Ethics of Fieldwork

Insiders and Outsiders

When we work in a community that is not our own, we are outsiders. We need to be respectful of the wisdom and understanding of the insiders with whom we work.

Consider the Following:

  • Communities have their own ways of understanding what they need.
    • Student and faculty perceptions of what the community needs may be different from the community's perception of need.
    • The desire to do good is an important motivation for community engagement. But what counts as doing good is often understood differently by different parties. Outsiders have a responsibility to understand the insider’s perspective.
  • Community agencies have missions that may not match student or faculty interests.
    • A project conceived on campus might not be in line with the mission of the community agency. Think about how this can be negotiated or even avoided. Consider the role of power and coercion in partnerships where the sides have differing missions or concepts of what is needed.
  • Your involvement in the community requires investment by individuals or agencies.
    • Agencies and individuals put resources into welcoming and training campus partners who might be around only a short while; vulnerable individuals may develop relationships with campus partners and experience loss when a student's placement ends. Think about these dynamics as you plan your community partnership.
  • Communities continue after your role ends.
    • The transient nature of most campus-community partnerships can make it easy to avoid the really challenging issues. Students and faculty should remember that complex moral issues facing communities do not get solved in one semester.  (See Quinn, et al. 2001.)
  • Campus partners can introduce inappropriate elements into communities.
    • As a visitor, the campus partner should be sensitive to the environment of the community. To give an example, driving up to a homeless shelter in a new Porsche may be perceived as insensitive and foolish.  It may also become a distraction that interferes with the normal environment of the community. Be yourself, but be yourself with common sense and sensitivity.