Ethics of Fieldwork

Power and Coercion

Even if we claim to be just learning, helping or observing, it is our responsibility to be aware of how what we say and do can affect individuals and organizations.

As members of a prestigious academic community, students and faculty have privilege. This is part of the structure of our society. We might compare this to the “white coat factor” in medical settings. In a hospital, patients are more likely to listen seriously to people wearing a white lab coat, and to be coerced into agreeing with those people. The same dynamic sometimes occurs when faculty and students work with communities.

Consider the Following:

  • We should value the self-determination of communities, individuals, and agencies.
    • People have a right, within limits, to choose how their lives go. We value the right of individuals and groups to make decisions according to their own conceptions of the good.
    • When faculty and students express negative attitudes about the choices of community members or community agencies, the authority of the academic voice can be felt as pressure to change. This can be disruptive. Individuals can lose faith in the organizations that serve them. Even offering “helpful” suggestions can cause doubt. See the section on Insiders and Outsiders for a related discussion.
  • Community partners are often vulnerable individuals.
    • Community service, service-learning projects and research in the community often bring students and faculty together with community partners who are particularly disempowered. These might include the very young, the very old, the homeless, and those with mental illness. This intensifies the power differential, which in turn intensifies the potential for coercion.
    • Remind yourself that we become partners with the community because we benefit. This is especially true of Praxis courses and research, but it also applies to community service projects in general.
  • Campus partners entrust us with private information.
    • When we go into the community, we can learn a great deal of personal information about individuals. For instance, by virtue of a partnership with a community program, we may learn that someone is a drug user. This gives us additional power in our interactions.
  • The academic community has a public voice that many community members and agencies do not have.
    • Students and faculty can get their ideas heard. They share their knowledge in the classroom and in campus publications. Our position and education also give us more access to public media. Because of this, our presence can make community partners even more vulnerable to coercion.
  • Students and faculty can also be coerced and manipulated.
    • Students and faculty do not have all of the power or all of the knowledge. As outsiders, campus partners can be coerced or manipulated as well. Be aware of power issues, but do not overcompensate and allow yourself to be manipulated into doing something inappropriate.