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To Tell or Not to Tell



Authoring Institution Association for Practical and Professional Ethics (APPE)
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Contributor(s) Brian Schrag
Volume 7
Year 2006
Publisher Association for Practical and Professional Ethics
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  • Ullica  Segerstrale

    Posted 3 years and 2 months ago

    The author of the prior commentary sees this as a case of conflicting obligations of a researcher, falling within the realm of research ethics. The main questions concern the confidentiality that Kenneth promised to everyone, the special status of the three workers who didn’t want to be involved, and Kenneth’s dilemma when it came to reporting or not reporting the overheard conversation.

    I see this case as only partly a matter of research ethics and partly a broader matter of politics, or of general ethics. Here are a number of observations:

    1. There is the whole problem of what actually Kenneth overheard. Kenneth believes that the particular dialogue snippet indicates that someone is going to tamper with the votes. But the snippet “Don’t worry—I’ve been working with Marie and a couple of others to get that situation under control. You’ll never see a union voted in here” may mean a number of things. The statement may have nothing whatsoever to do with tampering with the voting results. It may for instance refer to a planned last minute persuasion campaign which the worker believes will have the effect of deterring unionization. Or it may refer to some last minute threats or incentives that he knows that Marie has planned in order to deter worker unionization, and which he believes will work. Or something else.

    2. Another question is whether Kenneth’s agreement with the three workers really required him to go as far as to duck away into the restroom in order not to be seen! But perhaps there was something else going on that made Kenneth believe that he would better not be seen, but which we have not been told—for instance, perhaps Kenneth already heard something of what they said as they approached, or perhaps they looked very conspiratorial, etc. The fact that these workers did not wish to be part of a study is not suspicious by itself. However, Kenneth may have had his own particular suspicions about them. We need to know more about the reasons for Kenneth’s decision to avoid meeting the workers.

    3. The controversy over unionization is useful as a framing event, as controversies usually are, making people more willing to express their feelings and beliefs about the company and other matters. Perhaps we should know more about what kinds of things Kenneth hopes to investigate through his observations? The connection to gender research, the theme of the study, is missing in the Kenneth example. (Also, is this study only involving observations and not interviews? The word “interview” is not mentioned).

    4. An interesting question that this study raises is, “Whose side is Kenneth on?” and also, “Whose side should he be on?” In controversies, this is an important matter for a researcher to resolve. From the story it seems that Kenneth is identifying himself with the workers who want to unionize rather than with the workers who are against unionization. What is the rationale for this?

    As a fact-finding researcher Kenneth might want to keep an independent stance in order to find out about the reasoning on both sides in a controversy. (This is the approach I explicitly took myself in Defenders of the Truth, Segerstrale, 2000, an analysis of the participants in the sociobiology controversy). As some type of action researcher, again, one assumes Kenneth would want to take the side of the “underdog.” But who is the underdog here, and from whose point of view? Should Kenneth perhaps be taking the side which he believes that, if victorious, will cause less overall harm to the factory’s workers and their families? The families may be the real underdogs! (To make this judgment, we—and Kenneth—would need information on the possibility that the workers will find new jobs if the factory closes down, the prevailing rules for unemployment compensation, and other relevant considerations).

    Of course, Kenneth may also be worried that his own research will be undermined if the workers unionize and Marie responds by closing down the factory. In any case, Kenneth needs to analyze more closely the potential consequences of his actions in a broader context.



    Segerstrale, Ullica, 2000. Defenders of the Truth. The Battle for Science in the Sociobiology Debate and Beyond. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press.

  • Anonymous  Participant

    Posted 3 years and 2 months ago

    In this case study, the central issue revolves around Kenneth’s role as a researcher.  First, how does this role affect what people at the site can expect from him in terms of confidentiality?  Second, how does this role affect how he responds to overhearing information that may change the course of the impeding union vote?  And how will it affect his research goals?

    In terms of Kenneth’s role in his research site, does he have an obligation to act on behalf of the workers whose union votes may be tampered with?  Or does he have an even stronger obligation to avoid disrupting or changing the situation at his research site?  Should Kenneth act as an “objective” researcher, avoiding involvement in the situation, or should he be an advocate for his participants?  This is an age-old question in the social sciences and one without a completely satisfactory answer.

    Proponents of traditionalist, positivist social science would probably argue that intervening in this developing situation would somehow contaminate Kenneth’s data, or keep the researcher from accessing the “Truth”— the one and only “objective” reality of the research site, which should unfold without his interference.  This may be true in the sense that getting involved may block Kenneth’s ability to conduct further observations at this company.  But growing numbers of social scientists realize that not only does the researcher’s very presence at the site affect his or her data, but that there are many “truths”, and not one objective reality.  Feminist researchers in particular have argued that the position of the researcher (his or her gender, race, social class, and other characteristics) as well as that of the participants, will influence the questions the researcher asks as well as the answers he or she finds (Deutsch 2004).  So there are many truths in each research site.  Since all researchers carry their own backgrounds and biases, truly “objective” social science is not a realistic goal and never has been.  Researchers need only to be honest with their audience about their own positionality, and, in some circumstances, should become involved in their research sites, especially when they have knowledge that may help their participants.  The goal is to retain validity while being honest in a way that traditional positivist research has often not been.  Although this latter perspective has gained much legitimacy within sociology, there is still some disagreement within the discipline along the fault lines between qualitative and quantitative researchers, and even among qualitative researchers (Taylor 1999).

    At the same time, in this situation, there are other circumstances to consider. Will going public with the information he has overheard compromise the physical safety of the researcher?  Will it involve him in a legal battle if plans to tamper with the union vote are uncovered?  Not only does the researcher face the epistemological questions of his discipline, but the additional issues faced by whistleblowers everywhere.  Further complicating matters is the fact that he did not hear specifically what was being planned, only that one or more drivers, aided by management, are planning to do something to challenge the rightful outcome of the vote.

    In this case, it seems that his responsibilities are conflicting.  The terms of confidentiality he offered to workers at the site would seem to cover the information that he overheard.  On the other hand, he seems to have an ethical responsibility to the other workers at the site that may be harmed by those who would tamper with the vote.  Perhaps he could mediate this conflict by reporting the information he overheard, but not providing names.  This would protect confidentiality while keeping union officials on heightened alert for vote fraud.



    Deutsch, Nancy L. 2004.  “Positionality and the Pen: Reflections on the Process of Becoming a Feminist Researcher and Writer.”  Qualitative Inquiry 10(6): 885-902.

    Taylor, Peter Leigh. 1999. “Qualitative Cowboy or Qualitative Dude: An Impasse of Validity, Politics and Ethics?”  Sociological Inquiry 69(1): 1-32.


Cite this page: "To Tell or Not to Tell" Online Ethics Center for Engineering 3/8/2016 OEC Accessed: Tuesday, May 21, 2019 <>