Looking at risk and accountability through the lens of ‘researching up’

The ethnography forum last Friday was on the topic of ‘researching up’. At least for the purposes of Friday afternoon, ‘researching up’ was looking at organisations in Melbourne staffed by professionals. The two presenters were also dealing with issues of doing/ having had done ‘ethnography at home’, and both of them seemed to find the term ‘researching up’ not all that useful.

Doing ‘ethnography at home’ seemed to bring up many of the questions about emic/etic understandings that I tried to get my head around in my honours thesis. Undertaking research in organisations they are a part of (direct service delivery in human services and the volunteer development organisation ‘Engineers without boarders’) the researchers were aware of the terms through which the work is understood, and the methods for undertaking the work are naturalised, within the organisation. Furthermore, the nature of the work in these organisations means that staff/ volunteers are brought face to face with conflicting interpretations by ‘clients’.

Neil gave an interesting account of self perpetuating bureaucracy at the interface of government departments and direct service delivery. This lead to interesting questions about responsibility in bureaucratic and direct service delivery work. It was suggested that perhaps individual staff working within bureaucracy were unwilling to take on individual responsibility. I would argue that such a situation is expected in a highly individualistic order as if staff are conceived of in a radically individual way then they only have an ethical mandate to complete their allocated tasks within the prescribed way; it is only when people are seen within meaningful relationships with others that it is even safe for somebody to seek to work towards a concept of ‘good’. Neil provided an thought provoking reply to the notion of taking responsibility using an example from direct service delivery work which highlighted the way in which naming structural factors is not necessarily blame shifting but rather shedding light on the very real way that living in society works.

The infinite, and largely horizontal, perpetuation of bureaucracy was named by some as the result of the risk society leading people to imagine the worst of all possible outcomes. I understand that risk management is a matter of anticipating possible adverse incomes and then dealing with them on the basis of the severity and likelihood of risk they pose. Of course once you highlight a risk the preference is to eliminate the risk. However, risk management frameworks understand that this is not always possible and so plans are developed to cope with risk. I think that how much action is taken in regards to a risk is necessarily a political and moral question. Risk can be externalised and I think that the way that this happens is related to accountability.

Bureaucracy is very much about lines of accountability. Suddenly when you look at risk management in light of this it becomes clear that when a government seeks to get re-elected this is going to be how programs are going to be assessed. The problem is not so much that somebody undertaking risk analysis into research can anticipate a potential political risk associated with the findings (or with re-interpretation or partial interpretation of the findings*), but rather how such a risk is weighted in comparison to the risk of a program operating or being implemented with less information.

It is not that public policy is necessarily in conflict with ‘the good of society’ but there is always the potential for interests to conflict when it comes to research. Research is not value neutral. The fact that ‘researching up’ is a topic in itself suggests that the agenda of ethnographic research is not always inline with the interests of those who the bureaucracy report to.

Perhaps what ‘researching up’ is really about is researching people who will not only understand your research agenda within their own terms, but who also have the power to make you question why it is that you are not understanding your own research on their terms.

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