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Revealing and concealing secrets in research: the potential for the absent
Brian Rappert Qualitative Research 2010 10: 571 DOI: 10.1177/1468794110375229 The online version of this article can be found at: http://qrj.sagepub.com/content/10/5/571

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Revealing and concealing secrets in research: the potential for the absent



Qualitative Research Copyright 2010 The Author(s) http://qrj.sagepub.com vol. 10(5) 571587

B R I A N R A P P E RT University of Exeter, UK

ABSTRACT Qualitative research accounts are characterized by absences; absences resulting from what can not be told because it is not known and from what can not be repeated because it should not be stated. This article examines the problems associated with undertaking research in conditions of secrecy in order to ask how the missing could figure as a creative resource in our accounts of the social world. It advances an overall strategy of exemplifying the negotiation of revelation and concealment experienced by researchers within the relation between the reader and author in order to convey lived experiences. Particular attention is given to secrets and absences in relation to the sub-field of autoethnography, where much of the discussion to date has been bounded by a delimiting ethics of exposure. KEYWORDS:

anonymity, autoethnography, diplomacy, research ethics, secrecy, security

Within qualitative traditions, recurring questions have been posed about the status of research accounts. Secrecy in social life raises at least two sets of concerns in this regard: whether we as researchers can gain an adequate appreciation of the situations under study and to what extent we can (and should) discuss them in light of the disclosure rules, confidentiality agreements, and other such provisions in place. An aim of this article is to ask how the highlighting of secrets and absences could be part of efforts to do justice to our understanding of social life. This is done by shifting away from only treating limits on what can be stated as barriers to representation. Instead, I want to ask how they could be incorporated within our writing in order to convey experience. Much of the argument amounts to a meta-analysis of the book Experimental Secrets (Rappert, 2009) that detailed the authors engagement in diplomatic and security communities.

DOI: 10.1177/1468794110375229

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In recounting my experience, this article addresses the telling of secrets with special reference to current debates in autoethnography. As will be contended, discussions about what is withheld from researchers accounts in this sub-field have overwhelmingly been couched in terms of an ethics of exposure. While raising questions of major significance, this framing does not exhaust concerns about our narratives. This article seeks to extend an appreciation of the tensions and opportunities associated with the movements of conveying and questioning what is conveyed through research.

Conveying and secrecy

Secrecy, understood as the deliberate concealment of information, is pervasive across social and public life. The family, state, bureaucracies, personal relations, and commercial enterprises are just some of the sites where the dynamics of concealment are highly pertinent. Although secrecy is often equated with the restriction of information (and in this sense opposed to transparency see, for example, Agar and Balmer, 1998), it can have implications far beyond who gets to know what. The manner in which secrets are kept can shape identities and organizational relations (e.g., Gusterson, 1996; Masco, 2002; Rappert and Balmer, 2007). With reference to such expansive conceptualizations, secrets have been defined according to the content of the information concealed, the consequences of its disclosure, and the methods by which information is told (Bellman, 1981). Taussig (2003) and De Jong (2007) are among those who have underscored the importance of orientating to secrecy as a social practice, where its relevance for interaction derives from what is done through acts of telling. Concerns about the pervasiveness and performativity of secrets are not just matters of study for qualitative researchers, but also relevant to the production of social analysis. Maintaining the confidentiality or anonymity of those being researched is just one of the ways our accounts entail acts of deliberate concealment. The ethical dimensions of what is left in and left out of research accounts vis--vis those studies have been subject to much commentary (e.g., Lee, 1993; Murphy and Dingwall, 2007). Scope for concern about the choices and consequences of researchers secrets generally increases as individuals become more immersed in the relations they study. In the sub-field of autoethnography, immersion takes on some of its most thoroughgoing forms. Researchers working under this heading attempt to reformulate long-standing questions about how to represent aspects of society and culture by starting from their own situated activities (Denzin, 2006: 41920; Sparkes, 2000). Doing so has resulted in complex treatments of the status of what is being conveyed. On the one hand, many studies strive to express what it was like to undergo suffering and loss (AllenCollinson, 2008; Foster et al., 2006) in order to give voice to marginalized experiences, to foster emotional identification (Pelias, 2003), or to encourage connection of solidarity (Smith and Sparkes, 2008). On the other hand, in

