Risk, Informed Consent, and Public Sociology: Reflections from an Aborted Ethnography

Dylan Gray

In the wake of the 2016 U.S presidential election, hate-fueled mass shootings of Jewish and Black places of worship, violent skirmishes between alt-right pro-Trump protesters and anti-fascist counter-protesters, and scores of other acts of violence caught the nation’s attention. Meanwhile, some white nationalist groups worked quietly out of the media spotlight to cultivate an image of respectability by recruiting from middle- and upper-middle-class circles. That is, while news media turned a spotlight on events like the deadly “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, some image-savvy white nationalist activists put on their suits and began recording podcast-style political discussions and “pro-whiteness” conferences intended for young, right-leaning, politically-minded white men. Incidentally, I had been conducting exploratory fieldwork for a course project on political activism on college campuses when I realized that one such group had been making inroads with members of my own university’s student republican group. It is nearly axiomatic in research on white nationalist activism that movement involvement facilitates radicalization: studies have documented, for example, how extremists such as Skinheads, neo-Nazis, and the Ku Klux Klan produce and maintain extremist subcultures and integrate extremist identities into their individual identities (cf. see Simi and Futrell 2010; Futrell and Simi 2004). We also know that white nationalists recruit and further radicalize like-minded others from personal networks and far-right internet forums (Adams and Roscigno 2005; Burris, Smith, and Strahm 2000). The white nationalist group I encountered, however, sought to moderate overt racism within their ranks, intellectualize white nationalist discourse, and present themselves as ordinary, mainstream citizens. Contradicting popular narratives and media accounts that portray white nationalist activists as predominantly uneducated and working-class, the activists I encountered appeared intent on recruiting from professional middle- and upper-middle-class circles—no doubt a tactic to help cultivate an outward image of intellectualism and “respectability.”

To explore these innovative yet concerning presentation and recruitment tactics, I began qualitative fieldwork with the group and embedded myself as a regular member. What ensued was a year-long project during which I employed a controversial methodology, covert participation observation, to maintain my presence in the field. In this field memo, I aim to explore the relationships between our ethical review standards and ethnographic fieldwork, interrogate our conceptions of informed consent and risk, and briefly consider the impacts of ethical ambiguity on sociology’s role in the public sphere. At stake here are the societal risks associated with limiting access to difficult fields.

In ethnographic research, researchers must make several methodological decisions to address perennial issues of access, participant recruitment, and relationship maintenance. To sustain meaningful engagement with key informants in the field, researchers must continually explore appropriate courses of action, relying on context-dependent situational awareness and interpersonal competencies. Ethnographers encounter varying levels of access in the field and must work to build rapport with research participants, but groups whose members harbor outright hostility toward inquiring researchers and to social science research more broadly, such as white nationalist organizations, present unique challenges to researchers. These challenges no doubt stem from the political right’s entrenched distrust of post-secondary institutions and socially progressive academic knowledge. While I conducted exploratory fieldwork, I openly expressed interest in the organization as a neophyte, but I never disclosed my status as a researcher to group members since I anticipated such disclosure would severely limit my access to the field. Worse yet, I feared that making my researcher status known would put an unwanted target on my back for a broad network of activists, some of whom have documented histories of violence. Shaking hands and regularly meeting with people known to have stabbed and publicly beaten social justice protestors made my concerns all the more real. I thus found that it was necessary to remain a covert participant observer in order both to continue research and to mitigate my own personal risk. 

However, I was quickly at odds with the Institutional Review Board (IRB) informed consent protocols. The 1978 Belmont Report, a foundational IRB document, stipulates that researchers must provide participants with study information and procedures, ensure that participants comprehend all potential risks and benefits associated with participating in a study, and allow participants to decide whether or not to participate free from undue coercion. These informed consent mandates were designed amidst growing concerns regarding scientific mistreatment of vulnerable populations and ethically dubious obedience experiments, and they were implemented to establish basic rights that protect individual autonomy and voluntariness. Yet, although they were originally developed for use in biomedical and experimental settings, they are standard in fieldwork research today. 

IRBs require investigators in all human subjects studies to draft informed consent procedures in their research protocol documents, which typically entail gathering either written or verbal agreement from participants. More recently, review boards have somewhat loosened their requirements by calling for informed consent procedures only in situations in which participants have a “reasonable expectation of privacy.” I had hoped that my research would qualify for this exemption since it often took place in ostensibly public spaces. I found it difficult, though, to make my case because the distinction between public and private is unfortunately not as clear in practice as our protocols would have us believe. Where is the line between public and private, for instance, at a late-night hangout at a public beach with white nationalists, an afternoon meeting in a public library, or a park cleanup outing? Even if my IRB had approved the project (which it did not), there are additional ethical uncertainties our informed consent frameworks do not take into account. Not only is there a great deal of ambiguity regarding what constitutes a “reasonable” expectation of privacy, but an individual’s participation in “public” spaces does not expressly imply willing consent to be studied. It is not clear, for instance, that a white nationalist demonstrating at a public rally would consent to academic analysis and reporting. Additionally, even in cases where the researcher’s status is known, it is unclear whether they must obtain consent from all individuals in certain situations, such as in public venues involving both explicitly consenting confidants and unaware bystanders, and it is unclear how often consent procedures must be conducted over time. Although for me these are moot points, it is worth asking whether our current review processes can handle such dissonance between informed consent theory and praxis.

