Cleaning up the “dirty little secrets” of research ethics: Reflections from the International Studies Association 2016

This blog is a follow-up to the authors’ online symposium on the evolving ethics of qualitative research in fragile states

For policymakers, fragility and conflict are one of the 21st century’s key development challenges. Fragility is by definition heterogeneous and contextual—which is why qualitative research is such a good tool to help us understand exactly why “there” is so messed up, and what we could or should do to fix it. And so, perhaps logically, we—primarily young, western, tertiary-educated men and women—are doing more and more research. The more research we do, the more professional we become, as we build a core set of skills (i.e. methodologies) to explain the complexity of “there”—its war, crisis, and corruption—to the policymakers who want to fix (i.e. govern) it.

But what if the simple act of doing such research is also an act of governance? What if, when we go there to ask people to tell us their stories, they understand that our questions about security, or health, or livelihoods are just a step in a chain that ends with recommendations for—or against—blue helmets, food aid, or regime change? What if our power to ask questions of research subjects is predicated upon the inflexible idea that “there” is deviant and must be fixed?

These are not new issues. But their context has changed, and thus so have the ways we must think about them. As research has intensified, the practice of doing research has professionalized. At the same time, its ethical norms have not. When it comes to ethics, we continue to vest power in the individual researcher and her sense of what is right: she decides how much to focus on researcher positionality; how much of her research she should bring back to her research subjects; how and when to use her research to speak truth to power. If she is stymied, she can rail against the individual policymakers who haven’t listened to her work, or she can critique them with a theoretical lament about global structures of knowledge and power. These trade-offs allow the researcher to remain simultaneously noble and unaccountable. They are sometimes described as “dirty little secrets”, a phrase which reflects their individual and back-stage nature.

However, as “we” become more professional, there is precedent to revise the terms of these questions. The language of individual choice and structural critique could be replaced by something more systemic, committing us to our role within a class of people who actively participate in processes that govern fragile states. What might this alternative look like?

A few weeks ago, we discussed these very questions in a roundtable at the International Studies Association in Atlanta, with four experts in conducting qualitative research in fragile contexts: peace and conflict specialists Alain Lempereur and Mareike Schomerus, development policy expert Alex Berg, and human rights lawyer, Tyler Giannini. All shared a sense that the relationship between research and politics is hard, and requires a researcher to be self-reflexive about his or her role in the exercise of power in fragile states without succumbing to navel-gazing inaction.

Alain, Mareike, and Alex highlighted many of the challenges inherent in the relationship between the policymaker and the qualitative researcher. They discussed how they’ve decided when to play the role of researcher, and when to don the policymaker’s hat; how to balance the need to tell important stories with the concomitant costs to the stories’ characters (for example, the sunk costs of participating in research, or in some circumstances, political or social costs incurred from associating with a western researcher); and negotiating whether, as a researcher, we are using our subjects—or they are using us.

Tyler presented another view. He told us about how the field of human rights has evolved over the past two decades:

“Human rights names and shames as its core methodology. There is a lot of qualitative storytelling, which has moved onto social media… Increasingly, there’s a call for data and evidence… But our methods [as lawyers] are [sometimes] constrained by [the legal profession’s ethical code]. Above all, we have to first work for the client; and second, we have to have a good faith complaint [for cases]. This is very different from “research mode”. [In a recent project] we had no [plausible] venue to bring a complaint. [Yet] we compiled 1,000 pages of affidavits. These are formal documents—it’s above and beyond taking notes from interviews—the standard is higher. 1,000 pages seemed like a lot, we thought it would make an impression. We wouldn’t have done that 20 years ago.”

In Tyler’s explanation, the field of human rights is responding to a broader phenomenon of demand for higher quality data: data that is more than anecdotal, data that is unbiased and independently verifiable. At the same time, the choice to gather that data was made with a sophisticated understanding of how that information would fit into his responsibility to the potential client and to the law. The many pages of affidavits gave methodological weight to what would be a difficult case if a venue was found; it also bolstered potential future advocacy efforts around both the people who were harmed and the right that was violated.

The other fields we discussed—conflict resolution and development policy—aren’t constrained in the same way. The professional rules have yet to be written. Of course, these fields have clear goals of peace and prosperity—but everyone recognizes that these terms are malleable, and defined by questions such as “for whom?” and “when?” Many present at the roundtable pointed out benefits to this flexibility—for example, the opportunity to smuggle politics in with research at key moments, without committing to make policy recommendations. But who does this leave us accountable to? While human rights law may be prescriptive and value-laden, its professional norms—the lawyer’s ethical code and the institutions that give that code life—establish responsibility and accountability for those who practice it. However, for qualitative researchers in fragile states, our research “subjects” are in practice denied the opportunity to question our positions, or to rescind their responses if we either advocate something they don’t support, or opt to do nothing at all.

Currently, as long as research has “scientific value”, ethical responsibility stops with the researcher. Anything beyond that—for example, helping the families of research subjects—is the individual researcher’s call, as the audience to our roundtable pointed out. But if we acknowledge that research is a profession—a body of specialized knowledge that is institutionalized and connected to the exercise of power—then the ethics of research have to be based on the researcher’s connection to that exercise of power, rather than to just the field-site. The people we are researching are surely thinking of us in that way too, as they continue to ask us what good we can bring them if they participate in our research. Policy research in fragile states will not necessarily be well-served if we think about it in terms of the zealous representation of client interests. But maybe it’s time to approach research ethics as a professional, not personal, practice.

[Cross-posted on the World Bank’s People, Spaces, Deliberation]

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Contributors
About Deval Desai

is a Research Associate with an interest in justice and the rule of law; security and peacebuilding; the law and policy of extractive industries; the governance agenda in IFIs; and research and knowledge production. His research has focused on fragile states, in particular across West Africa.


About Rebecca Tapscott

is a PhD Candidate at the Fletcher School at Tufts University. Her work concerns community security initiatives in post-conflict environments, including northern Uganda. Her work has been recognized and supported by the Justice and Security Research Programme (2014-present), the Institute for Human Security (2014), the Fletcher School's Dean's Research Fund (2012 and 2014), and the Feinstein International Center (2010). She has been the recipient of prizes including the Morris Abrams Award (2015), Harvard's Program on Negotiation (2014), and the Alfred P. Rubin Prize in International Law (2011).


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