The social life of achievement and competitiveness in Vietnam and Indonesia

Professor Susan Bayly and Dr Nicholas Long

The project explored notions of competitiveness and achievement as perceived and experienced over the lifecourse of respondents from Indonesia and Vietnam. The primary methodologies used were participant observation and in-depth semi-structured interviews with over 100 informants drawn from four categories: policymakers, educational achievers, spiritual achievers, and overseas migrant workers. Since the ethical issues encountered in each site were somewhat different, this case study will focus on the Indonesian research.

Ethical process

The ethical process followed the Ethics Guidelines published by the Association of Social Anthropologists (ASA). The nature and purpose of the research was openly declared at all times, the issue of consent was revisited and negotiated throughout the research, and field notes and other primary data were kept securely to ensure confidentiality and the anonymity of our respondents.

However, a complication arose from the competing ethical imperatives to adhere to disciplinary best practice, and to make our datasets publicly available via the UK Data Service (then the ESDS). This latter was also a contractual obligation of the research. The ESDS advised that we ‘should therefore make reasonable attempts to overcome any barriers which may prevent data from being shared’.

Consequently, all respondents interviewed were not only asked to give their consent to the interview, but also to the archiving of the (anonymised) interview transcript in the ESDS repositories. This was done via written consent forms or, in cases where respondents might be wary of signing forms, orally – as per ASA guidelines. Respondents were asked whether they were happy for the interview to be recorded, used in a research report or publicly archived both before and after the interview.

In many cases, this worked well and respondents gave clear indications of their consent or dissent to archiving. In some cases, however, respondents consented to the archiving of the interview even though it contained material that the researchers feared might put the interviewee at risk should the archive be accessed by political rivals, law enforcement authorities, etc. In these cases, as well as anonymising the interview, we felt compelled to redact some sections of the interviews, prioritising our informants’ safety and wellbeing over maximum disclosure.

In other cases, the very prospect of archiving caused considerable alarm to respondents, some of whom repeatedly contacted us to check that the interview data would not be shared. Asking for permission to archive disrupted trust in the research relationship and became a source of harm. This was especially the case with respondents who had divulged their involvement in contentious activities, or who had made accusations against others and feared reprisals. 

We therefore realised that it was essential to be flexible in how and when we would ask for consent to archiving. With respondents who we recognised as likely to be especially anxious or raise sensitive material, we waited to broach the issue at the end of the interview, and did so in a way that presented both the cons and the pros of archiving, in which we took the role of advisers – rather than stating it as an expectation that we had of them. This allowed for a more fully informed consent and maintained the integrity of the research relationship.

Lessons

  • ‘Ethics procedures’ are themselves a form of social action that can have both positive and negative consequences for social relations in the field. They should be subject to reflective questioning and amendment throughout the research process, and tailored to suit particular circumstances and individuals.
  • It cannot be presumed that respondents who grant ‘informed consent’ are fully aware of the consequences of this decision, and researchers should exercise due diligence in safeguarding their interests. This duty must outweigh that of public access to research data, since it protects the very research relationships on which all future research data depends.
  • New regulations on the obligation to deposit data can create unforeseen challenges and conflicts of interest in fieldwork situations. Researchers are encouraged to anticipate these before commencing their research.