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Rappert: Revealing and concealing secrets in research


questioning conventions many autoethnographies are also often mindful of the contingencies and limits of any account of social life (e.g., Boylorn, 2006; Pratt, 1994). As has been argued, while seeking to resist the closures and dichotomies that traditionally underlie social sciences, autoethnographies can only but struggle to do so (Davies et al., 2004). The varied and innovative textual and performance styles in autoethnography is one of its strengths. Yet this diversity also signals the open-endedness of any particular description and, thereby, the contingencies of any one. In relation to what is deliberately left out of autoethnographic accounts, some investigators have sought to acknowledge the stories told are not and should not be all out revelations (Jones et al., 2006; see Baez [2002] for a wider analysis). Ellis (2007), for instance, provided an overview of the types of ethical issues that arise in writing ethnographies and autoethnographies, as well as possible response strategies. That overview laid out ethical concerns along three dimensions:
*The procedural ethics that relates to long standing issues such as confidentiality and informed consent; typically addressed through bureaucratic oversight measures. *The situational ethical dilemmas and the discomforts that can arise during fieldwork. *The relational ethics of assuming responsibility for our actions and consequences of our stories on those being researched.

Deletions, fictitious alterations, and intentionally partial accounts are strategies advocated by her to craft narratives that are designed to address ethical concerns (see Jones et al., 2006 as well). While autoethnography overall is characterized by a complex and nuanced treatment of the status of representations, outside of matters of ethics, the situation is different in relation to the status of what researchers withhold from their accounts. Much of the literature in this field treats writing as bringing into view what would otherwise be out of sight. Park-Fuller (2000: 26, quoted from Rolling, 2008: 842) spoke to this aim in suggesting the offering of stories of the self can become a transgressive act a revealing of what has been kept hidden, a speaking of what has been silenced an act of reverse discourse that struggles with the preconceptions borne in the air of dominant politics. Foster et al. (2006: 49) echoed this characterization in stating:
Being prepared to write and publish autobiographical work calls for the writer to possess sufficient courage to reveal what is usually kept private and bring it into the public arena (Kawalilak and Dudley, 2002). This form of writing may be seen as hazardous in that it requires a significant use of self-disclosure and honesty, which may be distressing or difficult for the researcher (Johnstone, 1999). Self-narratives may also pose a threat to the audience where reading of the narrative results in uncomfortable feelings, identification or insights on the part of the reader (Bochner and Ellis, 1996).

In a similar vein of drawing attention to the moral ambivalences associated with revealing, Poulos (2008: 53; and see Goodall, 2006) told about secrets in his family with a view to exploring:

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Qualitative Research 10(5) the dark contours of a life of secrecy, about the perils and the promises of secret keeping and secret breaking and about the healing power of storying our secrets into the light. It is an article about the ethics of revelation and about the deep connection that can come when someone musters the courage to tell the story.

In asking what is concealed from research accounts, Medford (2006) sought to bring attention to the mindful slippages in autoethnographic accounts in other words what is deliberately not included because of the way this might act to hold a critical mirror to our lives (2006: 859). Likening the writing of autoethnographies to a process of outing, she advocated researchers confront ethical questions about what is and ought to be left missing.

Beyond revelation and protection

The remainder of this article takes up this call by Medford to attend to the absent in those research accounts that give central place to the experiences of researchers. It does so along a particular track though. Rather than orientating to the hidden as needing to be outed, or treating the missing as the outcome of preventive ethical measures, the goal is to ask how what is absent could purposefully function as a creative aspect of qualitative writing; and specifically autobiographical-type writing. The overall strategy advocated is to exemplify the negotiation of what is disclosed and what is hidden in the social world within our narratives.1 In line with the orientation in autoethnography of seeking to convey experiences


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Rappert: Revealing and concealing secrets in research


while questioning just what is being conveyed, the proposal here is to find ways of understanding the place of secrets in the social world through attending to what is left out of our accounts. In this way, what is sought is to use the interplays of silence and absence that reside in between what is articulated and what might also be true (Goodall, 2006: 62) in order to convey what we understand to be the case. As will be maintained, attending to the place of absences can provide a basis for inquiring into what our revelations constitute and how they are constituted. Moreover, by starting with the situated experience of a researcher who is taken to be an active participant in events, autoethnography provides highly fruitful openings for concealing and disclosing while simultaneously attending to the implications of doing so. These contentions are developed through recounting strategies adopted for writing about my engagement over five years in international diplomatic deliberations in the area of arms control; most especially my involvement in the development of international codes of conduct to prevent the life sciences from contributing to the development of new weaponry (see Rappert, 2009). Within that area, the predominant focus for this article will be with my participation in numerous open and closed policy meetings, seminars, and symposiums where this option and wider concerns about biothreats were formally and informally deliberated.

