Socially constructed ethics

  • Posted on: 24 November 2018
  • By: benfell

In my two preceding posts, I analyzed the ethical1 and methodological2 problems I encountered while attempting to work as a research assistant (officially a "field representative") for the U.S. Census Bureau on the American Community Survey. In a way, these are the easy parts. I have a Ph.D. in Human Science from Saybrook University and one thing Saybrook excels at—or at least did while I was attending—is teaching methodology. In addition, the Human Science program itself emphasized methodology.

The harder part is what I am still learning from this experience—what I think is actually the most valuable part. As I wrote in my email reaffirming my decision to resign, there is a difference between what people tell you, what I called "the abstract," and what you actually experience, which I called "the tangible."3 One thing that is interesting to me is how what I learned in my academic career, culminating in that Ph.D., became tangible while what I learned in Census Bureau training and from my field supervisors remained intangible.

Here is where I have to say that, unpleasant as the experience was, that woman yelling at me to get off her property performed a service. I don't think it was high-minded of her to do so. But the outcome is still instructive.

To explain, I need to review the episode and fill in some details. I remain under an oath to protect her confidentiality so I am intentionally withholding identifying information.

First, as a field representative, I only get sent to addresses that have not responded quickly enough to mailings sent out by the Census Bureau. Sometimes that's because the Postal Service deems an address undeliverable. But a lot of the time—and I'm inclined to think this is the case here—it's simply because recipients routinely discard mail addressed to anything like the "current occupant."

Still, they (there seem to have been two women living at the address) would have known that the Census Bureau was attempting to get in touch with them.

Second, the first time I went out there, there was no answer at the door, so I left an envelope containing information including my contact information. They have to have known that the Census Bureau was attempting to contact them with that. Notably, they never acknowledged this visit.

Third, the second time I went out there, I made contact. The woman who answered the door (not necessarily the same one who yelled at me) promised to respond on line but denied knowledge of the envelope I had left before. Whatever is going on here, not everyone is being fully honest. I'll also note here that I saw a second woman silently watching all this through a second screen door off the front porch.

Fourth, the third time I went out there (I'm supposed to be persistent) is when the woman (not necessarily the same one who I spoke with on the second visit) yelled at me. She claimed I had already been out there once (actually, it had been twice) and that I was being creepy. But she delayed answering her front door until I was about to knock on the other door.

In short, I have reason to suspect that she was manipulating the situation to put me on the defensive and to assert her own self-righteousness. At this point, she completely refused my attempt to defuse the situation.

So she was likely being scummy in her treatment of another human being who was just trying to do a job. But I also knew that, as I explained in my first posting on this experience, I wasn't on ethical high ground either.4

It's probably worth mentioning here that the Census Bureau only requires a high school education for this job. Someone with less education than I have or even who places less emphasis on ethics than I do might find this situation less troubling.

But I'm also noticing a clash of ethical values. The Census Bureau certainly sees its work as a necessary and valuable service to the country. Some of the people I interviewed were rather more suspicious, as well they might be for a great many reasons I will return to.

So one lesson to take here is that ethics are socially constructed and that constructions may vary between social locations.

To review, a social construction is essentially an agreement within a group of people about what something is. Race, for example, is a social construction. Early in the 19th century, for example, it was generally agreed in the U.S. that Irish immigrants to the U.S. were an inferior race—not ethnicity, but race. Today, we see them as white and I don't think many people still see them as "inferior," but this was not always the case. Our social agreement, the social construction of race, about Irish-Americans has changed.

Similarly, the Census Bureau does not construct a Latinx identity as race but rather as an ethnicity distinct from race. But many (in the Bureau's training, they said "most") Latinx folks identify themselves racially as "Hispanic" or "Latin[o/a]," and relatively few people of most races and ethnicities have a clear conception of a difference between race and ethnicity (they're both social constructions).

So on one hand, Census Bureau ethics are constructed to rationalize the work that the Bureau is legally mandated to do. On the other hand, in the parts of Sonoma County I was visiting, ethics are often constructed to value privacy, which, as I noted in the second post, the American Community Survey intrudes on at length and in multiple ways.5

There's another layer to both sides of that. First, the Census Bureau in fact conflates a legal mandate with what is ethical. This simply isn't so, as the Nuremberg trials resoundingly established.

Second, the privacy issue has become even more salient with scandals involving domestic spying and online privacy. The government has both itself been intrusive in the name of national security and slow to regulate Internet services which have been intrusive on behalf of both the government and private enterprise. In addition, since I stopped working for the Bureau, it has come to light that the Trump administration was looking into violating the legally-mandated confidentiality of information collected by the Census Bureau.6 Many will infer that, even with the best of intentions, especially against what many people perceive as a lawless executive branch (which includes the national security complex), it simply isn't possible to guarantee protection of participants' information; to whatever extent such fears are valid, this presents yet another ethical dilemma for a researcher.

"Reality" has a limited impact on social constructions. Returning to the example of race, the differences among members of a race often exceed the differences between races, so race is not a biological construct. The situation gets even more complicated when we consider that most people probably aren't "pure" anything; our ancestors weren't nearly so persnickety as some of them might have claimed to be and we're hearing more lately about Cro-Magnon humans mating with Neanderthals, which makes it all seem pretty ridiculous. But socially, we largely agree that some people are Black, some are white, and so on, and it's only fair to acknowledge that the reality of social inequality requires us to recognize this social construction even if it has strictly limited biological validity.

So the socially constructed ethics of the Census Bureau can be and in fact are different from the socially constructed ethics of many of the involuntary respondents I contacted. This shouldn't be a surprise. One of the failings of "natural law" was that it turned out that the allegedly common values a Christian god had supposedly implanted in the hearts of every living human varied from place to place and even as societies grew.7 "Natural law" wasn't natural at all, but rather yet another social construction.

But there was also the other layer to those ethics, the invalid conflation of legality with the ethical on one hand and what I would have to acknowledge are legitimate fears about privacy on the other. I'm still thinking about all this and it's entirely possible I'm reinventing the wheel (I've certainly done this before) but the outcome will surely be a richer understanding of ethics.