foster. I knew that some staff and young people would want to have their contributions acknowledged, and I also knew that potential readers of the research in gallery education would expect to know the specifics (I.e. which region, which institutions, which artists and so on).

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My supervisors however advised me to take care with how I used data, even if it was already publicly available. They stressed the importance of anonymity in situations where I might be critical, or where I could reveal sensitive discussions and observations. One of my supervisors suggested a number of writing strategies with which to negotiate these instances, such as fictionalising case studies or abstracting sensitive data and doing a cross-case analysis.

I decided to give participants the option to be named in the research, or to be anonymised. Nevertheless, over time I realised this was also problematic when applied to a partnership relationship. What if one partner wanted to be identified and another didn’t? What if someone was happy to be identified, but they made comments or performed actions that could have a negative impact if reported in the thesis? What if a participant changed their mind about being identified when something difficult occurred?

I’m sharing this dilemma because I think similar predicaments apply when programmes report on or evaluate their partnership work in public forums or documents. The question of how to give honest accounts of practice without causing harm is one that faces all organisations. Anonymity has the potential to empower a participant, but it can also take away the authorship and ownership of a participant’s opinions. There are ethical arguments to be made on either side.

Following conversations with many contributors, I’ve come to the conclusion that the specifics of who, where and when are less relevant to the research question than the learning itself. I’ve tried to let go of my natural inclination to attribute stories to their precise contexts, in the hope that this actually facilitates a more faithful telling of events. Some people and places are going to be named in the thesis where necessary, but much of my fieldwork will be reported in a way that seeks to protect the names of individuals. Although it would be disingenuous to claim that I can offer absolute anonymity (due to the recognisability of the sites), I can at least work to minimise the focus of attention on the identities of particular practitioners and young people. While there may be a few people who are disappointed by this, I hope that they will understand the broader rationale for using anonymity as a tool for (safely) communicating authentic experiences.

 

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