Doing secrets
I dont want to sound insulting, but on intelligence matters, there are those that know and those that speculate.

These two quotes suggest some of the ways in which the deliberately withheld figures in the study of security and diplomatic communities. The comment on the left speaks to the manner in which claims are made about the asymmetrical possession of knowledge. Offered at an international meeting of officials and policy analysts as a refutation to a presentation by an academic, the quote provides an example of the way it is proposed that the possession of certain types of said vital information demarks some from others. When one party claims possession of knowledge that can not be shared with others, then this declaration figures as a ready-made block to possible counter arguments. The extract on the right of a redacted sentence of a Freedom of Information response indicates the deliberate efforts undertaken to withhold government information from outsiders. Especially in the areas of security and international relations, open government has its limits and can be seen to have its limits (see Gusterson, 1996). These restrictions mean that those outside of a select few that wish to take the measure of how officials assess security threats

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will struggle to do so. More widely than these examples, international diplomacy is often portrayed as an endeavor of somewhat doubtful candor wherein many things are left unsaid or encrypted.2 Secrecy though is not just a feature of these communities but it must be practiced in reporting about them because of disclosure rules. One of the most famous is called the Chatham House Rule. The 2002 updated version of it reads as follows:
When a meeting, or part thereof, is held under the Chatham House Rule, participants are free to use the information received, but neither the identity nor the affiliation of the speaker(s), nor that of any other participant, may be revealed.3

The rule enables those attending meetings, seminars, and workshops to repeat information heard. Yet, just what amounts to revealing identity is not clear from the rule itself. Would it be a violation of the rule to say the quote above on the left was given by an American? Presumably not, but what else could be stated might well be disputed. Yet despite this indeterminacy and the pervasiveness of this and other vague disclosure rules, I have almost no experience of uncertainties being raised about the meaning or scope of the Chatham House Rule.4 As another major source of concern, it is my experience that in attending 10 events where this rule is stated, you are likely to hear 10 different renditions of it. With such conditions of negotiated disclosure, choices made about writing strategy take on some significance. With the goal of epitomizing the dynamics between those in the communities under study in the relation between author and reader, in the remainder of this section I want to ask how it is possible to productively topicalize the limits of what is included in social research accounts.

One mundane way that can be done is by actively highlighting what is left out of our stories through employing the blackening out of details often employed by government agencies. In this regard, Ellis (2007: 24) advised thinking about ethical considerations before writing, but not to censure anything in the first draft to get the story as nuanced and truthful as possible. Yet, rather than then censuring through subsequent deletions difficult to detect by readers, another possibility is to write as we would like and then blacken out what is judged as impermissible. At the level of a face reading, this would have the advantage of making visible (at least some of) the erasures that take place in our reconstructions. Yet, as suggested above, much latitude can exist in what to leave out of descriptions owing to vague disclosure rules. More generally though, it can be argued that disclosure rules and professional codes of conduct can not exhaustively speak to all eventualities. Testing the boundaries of how far the revelation of others identity can be taken could ride roughshod with confidences placed in us as professionals. With the starting concern of providing narratives

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of the self, autoethnography directs us towards the one person a researcherauthor can experiment with regarding what counts as identification: himself or herself. Writing accounts of events with varyingly suggestive identifications of the author in the situations under study through the use of redacted text and withholding of certain details provides one way of foregrounding the contingencies of disclosure rules. Consider these points and others in relation to the exchange below, recounted from international meeting regarding the nexus between advanced science and new weaponry:
How did you get rid of the threat of bioterrorism? I dont know? Stop talking about it. But that would put you out of a job, wouldnt it

