Researchers often carry out fieldwork after obtaining permission from an ethical review board; however, a growing number of scholars critique this as being a top-down approach that does not always take into consideration the local community’s traditions, relationships and permission processes for conducting research. This top-down approach is perceived by some scholars as being one that further marginalizes participants, especially those in the already challenging position of having limited power over the creation of academic knowledge based on their (the participants) reality. Examples include participants in the ‘global south’, whose voices have been acknowledged as being an often missing element in discourse and gathered knowledge. This blog briefly explores ethical dilemmas and explores how the power disparity between researchers and participants can be mitigated when conducting fieldwork in such communities. A brief example will be shared to illustrate how participants’ voices can be included through the exercise of inclusive ethical practice in research. To this end, there are factors and processes that we need to consider in the local context or country of our research beyond those procedures (e.g. Institutional Review Boards – IRB) for obtaining permission to carry out research in another country. For example, many countries require that students or researchers in general obtain a research visa, as well as follow local Review board procedures, and obtain permission before embarking on the research. Such formal processes are often well documented; researchers should familiarize themselves with these steps before embarking on any study in a foreign country.
Nonetheless, during fieldwork, certain points of ethical tension are likely to be encountered over and above those stipulated during the IRB process. While researchers agree to adhere to guidelines of documented conduct per IRB permission, these formal review board processes, have an underlying presumption whereby the IRB or Ethics Committees perceive the researcher as the “moral agent”, one expected to exercise “good” choices during their research (Banks et al., 2013). This assumption and consideration of what is right and ethical can often be a point of potential ethical tension. In cases involving interaction with human participants, resulting enacted actions by the researcher are determined by unforeseen factors such as participant cultural practice and overall local context. Once you are in the field, the resulting actions taken by the researchers are often shaped by factors that would not have been pre-emptively accounted for during the ethics review board procedure (Guillemin and Gillam, 2004; Wilson et al., 2018).
While academic studies are often guided by an ethical approach approved by the relevant review board, in many cases, the study itself is often not solicited by the community. This means that from the onset, the presence of researchers in a community that did not commission or call for the specific study presents a potential ethical dilemma. This dilemma raises questions such as whose knowledge will be produced and whose purpose will this research and knowledge serve.
To address this particular dilemma or tension, I believe the methodological approach, if geared to incorporate the locals as legitimate knowledge owners and co-creators (Ndlovu-Gatsheni, 2018), could address the power disparity of researchers as “conjurers”, directors and producers of knowledge and discourse that potentially marginalizes participants (Mohanty, 1984).
For example, within my recent research where I was an indigenous Malawian working among fellow Malawians, a looming issue resulting from ethical challenges of ‘uncommissioned’ research resulted in the feeling of mistrust towards researchers and journalists within the area. To build trust and counter the power imbalance of researcher versus participants’ power, my conduct during fieldwork was guided by the local cultural protocol and as advised by the participants. In this way, the research journey and the outcome knowledge were shaped by the participants through the inclusion of the voices of the often marginalized participants (Kamlongera & Katenga-Kaunda, 2023).
Furthermore, it is the larger context of researcher’s ethical conduct once in the field that I wish to additionally discuss: to prompt researchers to think about their everyday actions during fieldwork; their actions as researchers interacting with research assistants, gatekeepers as well as eventual participants in the local research context. These everyday moments are of importance to the overall research and outcome knowledge as it is in the everyday ethical moments – or instances, where our actions as researchers can result in a “wrong”-doing or a misstep leading to the creation or maintenance of power disparity akin to the coloniality of power where the participant(s) as knowledge owner(s) are marginalized as a result (Rossman and Rallis, 2010).
In summary, “…the demands of our work, and the institutional and organizational conventions through which we channel it, frequently leave us neither time nor direction in terms of how to think through the meaning of ‘doing research’ in our context” (Bennett, 2009:4). Researchers are therefore encouraged to be reflective and deliberate in their ethical approach, and as a means for maintaining clarity and ensuring accountability for their in-field conduct.
While institutional guidelines are intended to guide researchers in tackling many ethical issues, they have been noted as either being inadequate and at times reinscribing the extractive and colonial approach researchers wish to avoid (Grenz, 2023). Therefore, in the exercise of navigating ethical choices with the participants’ best interest at heart, exercising reflexivity and adopting an “ethics of care” approach aided my research process by facilitating opportunities to address or mitigate moments of tension as they arose (Rossman and Rallis, 2010; Vermeylen and Clark, 2017; Guillemin and Gillam, 2004).
Banks, S. et al. (2013) Everyday ethics in community-based participatory research. Contemporary Social Science 8(3): 263-277.
Bennett, J., ed. (2009) Researching for Life: Paradigms and Power, Feminist Africa 11. Cape Town: African Gender Institute.
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Grenz, J. (2023). University ethics boards are not ready for Indigenous scholars. In World view. Nature, 616, 221. URL: https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-023-00974-6. Accessed: April 12, 2023.
Guillemin, M. and Gillam, L. (2004) Ethics, Reflexivity, and “Ethically Important Moments” in Research. Qualitative Inquiry 10(2): 261-280.
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Kamlongera, M. I. and Katenga-Kaunda, M. W. (2023). Researchers’ reflections on ethics of care as decolonial research practice: understanding Indigenous knowledge communication systems to navigate moments of ethical tension in rural Malawi. Research Ethics, 17470161231169484.
Mohanty, C. T. (1984). Under Western eyes: Feminist scholarship and colonial discourses. Boundary 2, 333-358.
Ndlovu-Gatsheni, S. J. (2018). Epistemic freedom in Africa: Deprovincialization and decolonization. Routledge.
Rossman GB and Rallis SF (2010) Everyday ethics: Reflections on practice. International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education 23(4): 379-391.
Vermeylen, S. and Clark, G. (2017) An alternative ethics for research: Levinas and the unheard voices and unseen faces. International Journal of Social Research Methodology 20(5): 499-512.
Wilson, E., Kenny, A., and Dickson-Swift, V. (2018). Ethical challenges of community based participatory research: exploring researchers’ experience. International Journal of Social Research Methodology, 21(1), 7-24.