This week we (Steph and Tara) submitted our project design for review by our internal ethics review board at Swansea University. We are now one step closer to field work and getting to know communities in the River Tawe catchment (here in South Wales)! This blog post will serve as a brief introduction to conducting ethical research with communities and building relationships with ideas and people throughout the research journey.
Tara’s recent obsession has been watching the TV program The Good Place on Netflix. This philosophy infused comedy often asks the question to viewers, “What do we owe to each other?” Research Integrity training and research ethics reports required at university institutions often ask the same question: as researchers what are our obligations to the human subjects we work with throughout the research process? It is important to note that our accountability to research participants does not end at the approval of research ethics application; however, these applications are an important first step in considering the complexity of engaging ethically and respectfully with humans and more-than-humans.
An Oxford Broad Street Branch of Blackwell’s has a philosophical book stand with all the texts cited by the character Chidi in Netflix’s The Good Place including What We Owe to Each Other by TM Scanlon (source:https://www.digitalspy.com/tv/ustv/a849229/the-good-place-oxford-blackwells-bookstand-ethics-books-chidis-choice/).
Filling out a research ethics report for a university institution often requires grounding into the logistical specifics of the research project. For Steph and I, this required many discussions about the particular groups we wanted to work with (e.g. community based walking organizations, school groups, or a more grounded approach encountering river users in a more spontaneous manner). Compiling an ethics report also required us to think through the advantages and disadvantages for participants if they chose to participate. We considered how much of their time, we would be taking and if the questions we posed, could be considered stressful or uncomfortable. We had to focus in on the groups we wanted to work with and think about how best to engage participants in terms of method—would we use an ethnographic/unstructured approach to intervene in participants’ river walks, or would we conduct a semi-structured hour-long interview with a key informant? Ultimately, the beauty of working away at this ethics application was the creation of a blueprint for our first engagements with river users and community organizations on the River Tawe.
One key aspect of writing the consent forms and informational sheets for our research participants was to use everyday language to explain the project aims, and how participants’ information would be used in terms of research outputs (e.g. research papers and/or community workshops). It is also important to ensure participants know that they can withdraw their information from the study at any time if they change their mind or feel uncomfortable. On every form we will give to participants during our fieldwork encounters we included our contact information so participants can follow up if they have additional questions or wish to see the research findings.
Steph and I have decided to keep our participants’ identity anonymous. In order to ensure the confidentiality of participants throughout all stages of the research design and analysis we must pay close attention to how our fieldwork data is stored, who has access to the information, and how we qualitatively code our findings. This leads us to an ethical scenario (taken from Farrimond 2014): “When a PhD student running behind on his transcription asked a fellow PhD student to help out, and the latter recognised the voice of one of the participants who was disclosing highly personal and confidential information.” In this scenario we can see a clear breach in ethical conduct. The participants gave their information to the researcher in an exchange– one where they believed their stories would remain within the researcher- participant relationship and thus their confidentiality would be protected. Who has access to the data in the research analysis and post-research phases of the research project is a key area of concern to maintaining accountability to these research relations.
Some ethical scenarios that regularly come up in qualitative research projects but may fall through the cracks of institutional research ethics applications (source: Farrimond 2014).
A key text I have deeply engaged with about conducting research with human subjects is Shawn Wilson’s (2008) ‘Research is Ceremony: Indigenous Research Methods. In this text, Wilson asserts the importance of what he calls ‘relational accountability’ claiming that we are always accountable to all of our relationships formed through research, at all stages of the research design and academic writing. Wilson argues, [a]n idea cannot be taken out of this relational context and still maintain its shape” (8). Wilson asks for an appreciation of the embeddedness of ideas and practices in their contexts. In terms of research ethics in our work with human subjects in the FIRE lab this means referencing constantly– to books, ideas, community stories, pieces of art, etc. that have shaped our thinking and our research and working to maintain accountability to these relationships in all our outputs.
One of the building blocks of my academic philosophy– Shawn Wilson’s important work on relational accountability and ethical research with human subjects (Source: http://scottneigh.blogspot.com/2015/01/review-research-is-ceremony.html).
I would argue that more spaces in university led research projects are needed for ethical reflection. It is not solely during the completion of the ethics report that these ideas are discussed; rather, as researchers working in the active contact zones of encounters with humans and more-than-humans, we face daily challenges in how to conduct research more respectfully. Perhaps these scenarios don’t make it into university published ethical guidelines but they require regular attention and action. Wilson argues that research should make a difference in people’s lives, not just as an afterthought or an applied post-research step, but as an immediate part of the research process. To put relationality at the centre of research is to suggest that, “…knowledge in itself is not seen as the ultimate goal [of the research project], rather the goal is the change that this knowledge may help to bring about” (Wilson 2008, 37).
If knowledge itself is not the ultimate goal, a researcher needs to consider what is ethically appropriate to reveal from their research given their relational accountability to their participants. The researcher must ask herself/himself: why am I revealing this knowledge, and how will this knowledge be used? As researchers working closely with human subjects we are open to finding out sensitive information that may have very real social and material consequences for communities we work with. Zahara (2016) suggests that ‘ethnographic refusal’ is a practice in which researchers and research participants can together decide which information should be shared with a wide audience. This concept can also refer to a researcher deciding to respectfully exclude certain stories and events from their data, not in an intention to bury information, but to respect that that knowledge was gained through a set of relations between themselves and their participants which could not and should not be shared with a wider scientific audience out of respect.
An important part of doing research with human subjects is consistent and ongoing self-reflection throughout the research process– one key activity we are working on in the FIRE lab is recording our changing reflections on fieldwork in river diaries. Self-reflection as researchers includes asking whose voices are excluded, questioning the research methods used, deciding which stories to include and how to respectfully exclude certain sensitive information from your data, and how to include your own reflections and identity within the research findings. Thus ethical dilemmas in research are ongoing and require constant attention and care. The university ethics application is the first step in mapping out the logistics of the project and enabling relationships to form between researchers and participants. The ongoing struggle is how to maintain relational accountability to these research relationships at all stages from research design to post-research data storage.
Keep following the FIRE lab blog to hear more about how we navigate the complex and interesting world of conducting ethical qualitative research with communities using the River Tawe!
Farrimond, H. (2014, May 20). How do you make sure your research is ethical? Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/higher-education-network/blog/2014/may/20/why-research-ethics-matter.
Wilson, S. (2008). Research is ceremony indigenous research methods. Halifax: Fernwood Publishing.
Zahara, A. (2016, August 08). Ethnographic Refusal: A How to Guide. Retrieved from https://discardstudies.com/2016/08/08/ethnographic-refusal-a-how-to-guide/