Going under cover? Ethics, transparency and witnessing in researching institutions

Anne Lavanchy, University of Edinburgh
On-line published: October 30th 2012

This paper discusses transparency as an ethical challenge in regard to a particular fieldwork moment, the invitation to a hearing by Swiss registrars. Such an invitation constituted a significant gesture of conducting fieldwork in registry institutions: due to their form (confidentiality), the context (controversies) and what is at stake (assessing the genuineness of affianceds’ relationships), hearings are emblematic activities of the civil registry’s new duty of tracking down «suspicious unions». The invitation challenged my commitment to transparency as the implication for me was that I had to work under cover, attending the hearing not as an anthropologist but as a registrar-to-be.

The ethical puzzle which I faced has grown from the tension between an ethical commitment to transparency towards research partners and the fact that I was keen to gain access to a secluded space that I considered a desirable space of investigation regarding the purposes of my research. This leads me to address the following questions: What was at stake during the hearing? What were the consequences of an undercover presence at it? Why was it a desirable space of research? Reflecting upon this experience, I show how the ethical puzzle makes manifest the presence of conflicting interests: mine as researcher committed to an ethical practice of anthropology, but also those of the research participants, which were, in this case, split into two antagonistic groups: the registrars and the fiancés summoned to the hearing.