Why the need for ethical navigation? For researchers using qualitative methods in the social sciences issues of ethics, governance and regulation have become extremely complex. The approaches taken by social anthropologists create particular challenges which can make the planning and carrying out of research confusing and daunting. The aim of this tool is to help those using methods that are collaborative and participatory to navigate their way through the landscape of research engagement as it has developed in the UK.
Why the need for ethical navigation?
In 2013 Ron Iphofen produced a report for the European Commission entitled Research Ethics in Ethnography/Anthropology. This helpful and comprehensive document was produced with research ethics committees as its primary audience (Iphofen 2013, 5). Its aim was to explain simply and clearly to reviewers who might be unfamiliar with ethnography just how this distinctive mode of engagement and enquiry unfolds in practice. Put plainly, those committee members unfamiliar with the naturalistic, situated, engaged and reflexive engagement at the heart of ethnographic fieldwork methods, often find it difficult to assess applications from social anthropologists espousing an ethnographic approach. Iphofen’s concern was that, when before an ethics committee in the form of a research proposal, reviewers might struggle to frame this way of doing research within their existing points of reference. The result might then be that, in their efforts to mitigate harm to subjects, reviewers run the counter risk of doing significant damage to the research itself. Our aim in this document is to approach this problem from the other end, that is, to assist ethnographic researchers in the light of their own research objectives to make sense of ethics review and the broader contexts in which it is currently situated. Indeed, contra Iphofen, our alternative title might have been Ethnography/Anthropology in Research Ethics. Like Iphofen, however, our aim is ultimately to facilitate better research, which also means research that is of higher standard when it comes to ethical practice. As will be evident from this document, to achieve such standards takes us outside of the scope of ethics as determined by ethics review by committee and into a more holistic consideration of the ethics of anthropological research practice. Our starting point, however, is the widespread expectation that all social science research will be subject to prior ethics review by committee.
The need for a tool to help social anthropologists navigate this moment in their research planning may be thought by some to be unnecessary: isn’t it just a case of describing ones research in a pro-forma and having experts assess whether or not it might cause harm? Isn’t there more than enough guidance available online when it comes to filling out such forms? Unfortunately, this is not the case. Just as members of research ethics committees (RECs) might need help to decipher the concepts and modus operandi which underpin the production of ethnographic texts, those encountering the growing expectations of ethical oversight might need similar assistance. We contend that this is particularly the case when researchers are using methods which, far from putting analytical distance between them and their subjects, are intent on engaging in a personal and participatory way with people and the worlds in which they live. As anyone who has ever attempted a study based on participant-observation knows, the ethical complexities of this encounter are profound and go way beyond the parameters of any formal and anticipatory ethics review.
In this document we help clarify the intellectual, practical and above all, ethical issues that arise for ethnographers when it comes to reflecting on their projects. Crucially, we would argue, such reflection is necessary not just at the inception of a piece of research but right through to its completion and dissemination. The ‘why’, ‘when’, and ‘how’ of these acts of reflection will vary from project to project as well as according to the context in which the engagement is being conducted. The document is, therefore, not prescriptive in intent but rather has the character of a guide to what has, in recent times, become a very complex landscape. Our aim is not to dictate pathways through this landscape but rather to assist those embarking on naturalistic, participatory and engaged modes of research to arrive at their own. Indeed, social science researchers must nowadays reflect on the ethics of their research within a broad and discursive framework. At one end of the spectrum they may find guidance, that is, merely encouraging certain courses of action. At the other end, they may encounter rather more solid forms of regulation and governance which proscribe some ways of doing things whilst demanding others. Likewise, some interventions in the name of ethics are purely advisory whereas others come with legal sanctions attached (as in the increasing entanglement of data protection legislation with research ethics). As it features in the quest for good social science research, ethics is not a singular, objective entity but multiple, negotiated and emergent when it comes to the relations that the research process sets in train. Put another way, ethical considerations are not simply external to the research process and to be applied like a coat of varnish, but part of the very fabric of research, right from its outset and at all stages thereafter. The implications of this observation are profound. In the machinery with which researchers must engage, that is, the forms, guidelines, committees, reviews