Help or Hinderance? The Use of Spatial Metaphors in the Internet Research Ethics Debate

AUTHOR
Aaron Norgrove

ABSTRACT

This paper emerges from the initial stages of research towards a Doctoral thesis in Sociology on practices of digital gifting in Online Communities. Specifically, the paper represents a series of preliminary theoretical reflections on one nexus of the wider debate over research ethics: the use of spatial metaphors in the conceptualisation of Internet social relations and the consequent impact of this conceptualisation on debates over the appropriate form that ‘ethical’ research should take.

Over the past decade, the issues of internet research and the ethical dilemmas (potential and actual) faced by those engaged in such research has grown significantly, in both volume and sophistication (see for example Johns, Chen and Hall, 2004), particularly in relation to the conceptualisation of, and research on, the different forms of ‘community’ that have emerged through the Internet. At the level of ontology, the theoretical conceptualisation and consequent debate over the definitions of online communities is indebted to accounts of community formulated prior to the emergence of the internet as a significant site of social relations. As Nils Zurawski (2002) has previously suggested, theories of space have a long history in the social sciences, and these theories have in turn influenced the conceptualisation of the Internet as a qualitatively different social ‘space’ that is characterised by historically-specific forms of social relationships. From Benedict Anderson’s ‘Imagined Communities’ to Manuel Castells’ ‘Space of Flows’, through to Hine’s (2000) suggestion that the internet ‘community’ transcends both online and offline spheres of experience and action, the spatial metaphor has played an important role in the production of academic discourse on the nature of the Internet and Internet Mediated Communication.

In terms of research practice, the use of spatial metaphors in the conceptualisation of OnliOver the past decade, the issues of internet research and the ethical dilemmas (potential and actual) faced by those engaged in such research has grown significantly, in both volume and sophistication (see for example Johns, Chen and Hall, 2004), particularly in relation to the conceptualisation of, and research on, the different forms of ‘community’ that have emerged through the Internet. At the level of ontology, the theoretical conceptualisation and consequent debate over the definitions of online communities is indebted to accounts of community formulated prior to the emergence of the internet as a significant site of social relations. As Nils Zurawski (2002) has previously suggested, theories of space have a long history in the social sciences, and these theories have in turn influenced the conceptualisation of the Internet as a qualitatively different social ‘space’ that is characterised by historically-specific forms of social relationships. From Benedict Anderson’s ‘Imagined Communities’ to Manuel Castells’ ‘Space of Flows’, through to Hine’s (2000) suggestion that the internet ‘community’ transcends both online and offline spheres of experience and action, the spatial metaphor has played an important role in the production of academic discourse on the nature of the Internet and Internet Mediated Communication.ne Communities has in turn, it is argued, influenced the framework of debates on Internet Research Ethics. For example Waskul (1996) uses the metaphor of the public park to draw the relationship between appropriate ethical practice in offline situations and their similarities with research on the internet. However, following Mihalache (2002) it is suggested that such arguments are undermined when one considers that the internet is qualitatively different from the pre-existing, metric and topological spaces that characterise the offline world. Just as the emergence of urban centres lead to the development of a qualitatively different set of experiences from rural modes of life, and despite the flow of goods and people between the two sphere, so too does the Internet and online community lead to the emergence of experiences and relations that cannot be completely subsumed by metaphorical understandings that are appropriated from the offline world.