The blackening out in this case hides the name of the individual made the butt of the joke. Appearing on its own without any suggestion of who is party to the exchange, this form of telling represents one way of responding to the uncertainty about what is allowed by disclosure agreements. It is a matter of speculation for the reader whether the author is the joke teller, the responder, a listener, or the object of ridicule. Yet, such a cautious orientation is arguably not necessary. Whether, for instance, the official version of the Chatham House Rule allows individuals to identify their own talk seems disputable. Under a strict reading of the official version, the answer would appear to be no because this would entail identifying a participant to a meeting. Without this identification, though, it would never be possible to repeat what one directly heard. In response to such uncertainty, an approach I have adopted is to offer varyingly suggestive identifications of myself. Adopting such a playful orientation can not only be used to flag the contingencies of what is included in research accounts, but also the implications of telling secrets. Both within social interactions as well as in the relation between researchers and their readers, the revealing of otherwise hidden information has implications for how the teller is understood. Like confessions, in general, revelations invite the reader into a moral relation with the teller, one centered on sharing what is off limits to others (see Rodriguez and Ryave, 1992). The indication of access to what is typically off limits provides a basis for setting apart the secret teller (see Gunn, 2005). At least some (albeit engineered) hesitation could minimize the most problematic hazards associated with the suggestion we as researchers are storying our secrets into the light (Poulos, 2008: 53). Especially when we position ourselves as co-participants in events rather than as mere observers of them, then a playful orientation to author identity in our write-ups can help acknowledge the varying interpretations given of us in our fieldwork interactions. Speaking about highly participatory forms of research, Greenwood (2002: 118) commented that,
there will be times when it can be difficult for the [researcher] and his/her collaborators to have the necessary awareness of the different roles and their

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Qualitative Research 10(5) implications at a given time in a project. This is due to the inherent complexity [of such roles,] where the researcher should, and shall, move between closeness and distance, participator and spectator, learner and teacher.

The messiness of our place as investigators means that we often do not have anything like a rounded grasp of how we are seen by others. With this basic difficulty come questions about how we present ourselves and others in our writing. If autoethnography is to go beyond the goal of communicating situated actions, but instead to also critique ourselves as situated actors (as recommended in Spry, 2001), then it is necessary to explore ways of acknowledging and working with our uncertain and negotiated status.

Disclosure limits have more than ethical dimensions, but also representational ones. For instance, as Walford (2002) argued that questionable generalizations that prove resistant to challenge can be advanced under the banner of protecting actors identities. Nespor (2000: 550) likewise spoke to this point in contending that:
Giving people or places pseudonyms and strategically deleting identifying information turns them into usable examples or illustrations of generalizing theoretical categories in which form they stand in for social classes, ethnic groups, genders, institutions, or other theoretical constructs.

In this way, the findings of research are constituted as movable, replicable, and citable. As such, they can then be added to the general knowledge in the social sciences. After recognizing the potential for what is left out to bolster what is taken as in them, an issue is where to go from there. For instance, in relation to concerns about the link between anonymization and the formation of questionable generalizations, Walford (2002) recommended choosing research sites because of their uniqueness rather than their supposed generalizability. A different way forward in line with the drive of this article is to topicalize the missing. For instance, when it is not clear what can be reported from a meeting because of the vague and indeterminate disclosure arrangements in place, one technique is to offer upshot glosses of the understood implications and import of the event. If we as researchers can not give detailed descriptions, it is possible to advance our evaluations of the significance of events. Another technique is to systematically detail what preceded and followed an event, but to noticeably delete it from our accounts. Both techniques draw attention to the missing elements of our stories. As a somewhat narrow purpose, telling stories in such ways parallels the interactional dynamics at play in secrecy laden communities. Herein, researchers often hear upshot glosses and must piece together what happened at certain events that could not be attended.

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As a wider purpose, techniques highlighting what is absent from our accounts can speak to the manner in which readers of text are generally making connections, drawing inferences, and speculating in relation to what is missing. Writing as a reduction of experience to words requires active participation by the reader. As Iser (2002: 293) argued, in reading a text the reader is drawn into the events and made to supply what is meant from what is not said. What is said only appears to take on significance as a reference to what is not said; it is the implications and not the statements that give shape and weight to the meaning. The overt blanking of material from social analysis can help promote active and aware attention to the reconstruction of events. In doing so, with the strategic use of the missing comes the possibility of encouraging consideration by readers about what constitutes appropriate action in social research and social life (see Barone, 1990). It is not just possible to bring to the fore the manner researchers and readers must work to piece together meaning from inevitably partial accounts, but to question how this gets done. For instance, in relation to the matters of security in this article, government Freedom of Information provisions at least offer the possibility of challenging the claims of actors as well as allowing researchers to report on events that would otherwise be off limits. Introducing materials gathered from requests after the initial portrayal of the events in question provides one way to reconsider how events are initially interpreted by readers. With the often glaring redactions from official accounts and their usually obscure text, the bounds on the information received as part of such requests can set the basis for a further consideration of what is being revealed and concealed through Freedom of Information disclosures.