There was yet another ethical consideration that impeded my work. Human research protections rest on the principle of “beneficence,” where research is approved only if proposed benefits are thought to outweigh any potential risks to subjects. It was difficult to satisfy these criteria in my case since there were few, if any, proposed benefits to the white nationalists I studied. Members of such groups face personal risk due to public pressure for core institutions, such as employers and universities, to remove or expel individuals whose behaviors and affiliations are illegal or otherwise socially sanctionable. I witnessed several members lose their jobs, get kicked out of universities, and experience turmoil in their personal relationships as a consequence of their involvement with the group. (Internet sleuths had skillfully identified white nationalists by name by analyzing photographs from demonstrations and leaked online correspondences). Any published reports of my data, however well-anonymized, could have unwittingly provided amateur detectives with additional identifying information, and I reported this to the IRB as a potential risk. At the same time, the group had had a visible online presence, its members had landed interviews on high-profile cable shows, and they had shown to be well-heeled and rather litigious. 

Importantly, IRB staff advised that they must be afforded the same considerations as the disadvantaged and marginalized. I wondered, though, whether our research protections truly operate on a single logic of vulnerability, whether we construct vulnerability according to a person’s position relative to power. Do we consider those low in power vulnerable only to stereotyping and exploitation, and those high in power vulnerable primarily to financial loss and reputational damage? If so, how equitable are our risk assessment structures? Risk-benefit analyses are most precisely performed in projects that require variable manipulation, such as biomedical research and psychological experiments, and whose protocols allow researchers to treat participants more or less equally. However, the application of a medical model of risk assessment to naturalistic observational research seems to become much less neat when we consider the social contexts of those we wish to represent in our academic output, hence the reliance on the nebulous concept of “vulnerability” in social science research protections. Thus, more work might be done to systematize its application to better—and more equitably—contextualize and foresee social risks that are not confined to the body or psychological state. 

How we handle respect for persons and beneficence in fieldwork research carries implications for the practice of public sociology vis-à-vis other knowledge-producing professions, particularly journalism. Ethics systems in both professions no doubt shape the character of knowledge and the pace at which it is developed. For journalists, ethical standards are primarily enforced through editorial discretion, where editors uphold principles such as source protection, narrative fairness, independence, and public interest in the stories that pass their desks. By contrast, sociologists wishing to report and analyze original data in public forums must obtain IRB approval prior to data collection. Depending on how strictly IRBs handle ethical ambiguities in social science research, then, sociologists may encounter greater difficulty accessing certain types of stories relative to their journalist counterparts. For their part, public sociologists work to incorporate social theory, conceptual understanding, and deep context to contemporary social problems in non-academic venues. But as a consequence of our ethics review standards, public sociology may not be as responsive to developing events as quickly as its practitioners might hope. I had the awkward experience, for example, of sitting on unusable data while reading journalistic accounts of the very people I had written about in my field notes. Whereas ethical quandaries in journalistic reporting, such as whether to release identifiable information or leaked information, may be superseded by special considerations like public interest and accountability, review systems in the social sciences are ill-equipped to handle ethical ambiguities and societal risks, and thus may stall or deny certain types of projects. We might imagine, as a consequence, missed opportunities for sociologists to identify root causes and remediate misconceptions of current political and social events in the overall public sphere.

In the years that followed my initial encounter with the white nationalist group, pro-white sentiment proliferated in right-wing television media, (white) men’s rights personalities and platforms gathered massive online followings, and certain political officials reaffirmed white supremacy’s entrenchment in federal and state offices. In other words, we began to observe white nationalist extremism enter the realm of acceptable public discourse—the same normalization process that was central to the presentation and recruitment strategies I observed in the field. These are the sorts of collective, societal risks—risks of academic inaction—that our medical ethics review standards were not designed to mitigate, and they are the sorts of risks that public sociologists might hope to address to advance social justice and equity. How do we proceed if our review standards deem far-right figures and white nationalists vulnerable for the same reasons public sociologists would consider them a societal liability (e.g., power, wealth, notoriety)? To be clear, I do not suggest relaxing our human research protection standards, nor do I wish to mount a defense for covert participant observation. But where sociologists’ ambitions to advance academic knowledge are constrained by our review system’s conceptual and procedural uncertainties, so too are their abilities to apply the tools of the trade to contemporary social problems and to make an impact in the public sphere. Perhaps there are some topics that the profession is not yet equipped to handle.


Adams, Josh and Vincent J. Roscigno. 2005. “White Supremacists, Oppositional Culture and the World Wide Web.” Social Forces 84(2):759-78.

Blee, Kathleen. 2003. Inside Organized Racism: Women in the Hate Movement. University of California Press.

Burris, Val, Emery Smith, and Ann Strahm. 2000. “White Supremacist Networks on the Internet.” Sociological Focus 33(2):215-35.

Dobratz, Betty A. and Stephanie L. Shanks-Meile. 1997. The White Separatist Movement in the United States: ‘White Power, White Pride!’ Johns Hopkins University Press.

Futrellm Robert and Simi. 2004. “Free Spaces, Collective Identity, and the Persistence of White Power Activism.” Social Problems 51(1):16-42.

Simi, Pete and Robert Futrell. 2010. American Swastika: Inside the White Power Movement’s Hidden Spaces of Hate. 2010. Rowman & Littlefield.