Research reflexivity in the current governance framework: Problematising trends and reconsidering the meaning of research ethics in ‘cultural translation’

By Romina Istratii|June 3, 2019|Research Practice|0 comments

Recently the University of Sheffield organised a two-day workshop to explore best practice for research ethics when conducting research in the global South, the new ‘umbrella term’ referring to countries that fall outside of Euro-America and where much international development research takes place. The organisers were also interested in raising more awareness about the UKRI’s Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF) and its consequences, a funding scheme directly tied to UK Official Development Assistance (ODA) that has contributed in recent years to the large-scale internationalisation of research with impact on local societies. According to the organisers,

Core research ethics training is primarily focused upon expected conditions and challenges of conducting research in the minority global North. As a result, much training fails to consider the added ethical challenges and complexities encountered when designing and conducting research in the global South. The need to address this challenge is particularly timely given the growing emphasis on the internationalisation and decolonisation of the discipline, increasing popular and political attention to the ethical conduct of development researchers and charities, as well as the growing role of the Global Challenges Research Fund in framing HE [higher education] research.

As somebody who recently completed a PhD advocating for an epistemologically and ethically reflexive approach in international gender-related development work, I was very curious to attend this workshop and be part of this conversation. Moreover, as a result of my more recent work as a Research Funding Officer and an active member of the Decolonising SOAS Working Group – set up to reassess and to improve teaching, learning and research practices at SOAS in recognition of on-going hierarchies and biases in UK higher education – I have become acutely aware of a profound and problematic relationship between the historical hegemony of Anglo-American epistemology in scientific knowledge production and the more structural and institutionalised mechanisms of research development, funding and dissemination in the global North, increasingly internationalised through schemes such as GCRF and other internationally-looking funding available through the UK research councils.

Overall, the workshop raised most of the issues that many of us have thought and talked about in our different universities and contexts but perhaps have yet to address more systematically. The format of the workshop, combining reflective and conceptual plenary papers on research ethics in global research with discussion sessions and participatory activities and scenario-based activities, was itself conducive to inspiring conversations and the exchange of personal experiences working with UK-based funding bodies, ethics committees and data regulations in foreign research contexts. For this essay, I have attempted to highlight some important themes and overarching messages that emerged in the workshop, enriched with some of my own thoughts and experiences, in an effort to expand the conversation and invite more reflection on global research ethics vis-à-vis the increasingly consolidated governance framework in UK universities.

A presentation that I found especially rich in the types of issues it raised was Dr Róisín Read’s (Manchester University) discussion of data ownership and dissemination in the context of humanitarian security. Drawing from her experience working as part of the ESRC Making Peacekeeping Data Work for the International Community Project, which focused on the African Union/United Nations mission in Darfur, Sudan (UNAMID), Róisín raised ethical and practical concerns about the dissemination and storage of real-time security data both for research and local communities experiencing security crises. Her presentation evidenced how difficult it is to sidestep organisational politics and bureaucracies to obtain access to data for academic research purposes, but also that the collection and analysis of data has become more and more centralised, with a few international organisations becoming increasingly key in determining the kind of information researchers and practitioners rely on for understanding humanitarian security, as well as other international development issues.

As Róisín’s case-study evidenced, international organisations specialising in data collection and the production of techno-science might be inefficient in collecting data in way that can benefit real-time action and might fail to share horizontally or vertically with others or to analyse data through a sufficiently rigorous theoretical perspective. Staff in organisations producing or disseminating data are bound by institutional policies and must operate within a hierarchy that may not allow them to act autonomously on issues of strategic or operational importance. Oftentimes, organisational staff do not have the authority to share data, or they may possessively hold on to data, treating them as their “currency”, to quote one of Róisín’s research participants. A specific instance that was mentioned was where data about sexual violence in an African conflict zone was not shared across the different sections of the peacekeeping mission, partly due to strategic and bureaucratic reasons – a morally appalling idea. But then again, as Róisín pointed out, is it not the case that researchers also often hold on to their research data as “currency”?

I would argue that this question needs to be understood within the larger framework of academic life in the UK and other European societies (and increasingly also in the global South) where career progression is directly tied to research publications. The pressure to prove one’s credibility as an academic within a context that is highly competitive and hierarchical probably enforces this mentality and constrains importantly exploratory research and its free dissemination. Researchers feel the urgency for producing papers and articles regularly, which should also be innovative in order to be accepted at high-impact journals that bring more academic credibility. I personally consider this to be one of the major ‘pathologies’ of scientific knowledge production and I have been a strong advocate for more emphasis to be placed on open access, gratis publishing that can reach society and the public, as opposed to favouring consistently high-impact journals that are highly specialised and exclusionary (see, for example, my previous work as a PhD student at The SOAS Journal of Postgraduate Research). I would argue that it is both urgent and feasible to disconnect knowledge production from career progression to achieve a more decolonial knowledge production mode. New technologies and publications models (e.g. co-designed and co-developed with institutions outside of Euro-American) can be creatively employed for promoting a more dialogical mode of knowledge production that aspires at societal understanding and benefit and is less orientated toward career-progression, fostering knowledge possessiveness.