As another dimension of handling absences, social researchers partaking in worlds infused with secrecy need to consider its implications for social interaction. As has been argued elsewhere, the deliberate concealment of information should not simply be understood as a barrier to interactions, but consequential within them (Rappert and Balmer, 2007). As Masco (2001: 451) argued in a study of US national defence labs, secrecy is:
wildly productive: it creates not only hierarchies of power and repression, but also unpredictable social effects, including new kinds of desire, fantasy, paranoia, and above all gossip.

And certainly during the events that the author has participated in, rumour and gossip have abounded as individuals try to take the measure of what has happened and speculate on what is to come in settings characterized by shifting front and back regions. In the informal banter, much conjecture has been evident about what entities such as George Bush, Iran, or the security community really think as well as the underlying motivations for statements and actions. Informal side discussions whether at the level of speculative rumour or seemingly more informed assessment serve what is routinely acknowledged

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as an important facet of the sorts of meetings I attended. Indeed, providing time for face-to-face dialogue is often a central justification for organizing many events. Yet, I cannot recall a single publication by an arms control or security studies analyst where statements have been attributed to such conversational settings. In my experience, rule indeterminacy about exactly what can be recounted is associated with conservatism in writing. I do have recollections though of statements from disclosure agreement bounded events being repeated as part of oral conversations at subsequent events. With the aim in autoethnography of conveying lived experience then, how might it be possible to give a sense of participating in secret talk while also respecting the (albeit vague) disclosure arrangements in place? One way is to present snippets of conversational exchanges taken from a meeting but without any supplementary information about the speakers (for examples of this see the On the Circuit chapters in Rappert [2009]). Yet this might not be deemed to go far enough. If those statements related to themes brought up by a particular speaker at a meeting, then others present to the meeting as a whole (but not the side conversation) might be able identify the speaker. A way to remove the prospects of such secondary identification would be to jumble together statements taken from different events. A short rendition of these mixed snippets is as follows:
We all know why we are in the situation we are in. I am just saying that what people say in closed sessions is not what they say in the open one. No state said anything about fear of science being shut down in the closed sessions. Did you notice it was not in the final report? How on Earth did you get the idea that we did the IL-4 experiment on monkeypox? Some who would be in a position to know told me. Who? Well I can not say. I remember it quite clearly, as he was reaching for a croissant. So the foxes are in charge of the coup now? Havent they always been. I am not like most scientists, I dont close my eyes to what happens in this country. Like my parents that didnt want to ask questions before the war. Nice people, but they avoided asking questions when their neighbors disappeared. I dont want to be like that, I want to ask questions.

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We joked about it as one code to rule them all. All of this talk about bioterrorism, its all about fear.

The result of such contortions and precautions is a stilted jumble that hides as it discloses; an assortment of text that is at once expectant with and bereft of meaning. Any number of associations might be made between a single statement and others or between statements and individuals. And yet, any such attributions would have a dubious validity. Motivations, patterns and origins might well be attributed in a manner that reinforces existing beliefs. Such a representational form though would have advantages of suggesting to a reader what it can be like operating in security and diplomatic settings. For instance, the extremes of truncation and abstraction speak to the hesitations that can be associated with attempts to understand situated talk. Fleeting conversations between diverse individuals discussing complex issues through employing varied professional vocabularies infused by acts of concealment often require inferential leaps. They are often liable to foster poorly justified conclusions too. It is possible to move beyond simply noting the manner in which the desire to keep hidden affects what can be reported. One way of doing this is to consider how researchers as actors orientate to and write about uncertainties and unknowns. Especially when researchers acknowledge themselves as active participants in the situations depicted, rather than notionally being mere observers of them, then we must make decisions about how to act and represent our action. Action though is always undertaken in conditions of bounded rationality (as in Simon, 1982), wherein we are limited in what we know and our capacity to deal with this information. Certainly working in an emerging security policy area through a disciplinary set of preoccupations, the limits on understanding are many. Knowing how to go on in such settings as a researcher can be rather challenging. For me, where the international deliberation about codes of conduct was headed and what it amounted to were the topics I was trying to figure out in the past and ones I am still wrestling with today. Attempting to gauge the commitments to and intentions behind others actions were matters of some difficulty, especially given the circumspectness of many interactions. As a result, it would be rather problematic to give a story that did not accord central place to the importance of the missing from researchers accounts. As part of this, what is needed is not only to note various blind spots associated with our understanding from one point in time. This would hazard providing a flat account that abstracts utterances and actions from the contexts that make them meaningful and the contexts that they make meaningful (Wieder, 1974). Instead, what is needed is an account that asks how the missing figures in the sequential unfolding of our understanding of events.

