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Data Management in Qualitative Social Science: The Impact of the Leiden Statement

Data Management in Qualitative Social Science: The Impact of the Leiden Statement

How do anthropologists go about data management? In the second contribution on our series on impact, Peter Pels reflects on the international uptake of the "Leiden statement".

Co-producing knowledge

When in 2015, a committee of six Leiden anthropologists responded to the call by their university to draw up guidelines for “data management”, they had no idea that their statement would have international impact. Three years later, however, the basic principle of the “Leiden Statement” is being widely endorsed. More and more social scientists agree that in ethnography, research materials are co-produced with respondents, and that all forms and norms of “data management” derive from it.

This principle is fundamental because it makes clear that questions of the production of knowledge (or epistemology) precede and condition questions of ethics and integrity. This statement that the committee put together in September 2015 is therefore not primarily an ethical guideline: instead, its members were keen to emphasize that their research practice has its own principles of scientific integrity (for the composition of the committee, see note 12 of the published statement). The gathering of social scientific knowledge through ethnography is itself a moral enterprise because reproducing “native” knowledge of research participants’ life-worlds is a primary goal of research, and researchers negotiate with them whether and how it can be shared with others.

Whereas professional codes in anthropology have long considered science and ethics as separate affairs, meaning anthropologists could gather all knowledge unless this threatened to harm the people studied, the Leiden statement argues that the co-production of knowledge is the foundation of both science and ethics. This means that ethical questions are part of data gathering from the start. The quality and validity of ethnographic knowledge depend on the social relationships maintained between researcher and people studied.

Research as a social process

The appeal and ethical and practical consequences of this principle became increasingly clear when we presented the Leiden Statement at meetings on ethics and social science at the University of Sussex (2015), the University of Durham (2016), the German Anthropological Association in Berlin (2017), the University of Amsterdam (January 2018), the European Association of Social Anthropologists in Stockholm (August 2018), the Association of Social Anthropologists in Oxford (Sept. 2018) and the Max Planck Institute in Göttingen (Nov. 2018). The most important of these is the recognition of research as a social process.

Taken seriously, this implies, firstly, that research materials cannot be simply reduced to fixed and finished products (“data”) because, in the social relationships of research, they continue to evolve and change meaning. Secondly, it means that written and prior informed consent will always remain insufficient because one cannot pretend to arrest the research process or determine its ethical content once and for all. Thirdly, it implies one has to differentiate between ownership, possession and access to research materials: while the claim by employers of ethnographic researchers to own and access the research materials that they produce may seem self-evident at first sight, only the primary researcher can judge how the possession and use of these materials will affect the privacy and interests of the people studied.

Various forms of impact

The Leiden Statement made an impact on the various platforms where it was discussed, sometimes obliquely (see the very rich EthNav site that our colleagues from Sussex and Durham launched last September), sometimes by direct and authoritative publications of texts derived from the Leiden Statement (see here and here). Our discussions have fed into or stimulated a variety of other developments: the Forum Discussion in Social Anthropology/Anthropologie sociale, when presented to the Associated Deans of Social Science Faculties in the Netherlands, led them to reflect that they should, indeed, ask what “data” are in the first place (Cristina Grasseni, personal communication).

Indeed, we will try to provide an answer to this question in the Leiden “signature methodology” research cluster. We also hope that the Leiden Statement will reverberate in (soon to be published) reflections on ethical and political problems with the notion of “transparency” (Annelies Moors, University of Amsterdam), on the diversity of researcher-researched relationships and their accompanying forms of trust (Margaret Sleeboom-Faulkner, University of Sussex), or on the question of whether, how and for whom anthropologists should archive their materials (Alberto Jimenez, Centro de Ciencias Humanas y Sociales, Madrid).

However, as Marianne Maeckelbergh already indicated in her Leiden Anthropology blog, the more important but less measurable impact of the Leiden Statement may be when research participants notice that researchers actually behave according to these principles; or that they notice that we have taught our students to adhere to them. For, in the end, the impact of our discipline should not primarily concern the influence of scientific publications, the reputation of our university, or how “useful” our knowledge is to people: as Ruth Benedict wrote in Patterns of Culture (1934), the real impact of anthropology should be “to make the world safe for difference”.

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