Listening to Róisín’s presentation led me to reflect also on the influence of the current data regulatory framework and its implications for scholarly research and knowledge. As I mentioned to the workshop participants on the day, when the new EU General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) was put in place, many SOAS researchers, especially within the field of anthropology, were concerned about the constraints that this implied for ethnographic research in international contexts since data regulation standards would need to be followed by UK-based researchers regardless of context (contexts that may have their own regulations in place, begetting all sorts of other ethical and practical questions). While I would argue that there are ways to conduct effective ethnographic research and still abide by GDPR, the new standards require researchers to be more proactive and strategic, increasingly necessitating the support of data governance and research ethics specialists to guide researchers through the process of ethics assessment at an early stage (as has been happening in my experience at SOAS). What might be the implications of this shift in the long run, especially in view of the fact that universities in the global North and South have displayed important differences in research development capacity and support systems for their researchers? Who is favoured the most by the consolidation of a governance framework in HEs?

At a more epistemological level, how might a language that increasingly presents knowledge as ‘data’ that should be owned, copyrighted, secured, accessed only by permission, and so forth, relate to Anglo-American epistemology, and can it effectively accommodate other worldviews around knowledge and its meaning? Speaking from the perspective of an Eastern European who has worked for almost a decade in sub-Saharan Africa, not all individuals and communities in the world think possessively about knowledge or information and many researchers aim precisely at making their research available to communities for societal impact. In addition, many of us have been particularly committed to decolonising current structures that exclude the poorer and less resourceful from state-of-the-art research by ‘opening up’ knowledge and ensuring that access to knowledge is not tied to one’s socio-economic class. As evidence produced by a Hungarian colleague shows, knowledge production has been traditionally kept in the hands of the relatively privileged, which has curtailed the prospects of poorer or peripheral groups to engage with and influence knowledge paradigms, preserving essentially the dominance of certain groups from the global North in the production of knowledge. Might enforcing the legalistic language of ‘data ownership’ globally contribute to maintaining a fundamentally Eurocentric knowledge domain?

Various conversations at the workshop also revolved around challenges and issues that researchers may face when working with NGOs or other partners who do not tend to follow academic standards in terms of research rigour or ethics assessment processes. Among the workshop participants, some had an insider’s knowledge of international development consultancy, agreeing that few NGOs display systematised processes for evaluating ethical concerns in programme implementation. Ethical reflexivity is not always a priority or a possibility for NGOs struggling to navigate the intricate bureaucracies of their respective organisations and to meet their funders’ expectations about programme outcomes. Some participants thought that more partnerships between academics and NGOs might help to improve standards of rigour and address some of the essentialisms or ideological rigidities one sees perpetuated through NGO language. Others thought that in most cases there is very little space to influence the framing of projects, already conditioned on funders’ narratives and priorities. Raising critical questions and stating honest disagreement with how an NGO or other non-academic partner conceptualises, theorises and approaches an issue can curtail employment opportunities and prospects of collaboration, as I found out from my last two encounters with an international faith-based organisation. Both times I raised concerns, firstly regarding research ethics/safety and, secondly, about the assumptions that were made for the analysis of the issue in question by citing previous ethnographic insights from the same or similar contexts. My concerns, while listened to and often understood, did not generally translate in more theoretical flexibility, making our collaboration almost impossible.

Another presentation that also raised substantive issues and reflection on the part of participants was Dr Vandana Desai’s (Royal Holloway University) discussion of ethical research in local societies, drawing from her long experience working in India. Throughout her entire presentation, she emphasised the importance of engaging with research participants and local interlocutors with awareness of their complex realities and the fundamental workings of human psychology. Just as we often do in our respective quotidian life, our local interlocutors may not say what they think directly, may nuance their discourses or may share strategically according to how they judge each context of interaction – all layers of complexity that need to be considered in data collection and analysis. Research is not as straightforward as may be presented by some and should entail on-going re-evaluation, reflection, adjustment and learning. Vandana also very effectively conveyed that as we personally evolve in our fieldwork, the way we do research, the way we are perceived through local social, economic, political or other frameworks changes and the kind of information we are given changes as well. Many participants cited the importance of personal positionality in research, but I would argue that Vandana’s presentation demonstrated effectively that the whole personhood is involved, not limited to one’s identity/ies. Research is fundamentally shaped by the kind of people we are in our research, the way we behave and the type of values we embody. As Vandana noticed, researchers should gain communities’ respect and this can be achieved when researchers show integrity and consistency. Honesty and humility are basic bridges of trust, communication and learning.