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In doing this, it is possible to disturb the sense of meaning making between patterns and instances over time. So, as explicated through ethnomethodology, meaning is often accorded to actions or statements by seeing them as expressions of a pattern; such as a pattern of motivations or identity. Yet, this pattern is itself formed from the instances (Garfinkel, 1994). In other words, a sense of pattern is both constituted by and constituting of the individual instances. Yet for me, this mutual constitution still remains unsettled and poorly formed in important respects. In no small part, this is due to the information restrictions in play within security and diplomatic communities. These restrictions make relevant distinctions between front and back region impression management, raise doubts about the candor of talk, and underscore the role of trust in social interactions. The limitations of identification of individuals in our writing might be quite productive. So, if an account contains various expressions, but not information about who said them, readers might be perceiving patterns, but not be sure if they were justified patterns or exactly what they were patterns of. Contradictory statements being made that appeared related in some indefinite way to a group or setting would likewise raise questions of interpretation. This (selective) problematizing of meaning making then can speak to the doubts that can be associated with social analysts and others attempts to understand what is going on in settings infused with secrecy. What is being suggested here then is to have readers to struggle to figure out the big picture because this was and is my experience. The gaps crafted are meant to speak to the gaps in my understanding of what is going on and my place in it. As such, the suggestions in this sub-section are at odds with the ones sought for traditional techniques in conventional social research. For instance, the triangulation of findings derived from different methods of data collection is sometimes used to derive as valid as possible findings; especially in dealing with uncertain or complex phenomenon that escape straightforward comprehension. What is sought here though is not to crack the status of the hidden, but to attend to how the circulation of secrets helps constitute understanding.

By considering the complexity of disclosure associated with undertaking research in settings where secrets are rife, this article has looked to writing strategies that entail concealment as a means for revelation albeit a certain exemplary kind of revelation. As argued, in seeking to convey researchers lived experiences as active participants in the world, in attending to the conventions and contingencies associated with narratives, and in looking to new forms of writing as new forms of knowing (Richardson, 1994), autoethnography provides a helpful starting basis for experimental orientations to disclosure. And yet, realizing that potential

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also requires moving beyond the ethics of exposure framing that has bounded much of the imagination in this subfield (and elsewhere in qualitative research) regarding the place of what is left out of social analysis. In acknowledging how the fashioned revelation and concealment is a feature of our accounts (rather than just being a dynamic of the settings under study), I have wished to avoid treating the telling of secrets in qualitative studies as straightforward or innocent. As well, instead of deeming secrets to be unfortunate absences or obligatory precautions, I have wished to ask how they could be appropriated in a practice of telling (as in Bratich, 2007). Such a suggestion invites attention to the criteria for evaluating research. Within autoethnography, this has been a topic of much debate. As elaborated in various overviews (Allen-Collinson, 2008; Smith and Sparkes, 2008; Spry, 2001), the standards of validity, reliability, and generalizability held up in much of conventional social research have been discarded by many autoethnographers. With the goals of expressing the lived and emotional experiences of researchers, more literary and emotionally inspired ones (such as coherence, resonance, verisimilitude, believability, and interest) are favored. And yet, the matter of whether and which criteria should be used remains a topic of lively discussion that animates contests about what constitutes autoethnography (as in Anderson, 2006). While not seeking to resolve these debates, the argument in this article aims to contribute to them. As with much of autoethnography (Allen-Collinson and Hockey, 2005), evocation of lived experience has been assumed here to be an important basis for judging accounts. However, the evoking sought has been along a particular track. The identity relations created through the reading of secrets can serve many beneficial goals (such as fostering empathy), but they fulfil rhetorical functions in securing expert authenticity and credibility that demand scrutiny as well.5 The revealing of secrets in autoethnography functions as a move for expert-witness authority for the author. As a result, it is not sufficient to suggest that a goal of this experimental ethnographic writing form should be to reveal institutional secrets (Richardson, 2000: 1617), since these tellings are not simple exposures. This argument speaks to wider questions about how autoethnography is conceived as a form of qualitative research. It is often distinguished from other types of ethnography in the centrality of researchers in accounts as well as the goal of evoking a sense of lived experience (e.g., as in Ellis and Bochner, 2006). In considering writing strategies intended to provide a sense of the hesitations, connections, and doubts experienced by me as an individual in making sense of a series of events in which I figured, this article sought a dialogue with autoethnography. In terms of how this sub-field is conceived though, an important question is whether narratives of the self are grounded on depictions of self in order to achieve some goal or orientates to self depictions as an (another) occasion for questioning how the interaction between the researcher and the social world is understood. It is the contention

