Being an identity prop: some ethical implications


  • Joel Busher School of Development Studies, University of East Anglia



During recent fieldwork in Namibia I noticed that the people I worked with often took care to arrange our public encounters so that onlookers did not interpret our relationship in ways that might be inconvenient. I was cast as a friend, colleague, employer, customer, acquaintance. My presence created opportunities for the extension of people's "repertoire of identities" (Cinnirella 1998) in both desirable and undesirable directions, and their choreography of our public encounters can be seen as part of their "impression management" (Davis 1986). Observing this process generated opportunities for me to gain insight into the way that people in the research sites negotiated social representations of identity and attributed values to particular social categories, such as volunteer, friend, namesake, NGO-worker, person living with HIV and so forth. However, finding myself playing allocated roles also raised ethical issues, two of which I discuss in this article: 1) Did my presence and participation give apparent endorsement to leaders and support claims about the legitimacy of social hierarchies? 2) Did my involvement with HIV/AIDS projects and the consequent crystallisation of my repertoire of identities threaten to undermine colleagues' and respondents' impression management? I conclude by reflecting on the limitations of my ethical approach at the outset of this research. I recommend that researchers be wary of the narrow perspective of research ethics that can emerge during the ethical clearance procedure, and that they continue to re-visit andadapt their ethical approach whilst in the field.

Author Biography

Joel Busher, School of Development Studies, University of East Anglia

Joel Busher's main interest is in the processes through which responses to long-wave events re-configure social relationships and community-level power structures. His doctoral research explores experiences of "the fight against HIV/AIDS" in Namibia and the way in which these have affected notions of civil participation, social responsibility, moral cohesion and trust. He can be contacted at j.busher(AT)