and so forth, a particular imagination has been at work. This imagination has constructed a notion of what it is that might render aspects of a proposed project, ethical or unethical, in that it causes harm to subjects or overlooks any factors that might compromise their voluntary and autonomous participation. When entering into the process of formalised ethics review, the researcher might well encounter conceptions of harm, vulnerability, exploitation and abuse which may, or may not, accord with his or her own estimations of where and how these figure in the study proposed. To proceed with an ethics review application, these concerns have to be mapped back and forth between the requirements of external oversight and the particularities of a proposal in terms of people, time, place and circumstance. This process can be daunting, and sometimes leads to confusion over where the locus of ethical research actually lies, especially when communication is via online application forms which shape the parameters of research activity in particular ways. In short, the social anthropologist wishing to carry out participant observation research with the aim of producing an ethnographic account of some kind is nowadays faced with an ethical landscape made up of institutions, processes and procedures which are not only complex but might also prove challenging, and, perhaps, even threatening to their research aspirations. Our contribution here is to provide some reference points and mapping for those traversing this landscape.
Ethics, governance and regulation as a watery landscape?
Throughout this exercise we have used an extended metaphor of a landscape to characterise the frameworks through which the researcher’s project must travel as it moves from planning to implementation. Further to this idea we would add the notion of navigation which has entered social science writing as a way of characterising the way that people find their way through situations that are uncertain and to some degree unfamiliar and opaque. In his work on social navigation, Vigh (2009) gives this metaphor a watery twist. Landscape, he points out, implies a degree of fixity against which a journey unfolds whereas navigation is peculiar to journeying across water. His point is that to understand movement in complex settings it is not enough to operate with a set of static coordinates but a rather more fluid imagery is needed to capture how people (and here, we are talking about the researcher as subject) engage with environments that themselves might be changing and shifting. We are not suggesting for a moment that the situation of the social anthropologist researcher comes close to the chronically unstable circumstances of the young people of Guinea-Bissau that Vigh describes. However, the notion of navigation is useful in characterising the situation facing the contemporary circumstances of researchers in that it captures the way that they move through an environment of sorts. They must evaluate and make decisions about how to proceed and they must navigate the constraints and possibilities that this environment presents. Moreover, all this takes places under circumstances in which the environment itself is subject to changes of emphasis and priority. Such changes may be minor, as when there are forms to be filled or the procedure to be followed undergo modification. They may be major as when the institutional loci of ethical authority shift or when the scope of ethics review is revised (e.g. in relation to method, data protection and risk assessment). For example, major change was expected in the way that ethics review is approached following attempts in the USA to overhaul the Federal Policy for the Protection of Human Subjects known as the ‘Common Rule’. Social scientists in the US have complained for many years about the regulatory load created by the requirement for Institutional Review Board approval (dependent on how ‘low-risk’ and ‘vulnerable’ are interpreted) and its impact on research. The Common Rule was first enacted in 1999 and revised in 2005. In 2011, however, a review was announced, which was followed by the publication of revised regulations. Draft regulation was issued for consultation by the National Research Council (NRC), whose concern was a major reduction in the role of IRBs with a shift to an emphasis on privacy and data protection.1 For instance, it proposed an exclusion of social science research of minimal risk from ethics review and stipulated that in most cases specific consent was no longer required, as it could be inferred in surveys from filling out forms and in interviews from continuing the conversation (Dingwall, 2017). However, in the final text (Office for Human Research Protections, 2017) effective on 19 January 2018, although inferred consent had been kept, it is not applied consistently due to confusion about the position of vulnerable groups. Further, the social science research exclusion from ethics regulation has been replaced by rules for ‘exemption’, in practice, continuing the requirement of IRB deliberation on the need for expedited or full ethics review. The powerful interests which maintain international consistency in matters such as privacy and data protection may well influence the development of ethics regulation in the UK, Europe and beyond. But as we shall see in our discussion on the implementation of the EU General Data Protection Regulation, regulatory differences in ethics review procedures are expected to continue to cause confusion about notions of what constitutes ‘data’, ‘informed consent’, ‘vulnerable groups’ and ‘data ownership’ across geographic and state borders.
