“This wasn’t an issue that had been covered in my CUREC application. I wondered whether I was being an ethical researcher”
We have all had moments like that during our research – where unexpected situations make us question the limits of responsible and ethical research. Often, the events that make us question our ethics are relatively innocuous daily occurrences. Examples of these “ethical instances” could include:
- Being invited to the home of a fieldwork participant for a social event
- Receiving gifts from fieldwork participants or host institutions
- Being asked to raise awareness about a political situation in your fieldwork country
While researchers make commitments to protecting their research participants and the data they gather in the CUREC forms, how these daily issues fit into these broad commitments is far from clear. Researchers must often trust their own judgement in navigating these “ethical instances”. This can place unnecessary stress on the researcher, as they wonder whether they have selected the right course of action.
What is needed is an uncritical space in which to discuss “ethical instances” and seek advice from our peers. This space is Pint of Ethics, a monthly meet-up hosted by the Social Sciences division.
What is A Pint of Ethics, and how can I get involved?
A Pint of Ethics is a voluntary meet-up at the University Club every second Wednesday of the month. Come along to discuss “ethical instances”, raise queries and get advice. Topics can be submitted anonymously HERE, or raised in discussion. The events will be chaired by an early career researcher, but discussion is intended to crowdsource experiences and expertise to learn from. All discussions will be conducted under Chatham House rules to protect the privacy of discussants and fieldwork participants.
4 March - Session 3 - Who is vulnerable in fieldwork?
Reflecting on vulnerability of researchers, the balance between individuals being vulnerable and also knowledge co-producers or indigenous experts
For the last several years, I have been conducting research on refugees in East and West Africa and more recently in the UK and leading large-scale fieldwork involving a considerable number of refugees and members of their hosting communities as research assistants. While refugees are typically perceived as one of ‘vulnerable groups’ and there has been much discussion on ethics and protocols when conducting studies with them, during fieldwork, researchers themselves can be often exposed to certain forms of vulnerability and other types of risks. In addition, through my fieldwork experiences, I have realised that researchers can inadvertently or indirectly place research assistants and some participants into vulnerable positions.
For instance, in cities with a high crime rate such as Nairobi, expatriate researchers can become an easy target of crime and police abuse. In negotiating access to research populations in the field, researchers are often required to deal with frequent demands for bribe by local authorities or gatekeepers. In a refugee camp where conflictual ethnic groups live side by side, working with only one ethnic group of refugees can place this group into difficult relationships with other groups and even exacerbate tension between them. All of these issues have emerged during my field-research in Kenya, Uganda, Ghana, Ethiopia and the UK. However, these challenges are often left to discretion of individual researchers and there is not much systematic discussion about how to approach these problems in academia. In this session, I am therefore hoping to share my own experiences and discuss how I have been trying to mitigate these challenges on the ground. There are no ‘right’ answers to these issues so all opinions are welcome.
Refugee Studies Centre
University Of Oxford
19 February - Session 2 - Photography: a power tool for researchers on fieldwork
Photographs can serve as official documentation, aide memoires, personal record keeping, or as part of the interview process. They can also be ways that we explain to our friends, family and the public where we have been and what we have been doing.
My own research involves visiting molecular biology laboratories in low/middle-income countries. During these visits I assess the equipment provision in these laboratories, and identify the challenges that the often ageing/absent equipment present to daily research practices. I take numerous photos of equipment for my own reference, as well as of the laboratory spaces themselves. When I am presenting my work to my colleagues, or talking about it with friends and family I am often hesitant to show these photos. While I know that the research conducted in many of the laboratories that I visit is high-quality, my photos of ageing equipment, empty laboratories and obsolete technologies can easily be misinterpreted. These concerns have also been voiced by fieldwork participants in the past, who have (semi-jokingly) said: well, if people see where we work they’ll never want to give us money again. Finding a way in which I feel comfortable displaying my fieldwork photos that does not downplay the quality of research occurring at my fieldsites, or elicit pity for my fieldwork participants has been difficult.
Navigating the line between displaying important research findings and causing unintentional hurt/distress/harm through this dissemination is difficult. In this Pint of Ethics we will discuss how we can best make use of the medium of photography when it is in these pictures that our fieldwork narratives and our participants’ lived experiences intersect?
5 February - Session 1 - Balancing research and activism
In anticipation of this week’s Pint of Ethics meet-up we are proposing an initial topic of conversation based on the experiences of Louise in Sudan. Louise says the following:
In 2018 I had the pleasure of doing some fieldwork in Sudan. I met some amazing people and collaborated with them to develop future plans for research projects. Unfortunately, soon after my fieldwork came to an end, Sudan descended into political turmoil, as civilians staged large, longstanding protests against the president and his government. In efforts to suppress the protests, the government made use of considerable force, detentions and intimidation. They also actively blocked the dissemination of information by disrupting internet access and access to social media channels. The Sudanese academic community was very vocal in their support for the protests, which led to university closures.
My extremely positive experience of doing research in Sudan, together with my personal politics, made me very desirous to show solidarity with my colleagues there. During that time, some of my Sudanese colleagues asked me to post content onto social media platforms to illustrate governmental violence and intimidation strategies. I struggled to decide whether over political activism would in some way influence how the findings of my past and future research in Sudan would be perceived by the academic community. Finding the balance between research and activism was not easy.
We’re hoping that this fieldwork snapshot will stimulate a broader discussion into balancing personal and research expectations – particularly in cases where you have established strong friendships with collaborators and participants. These are extremely complex issues, and all opinions are welcomed!
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