As such, it is suggested that debates over research ethics in relation to Internet research remain indebted to, and consequently hindered by, an attachment to conceptualisations of space that are insufficient if the ethical dilemmas presented by online research are to be resolved. Whilst Bassett and In terms of research practice, the use of spatial metaphors in the conceptualisation of OnliOver the past decade, the issues of internet research and the ethical dilemmas (potential and actual) faced by those engaged in such research has grown significantly, in both volume and sophistication (see for example Johns, Chen and Hall, 2004), particularly in relation to the conceptualisation of, and research on, the different forms of ‘community’ that have emerged through the Internet. At the level of ontology, the theoretical conceptualisation and consequent debate over the definitions of online communities is indebted to accounts of community formulated prior to the emergence of the internet as a significant site of social relations. As Nils Zurawski (2002) has previously suggested, theories of space have a long history in the social sciences, and these theories have in turn influenced the conceptualisation of the Internet as a qualitatively different social ‘space’ that is characterised by historically-specific forms of social relationships. From Benedict Anderson’s ‘Imagined Communities’ to Manuel Castells’ ‘Space of Flows’, through to Hine’s (2000) suggestion that the internet ‘community’ transcends both online and offline spheres of experience and action, the spatial metaphor has played an important role in the production of academic discourse on the nature of the Internet and Internet Mediated Communication.ne Communities has in turn, it is argued, influenced the framework of debates on Internet Research Ethics. For example Waskul (1996) uses the metaphor of the public park to draw the relationship between appropriate ethical practice in offline situations and their similarities with research on the internet. However, following Mihalache (2002) it is suggested that such arguments are undermined when one considers that the internet is qualitatively differeO’ Riordan (2002) for example have suggested the partial abandonment of spatial metaphors in favour of conceptualisations of Internet Mediated Communications based on text and textuality, it is argued that the limits of philosophical understanding demand that spatial metaphors cannot be dispensed with: as Derrida (1984) outlines, the relationships we conceptualise are lived by the subjects we study as a series of non-conceptual practices. Yet the need to conceptualise in the production of academic discourse, particularly in terms of the relationship between Self (as researcher) and Other (as research subject) demands that spatiality be preserved: if spatiality is denied to the Other, then any consideration of ethics and ethical responsibility on the part of the researcher becomes impossible. Retaining some form of spatial metaphor is especially imperative if one concurs with Lakoff’s (1992) argument that our metaphor system is central to our understanding of experience and to the way we act on that understanding.

The central argument of this paper is that a reversal of the step from spatial conceptualisation to ethical implications may lead to alternative pathways for the debate over research ethics in relation to the Internet. Instead of debating appropriate forms of ethical research practice from a position where there is an a priori conceptualisation of Internet social relations, it is suggested that the conceptualisations themselves can only proceed from an initial consideration of online ethics. Utilising a number of philosophical reflections on ethics from Jacques Derrida’s (1978) critique of Emmanuel Levinas and Silverstone’s (2003) exploration of cyber ethics, it is argued that the practice of ethical research on the Internet shares a number of similarities with the wider debates over ‘ethical communication’ on and through the Internet in general. As Silverstone (2003) suggests, the social space that emerges through internet technologies is effectively a metaphysical space founded on the ambiguity of physical distance and social closeness – an ambiguity that reverses pre-cyber spatial ambiguities of social distance and physical closeness. The potential implications of this argument for the debates over internet research ethics are explored, and some possible directions for further analysis outlined.

REFERENCES

Bassett, E. and K. O’ Riordan. (2002). Ethics of Internet Research: Contesting the Human Research Subjects Model in Ethics and Information Technology. 4 (3): 233 – 247.

Derrida, J. (1978). Violence and Metaphysics: An Essay on the Thought of Emmanuel Levinas in Writing and Difference. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Derrida, J. (1984). White Mythology in Margins of Philosophy, Chicago, University of Chicago Press.

Hine, C. (2000). Virtual Ethnography. Surrey: Sage.

Johns, M. S. Chen and G. Hall (eds.). 2004. Online Social Research: Methods, Issue, and Ethics. New York: Peter Lang Inc.

Lakoff, G. (1992) The Contemporary Theory of metaphor in Ortony, A. (ed.) Metaphor and Thought. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Mihalache, A. (2002). The Cyber Space-Time Continuum: Meaning and Metaphor in The Information Society. 18: 293-301.

Silverstone, R. (2003). Proper Distance: Towards an Ethics for Cyberspace in Liestøl, G., A. Morrison and T. Rasmussen (eds.). Digital Media Revisited. Massachusetts: MIT Press.

Waskul, D. (1996). Ethics of Online Research: Considerations for the Study of Computer Mediated Forms of Interaction. (http://venus.soci.niu.edu/~jthomas/ethics/tis/go.dennis).

Zurawski, N. (2002). Ideas and Metaphors of Space on the Internet … and How These Help or Restrict Us in Research. Paper presented to the Conference Internet Research 3.0: NET / WORK / THEORY. Maastricht, The Netherlands, October 13-16.

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