In putting together this ethical navigation tool - ‘EthNav’ for short - we provide researchers with a means to find their bearings as they traverse the fluid landscape of contemporary research ethics, governance and regulation. In our attempt to lay out the terrain of the ‘ethical’ we are not seeking to diminish the researcher’s need to engage with it. On the contrary, the ‘ethical’ lies at the very core of the relational engagement that anthropologists strive towards and, arguably, has become more so as participant-observation is nowadays undertaken in situations and settings which bring issues of method, positionality, collaboration, legality and confidentiality to the fore. Anthropologists can no longer assume they can enter and leave ‘fields’ in quite the way they once did; nor can they assume that power gradients work in their favour. It is now almost fifty years since Laura Nader advocated studying up’ (Nader 1972), that is, studying people who wield power, and, for many anthropologists, fieldwork ‘is not what it used to be’ (Faubion and Marcus 2009). The ethics of ascending power gradients and working with the shapers of people’s life-worlds, such as professionals, entrepreneurs, decision-makers, managers, government officials and experts, moves an ethnographer a long way from any simple notion of participant-observation and into increasingly complex negotiations of relationships and their representation. The ethics of descending power gradients are equally fraught. Anthropological studies of displaced, oppressed, traumatised and brutalised communities require careful reflection on just what an engaged anthropologist’s ethical commitments and responsibilities might be.
It is our hope that by using this guide ethnographers will not only become more knowledgeable about ethics but will, more importantly, become more skilled when reflecting on their research ethics in practice. A necessary starting point for the cultivation of such skills is the ability to reflect on the engagement with people as the essence of research practice and, moreover, to do so before, during and after a project has been completed. This approach strikes us as the best way for researchers to develop a holistic and integrated conception of research ethics and, moreover, one most likely to mitigate harms that they might do to the people with whom they engage and also the ones that researchers might bring upon themselves.
American Anthropological Association, (2016). AAA Comments on Notice of Proposed Rule Making for IRBs, [Online] AAA Ethics Blog, Accessed 07/07/18, retrieved from: http://ethics.americananthro.org/aaa-comments-on-notice-of-proposed-rule-making-for-irbs/
Dingwall, Robert (2017). “Common Rule Reform: A Botched Job”, Social Science Space, [Online] Accessed 07/07/18, retrieved from: https://www.socialsciencespace.com/2017/01/common-rule-reform-botched-job/
Faubion, J. D., & Marcus, G. E. (Eds.). (2009). Fieldwork is not what it used to be: Learning anthropology's method in a time of transition. Ithaca, New York, and London: Cornell University Press.
Iphofen, Ron (2013). Research Ethics in Ethnography/Anthropology, European Commision, Accessed 07/07/18, retrieved from: http://ec.europa.eu/research/participants/data/ref/h2020/other/hi/ethics-guide-ethnog-anthrop_en.pdf
Nader, Laura (1972) “Up the Anthropologist - Perspectives Gained from Studying Up.” In Re-inventing Anthropology. Dell Hymes, ed. Pp.284-311. New York: Pantheon Books.
Office for Human Research Protections (2017), Federal Policy for the Protection of Human Subjects, [Online] Accessed 07/07/18, retrieved from: https://www.hhs.gov/ohrp/regulations-and-policy/regulations/finalized-revisions-common-rule/index.html
Vigh, Henrik (2009). “Motion Squared: A Second Look at the Concept of Social Navigation.”, Anthropological Theory, 9(4), pp.419-438
1 For example see the discussion on the American Anthropological Association website ethics blog [accessed 2nd December 2016)