Anthropologist James Waldram of the University of Saskatchewan tackles a controversial but important topic in the latest issue of Qualitative Health Research. In his article Everybody Has a Story: Listening to Imprisoned Sexual Offenders he discusses how he gained the trust of incarcerated sex offenders, and explores the ethical and pragmatic aspects of listening to an often-demonised population:
When I first developed the idea of working with sexual offenders in prison, I was told by various individuals “in the know” that these inmates would never talk to me (p.963), [so] …As an anthropologist I employed participant observation as a research technique. This meant that I engaged with the men in what appeared to be nonresearch contexts. I sometimes ate with them, watched television and played board games with them, and basically just “hung out” on the unit (p.965).
Why should we hear the stories of convicted sexual offenders? Why should we bear witness to their lives? The answer is as straightforward as it is complex. If we do not make an attempt to understand those who violate our social norms by perpetrating violence, and yet are unwilling to provide life sentences or support capital punishment, then we are most certainly likely to fall victim again. Sometimes it is in our best interests to listen, however difficult that may be (p.969).
- James B. Waldram (2007). Everybody Has a Story: Listening to Imprisoned Sexual Offenders. Qualitative Health Research 17(7): 963-970
In this article the author addresses two basic questions found at the intersection of ethics and qualitative research methodology: Why are some people reluctant to share their stories? and Are there some people whose stories ought not to be heard? Focusing on imprisoned sexual offenders, the author argues that the establishment of trust in the research relationship is essential to creating safe places for people living with “problem experiences” to tell their stories. He also argues that however repugnant, the stories of society’s worst offenders must be heard if we as a society are to better understand their actions and protect ourselves.