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Qualitative Research 10(5)

of this article that autoethnography (in its analytical or more evocative forms) could best seek to define itself by a commitment to the latter rather than the former. Just as moving autoethnographic stories of personal suffering and loss have sought to examine the limits of their own representations and language, so too can this take place in relation to what is missing from accounts. Attending to place what is absent is one way to try to convey feelings, ambiguities, temporal sequences, blurred experiences, and [to] find a textual place for ourselves, our doubts and our uncertainties (Richardson, 2000: 11). Considering the parallels and interconnections between the place of secrecy and absences in our research narratives and those we observe in the communities we study is one way for researchers-as-authors to try to hold themselves accountable to the standards of knowing and telling of the people they have studied (2000: 15). More though, it can be part of trying to understand how accountability is accomplished as a practical activity by those people. In contrast, the lack of attention to how exposures are carried out and their implications for accounts could lead to the establishment of new forms of unacknowledged conventions. Yet the sorts of visible and engineered absences proposed above pose concerns about manipulation similar to those associated with the partial revelations of any other story. In purporting to attend to what is missing, while necessarily only being able to do so in a limited fashion, the types of writing techniques suggested in this article could be associated with significant dangers about their selectivity. Indeed, the writing about those writing strategies is itself questionable in relation to concerns about manipulation. In providing only certain (limited) details and elaborations, this article could be questioned in relation to how its raises parallel types of concerns about how the missing figured into the arguments. In other words, in its use of absences, this article exemplifies aspects of the writing strategies advocated for addressing absences. As a result, the scope for concern for how absences figure in social analysis is considerable. It has not been my intention to offer an escape from the many problems associated with conveying experience. Rather the intent has been to think about ways of writing that sensitize us as researchers to how secrets figure within social relations, that speak to our lived experiences in situations of managed disclosure, and that alert us as to how secrets help secure our claims to knowledge. It follows that nothing about the techniques mentioned in this article means that they lead to inherently superior analysis by some metric than other forms of writing. Much depends on what is done in practice; and particularly how what is printed directs us towards the conditions for our claims to knowledge. What counts as adequate for that task is not fixed, but rather under constant change because of the development of fields of study and the shifting readership for research (Sparkes, 2000).

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Rappert: Revealing and concealing secrets in research



Previous versions of this article were presented at the Qualitative Research Unit (University of Exeter), LSE, the 4th Annual Ethnography Symposium (Liverpool), and the BSA XVIIIth Auto/Biography Conference. My thanks to the participants as well as to four referees for their helpful comments.

1. 2. 3. 4. 5.

The strategy of exemplifying was initially inspired by Mulkay (1985). See, for instance, Ritter (2005) and Barnes (1994). http://www.chathamhouse.org.uk/index.php?id=2 At least where I did not initiate the grounds for doubt. On the dangers of empathy with those being read, see Shattuck (1996: 156).


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Rappert: Revealing and concealing secrets in research Walford, G. (2002) Why Dont Researchers Name their Research Sites?, in G. Walford (ed.) Debates and Developments in Ethnographic Methodology. London: Elsevier. Wieder, D.L. (1974) Language and Social Reality. Paris: Mouton. BRIAN RAPPERT is Associate Professor of Science, Technology and Public Affairs in the Department of Sociology and Philosophy at the University of Exeter. His long term interest has been the examination of how choices can and are made about the adoption and regulation of technologies; this particularly in conditions of uncertainty and disagreement. His previous books include Biotechnology, Security and the Search for Limits (Palgrave, 2007), Controlling the Weapons of War (Routledge, 2006), Technology and Security (edited, Palgrave, 2007). Address: Sociology & Philosophy, University of Exeter, Exeter EX4 4QJ, UK. [email: b.rappert@ex.ac.uk]


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