Bioethics Blogs

Strangers on a Train

In Patricia Highsmith’s novel, Strangers on a Train (adapted for the screen by Alfred Hitchcock), a sociopath plans to get away with murder. Rather than kill his own nemesis and risk arrest, he will kill the troublesome wife of a stranger, and expect that stranger to reciprocate by killing his detested father. Since each man could arrange to be out of town at the time of his relative’s murder, each alibi could be ironclad.

Ethnographers Staci Newmahr and Stacey Hannem think this is a good way to deal with the IRB. The idea might be stupid enough to work in some cases, but it is also a distraction from the hard work of regulatory reform.

[Staci Newmahr and Stacey Hannem, “Surrogate Ethnography Fieldwork, the Academy, and Resisting the IRB,” Journal of Contemporary Ethnography, May 10, 2016, doi:10.1177/0891241616646825.]

Newmahr and Hannem call their proposal “surrogate anthropology”:

‘‘Surrogate ethnography’’ is a methodology in which one ethnographer donates a story from her life to another ethnographer, who represents and analyzes that story, and in so doing, furthers our understanding of an aspect of society, culture, or social process.

In other words, one researcher tells a bunch of stories to another, who writes them up and, in return, tells her stories to the first researcher. Both get publications.

As a writing method, it may not be a bad idea. As Newmahr and Hannem put it,

For those of us disinclined to write about ourselves, for whatever set of reasons or at whatever particular moments, surrogate ethnography provides an interloper; we can share our rich, reflective, and instructive stories without writing our own hearts onto the page.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.