Ethics in research

Ethical principles of protection from harm, informed consent, confidentiality and anonymity are generally assumed to be universally applicable, regardless of context. However, this approach to research ethics reflects a neo-colonial bias and is an aspect of methodological globalisation whereby Western forms of knowledge and approaches to research are privileged and exported to the global South. In this session, Emma will problematise these assumptions and explore alternatives.

Activity: Film Focus 3, ‘Ethics in research’ – Emma Bell

Watch the film and make your own notes in response to the following questions:

  • Are you aware of any ‘ethical oversight regimes’ where you study, work or do research? Can you describe them?
  • What alternatives to informed consent could you think of to more effectively empower yourself and others?
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Transcript: Ethics in research

So what is an ethical oversight regime and what does it do? Essentially it’s a bureaucratic process: a set of rules and an organising body whose role it is to ensure the ethical conduct of research. So what do these systems and processes actually accomplish?

They set out the general principles of ethical conduct that have to be complied with or aspired to. They provide guidance to researchers on what to do in difficult ethical situations where there may be ambiguity. They potentially dictate what can happen in the case of non-compliance. A researcher will be told, for example, by their university that they can do research only on the condition that they do it in the way that they have described in their proposal, which has received approval. Failure to do so may result in a penalty. For example, funding being withdrawn or disciplinary action being taken against the researcher.

It is argued that this helps to ensure professionalism, to ensure that researchers are held to account by society. However, it’s also argued that it is a sign of the lack of trust in professionals, a sign of the declining confidence in professionals to regulate their conduct themselves.

As we know from business organisations, ethics, codes and rules of conduct can also serve a decorative function, sitting on the shelf and serving to cover up for unethical practises.

Finally, ethical oversight regimes can encourage a compliance orientation. For example, when I was teaching at another university, I was giving a session to research students on research ethics. And before the session, I met one of the students on the corridor, and he said to me, ‘I’m sorry, I’ve got another commitment, I can’t come to today’s class.’ And he said, ‘Well, what is it about?’ And I said, ‘It’s on research ethics.’ And he said, ‘Oh that’s OK, because I’ve already got my ethical approval.’

So this is an example of a kind of hoop-jumping mentality where ethics becomes a problem to be solved. Through the introduction of bureaucratic compliance regimes, researchers end up being oriented towards getting approval rather than seeing ethics as an integral and ongoing process throughout the research.

A further concern has been referred to as ethics creep. Haggerty defines this as the process whereby the bureaucratic structures of ethical regulation encourage new definitions of what constitutes an ethical issue. So that the idea of what has to be considered as ethics is constantly expanding, and this is a cause for potential concern.

In my work with Nivedita Kothiyal, we discuss the issue of core-periphery relations and research ethics. Ethical principles such as informed consent are generally assumed to be universal, independent of context. This is an aspect of the globalisation of research methods as the export of methods and methodological practises from the global north to the global south.

However, this does not take into account core-periphery power relations or the post-colonial conditions that create inequalities between the global north and the global south. Ethical oversight regimes originated in the United States in the 1970s, and only later were they exported to other countries including Canada, Australia and the UK. Subsequently and in our research, we track the way in which those principles are now becoming globalised.

I now want to focus on the principle of informed consent and use this to show how problems arise from the globalisation of these ethical oversight regimes. Informed consent is used to ensure that prospective participants are fully appraised of the research, its purposes, and their rights within it. This enables them not only to agree or decline to participate, but also to withdraw from the research at any time.

However, there are a number of problems with informed consent that have been identified by qualitative researchers. This approach to ethics promotes a distanced, objectivist stance which may be suitable for some research projects, but not all. It assumes that the objectives of the research are known in advance, and that the types of methods that are going to be used and the participants who are going to be involved in the study are predetermined.

This is not consistent with many forms of qualitative inquiry, including ethnographic research and action research, where it is only through the process of doing the research that the research question becomes clear. Research is an iterative process. It involves adjustments along the way. So it’s impossible sometimes to set out in advance exactly what the study will involve in order to then get approval for it to take place.

In relation to informed consent, it is argued that consent is situated and contextual. It involves repeated checking with participants at every stage. This means that consent cannot simply be obtained in a single moment by getting participants to sign a form. A further consideration concerns the power relations involved in the research relationships. The concept of informed consent tends to presume that research participants are vulnerable and require protection. This is not always the case.

For example, in management research, research participants may be very powerful people, leaders of organisations who have more power than the researcher. In the case of participatory research, consent is seen as open-ended and ongoing.

So to summarise, this approach to research ethics is especially problematic in qualitative research that seeks to empower research participants and involve them closely in the research process. In my research with Nivedita Kothiyal involving Indian management scholars, they identified a number of further problems in relation to the implementation of informed consent.

In some cultures, research participants may view participation as a personal favour to the researcher. The direct request for consent may be regarded as rude behaviour that fails to honour the trust that has been established. A further issue relates to the bureaucratic nature of these processes. Signing consent forms is associated in some cultures with the colonial legacy, with an imposition of power.

For example, one Indian scholar, in studying marginalised semi-literate communities, referred to the possibility that presenting them with a piece of paper to sign could be interpreted as an attempt to seize their land or gain their consent to take something away from them.

So in short, ethical guidelines failed to account for the power relations that were involved in studying marginalised, oppressed, and exploited communities that could make the seeking of informed consent using bureaucratic processes and procedures highly problematic.

End transcript: Ethics in research
Ethics in research
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