Ethical dilemmas are part and parcel of the research processes that researchers are engaged in. This article details a recent conversation between ISS students and staff in which they tried to make sense of some of the ethical issues that researchers face. While the ‘do no harm’ principle was emphasised as an overall yardstick, the discussion went beyond that, raising broader questions about epistemic and social justice.
With thanks to Andrea Tauta Hurtado, Zhiren Ye, Kristen Cheney, Roy Huijsmans and Andrew Fischer.
Scholars in Development Studies are quick to brag about how relevant their research is for the underdogs of society. The reality is that representatives of marginalised groups rarely knock at our office doors to ask for scholarly support. In fact, development research often does harm by justifying economic and social inequalities, reproducing stereotypes and stigma, and misrepresenting or even erasing knowledge about the lives of marginalised people.
How can scholars prevent such harm from being done through their research? This question was discussed by ISS students majoring in Social Policy for Development and staff members in a workshop on “ethical, integrity, and security challenges”. The discussion aimed to prepare ISS students for their fieldwork. While in our conversation the ‘do no harm’ principle was emphasised as an overall yardstick for our research, the discussion went beyond that, raising broader questions about epistemic and social justice.
Challenges to informed consent and ensuring anonymity
Roy Huijsmans’ example from his masters’ research on Dutch school-going children’s employment experiences illustrated that research participants’ informed consent is crucial, but also complicated by the power relations structuring the research arena. Teachers in his former school had facilitated meetings with their students. Several of these students, in turn, had expressed interest in and consented to participating in Roy’s study. When conducting telephone interviews with these children, however, in some cases parents became suspicious: who is that adult male calling their child? Roy’s experience raises the issue of whether it is adequate to understand informed consent individually. If not, what role do we give to the—in this case generational—power relations wherein consent is embedded? Can ethics protocols that require consent from parents or other gatekeepers alongside children’s own answer these questions?
In my own research, class-based power relations motivate special attention to research participants’ anonymity. Referring to a recent study on working conditions in South Asian tea plantations, I flagged that if workers’ and unionists’ statements could be identified, this could lead to their dismissal or worse outcomes. Our research team addressed this concern by not providing names—neither of people, nor of research locations. Andrew Fischer challenged me: would that really prevent identification? It is likely that few people are probably willing to stick their necks out as labour leaders, making those that do more easily recognisable.
One student followed up and asked how she could protect the identity of chemsex users— people having sex while using hard drugs—whose experiences she plans to investigate. Referring to the do no harm principle, Roy encouraged her to reflect on the consequences of research participants’ names leaking out: the Dutch government tolerates illegal drug consumption. Hence, in the current scenario, enforcement agencies are unlikely to arrest users. However, such political priorities can easily change over time. Andrew therefore recommended the anonymisation of transcripts, with their key to be stored outside the computer.
The quest for epistemic justice and diversity
In recent years, I have become increasingly concerned with the responsible representation of the lives, concerns and demands of the people who participate in my research, or, put differently, with epistemic justice. For instance, how will I represent the plantation workers who generously shared their experiences in our tea study? In a way that responds to the academic pressure to publish in highly-ranked journals with specific theoretical fancies? Or do research participants’ concerns guide my writing? This relates to questions that Marina Cadaval and Rosalba Icaza raise in their earlier post on this blog: ‘who generates and distributes knowledge, for which purposes, and how?’
Other participants in the discussion shared this concern for a fair representation. The student who engages with chemsex users’ experiences was acutely aware of the role of race in her research. In exploratory interviews, she learned how race shapes the exercise of power in chemsex users’ sexual relationships and how it either enables them to get support from or bars their access to the healthcare system. How to do justice to participants’ narratives without simultaneously repeating and reinforcing the underlying stereotypes?
For me, one way to deal with this quest for epistemic justice has been to engage in processes of activist scholarship, i.e. in collaboration and joint knowledge production with people who struggle for recognition and redistribution. Activist scholarship involves moves towards epistemic diversity, challenging the widely assumed supremacy of scientific knowledge heavily produced in Northern academic institutions. For instance, I have been involved in the campaign of a Florida-based farmworker organisation for making the Dutch retailer Ahold sign on to their programme for better working conditions in US agriculture. In dialogue with that organisation, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), I have written about lessons from that campaign for how precarious workers can effectively organise. Sruti Bala points out that this implies ‘to listen to articulations radically different from the frameworks that I may be trained in, but more than good listening is required in order for those articulations and insights to translate themselves into what we might call knowledge’. These processes of listening, dialoguing and learning didn’t lead to “consensus-based writing”, though. We had disagreements and I tried to make them visible in my writing.
Besides, there may be internal power hierarchies within the movements with which we collaborate. My colleague Silke Heumann earlier warned that through our decision of who participates in our research and who doesn’t, we run the risk of reinforcing existing power relations and of legitimising an elite’s perspective of a movement.
This approach may not be feasible for a masters’ thesis. What is possible in most cases, though, is to get research participants’ feedback on, critique and validation of how they understood our conversations or my wider observations about their lives. Time is a key resource in this effort to respect their knowledge as experts on their own lives. Taking time for research participants—rather than racing from one respondent to the next—enables us to conduct research in a more responsible manner. I want to integrate this principle more and more in my research due to the belief that this not only helps to prevent harm. Over and above that, it enables me to treat my research participants and their concerns with care. The more time I plan and spend for engagement with those who participate in my research, the greater the likelihood that it will embody epistemic justice.
This article forms part of a series on Epistemic Diversity. You can read the other articles here and here
About the author:
Holding a PhD in Agricultural Economics, Dr Karin Astrid Siegmann works as a Senior Lecturer in Labour and Gender Economics at the International Institute of Social Studies (ISS) of Erasmus University Rotterdam in The Hague, the Netherlands. She is the convenor of the ISS Major in Social Policy for Development (SPD).