While there was consistent discussion about the historical hegemony of the global North in defining research concepts and priorities and the necessity for epistemological decolonisation, the issue of ‘cultural translation’ was not elaborated as much as it would have been desirable. Due to my recent research on domestic violence in Ethiopia, I had the opportunity to participate in a discussion with public health and biomedical experts about the integration of local belief systems in health sciences and biomedicine. The conversation evidenced that scientists conducting research on diseases, such as diabetes or hypertension, are increasingly more reflexive of the necessity to think of ‘health’ in the broader sense of lifestyle and behavioural norms and to understand how these are influenced by local people’s comprehensive worldviews. While there were disagreements as to what boundaries may be drawn between biomedical sciences and local beliefs, it was clear that an integrated approach that accounted for local conceptualisations and understandings and leveraged on modern medicine was most viable. However, moving toward approaches that are premised on local worldviews for conceptualising issues and for understanding better how we can be of help in our respective fields requires an important task: learning local languages and engaging with diverse local groups in different modes, preferably through long-term immersion in vernacular realities. This immersion will not guarantee that we will be able to make sense of local realities or penetrate local experiences which we do not necessarily share, but it is a vital stepping stone toward achieving more exploratory research and building long-term relationships based on mutual respect, trust and understanding. It is surprising how much research is still being produced by researchers who do not speak the language(s) of the communities in which they work, an issue that, I would argue, requires urgent attention.

In view of these and many other conversations and points that were raised at the workshop, it was agreed that we need to move away from techno-scientific and impersonal ethics checklists, and start to conceptualise ethical reflexivity as a continuing process and reflection that one should undergo throughout the research process. Ethical reflection should be a reiterative and dynamic process, inspired by our commitment to be humble, respectful and helpful in ways that make sense to our interlocutors. Moreover, it was observed that often actions we take during fieldwork can lead to unpredictable situations. The academic scene seems to lack transparency about the unpredictability and uncertainty of research, perhaps because researchers feel less confident to admit this when institutions, funding bodies or other interest groups expect them to meet rigidly defined outcomes within rigidly defined timelines. As we march into the future, it is imperative to speak more openly about the tentative and fluid nature of research, consider the ethical issues involved and build preparedness to respond appropriately with consideration to the complexities assessed.

On the other hand, often researchers feel that when they come across ethically questionable situations, they need to act to resolve them. As demonstrated by the various case-studies that were discussed at the workshop, acting definitively without carefully considering local dynamics, what is culturally appropriate or desirable and the possible implications for those involved (not only in the short-term but also in the long-term) can lead to unexpected consequences for research participants, the researcher and the research itself. Vandana’s presentation demonstrated pertinently that a smaller but discreet gesture could be a more effective response to certain issues in some contexts. It appears then important to cultivate more outspokenness about the tentativeness of all research and to place more emphasis on building younger researchers’ preparedness to respond to unpredictable situations involving compromised parties in ways that are both resourceful and culturally sensitive.

Ultimately, the workshop pointed to various tensions between research reflexivity as a dynamic and human-centred process with an increasingly rigid and structured regulatory framework of research development, data management and dissemination, affecting fundamentally the nature and experience of collaborative global research. It is precisely such tensions that we are currently exploring how to address or minimise proactively at SOAS University of London. As one example, we are hoping to build more bridges to communicate with funders more directly, creating spaces for mutual understanding and constructive dialogue. SOAS researchers are often at the forefront of research in Asia, Africa, the Middle East or Latin America and they should be able to communicate to funders what aspects of funding structures might be more or less helpful for fostering egalitarian and practical collaborations with local partners in very diverse local contexts and regulatory frameworks, an objective that most funders seemingly share.

This year, conversations with colleagues in the Research Office led also to the decision to develop a module for training SOAS staff and students that applies a decolonial perspective on research ethics and addresses the various tensions with the governance framework in the UK. I would argue that the way in which this module has been developed is itself exemplary of the intricacies of the larger landscape. While I have contributed a decolonial perspective informed by my previous ethnographic experiences in sub-Saharan Africa, my colleague who specialises in research governance has brought a more legal perspective, citing institutional policies and funders’ guidelines. Developing a module together has evidenced to me how difficult it can be to bridge these two worlds, but also the potential of such exercises to further understanding about the different parameters and incentives guiding the differential thinking of the various parties involved in the domain of research development. Perhaps it is precisely such partnerships that we need to leverage on more in the immediate future – collaborations between researchers and professional research development services here in the UK, as one of the many stepping stones to enabling more reflexive, egalitarian and culturally sensitive research abroad.

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