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Step 8: Ethical Considerations in International Research

Ethical considerations inform each step of the international research process. If you develop your research questions without considering the ethics involved, you may find that you cannot practically conduct your research while abroad. Throughout the "Research Planner" we have identified where ethical considerations are at play. However, the issue deserves its own step.

Ethics in international research relate both to your informants (your subjects, the people you interview, the people you are researching or asking to help you with your research, etc.) and yourself.

1. Institutional Protection of Your Informants:
Institutional safeguards exist at Tufts to protect the basic rights and the health of those individuals participating in your research. The Institutional Review Board,, is a panel of Tufts' faculty and staff, as well as at least one community member, that reviews all human subject research proposals to determine if they are assuring adequate protection of human participants. Research plans that propose the use of living human subjects, tissues or materials from living humans, or data on humans must be reviewed and approved or granted exemption by the IRB before the research begins. This includes all research at Tufts University regardless of funding source, whether conducted by members of the faculty, students, fellows, administrators or others, across all department and campuses.

So, if your research requires the participation of other people, such as in the case of interviewing or questionnaires, you need to have your research plan reviewed and approved by the IRB before you begin conducting research. The IRB may require you to ask your informants to sign consent forms or to assure the anonymity of your informants or to take other measures. Some exemptions do exist but you need to be granted one by the IRB.

2. Personal Responsibility
Your primary responsibility is to do no harm, even if it means you cannot do your research as originally planned.

As a researcher, you also have personal ethical responsibilities in terms of your decisions and actions regarding research. Are you asking people embarrassing questions? Is it politically dangerous for someone to talk to you? Will someone lose her or his job by talking to you? Are you ensuring the anonymity and/or confidentiality of your respondents? You need to ask yourself these questions, and many more, before you undertake a research project that involves other individuals, especially if you are planning on doing your research abroad. Consult with faculty about how or whether to ask sensitive questions. Keep in mind that a question that you might not think is sensitive, may be to someone else.

Here are some tips to help you act ethically responsible when working with others:

  1. Represent yourself honestly.

  2. Ask permission to conduct interviews. Ask permission to take photographs or record the conversations. Respect a "no" if you get one. Offer copies of everything to the people you interact with. Make sure that your subjects understand what you are researching and why you are interviewing them. Have them signed informed consent forms if the IRB requires you to do so.

  3. Do not make promises you cannot keep.

  4. Be prompt and respectful

  5. Be grateful for whatever time, information, or assistance other people are able to give you. Fit into your informant's schedule. People who help you are doing you a favor, not the other way around.

  6. Present your credentials. Go abroad with a letter of introduction from the IR Director, President Lawrence Bacow, a Dean, or a faculty member that identifies who you are and what you are researching.

  7. Print up business cards with your name and local contact information so people can easily reach you.

Tips Reflecting on Our Role as Researchers

Location, location, location…

No, this is not simply your favorite Real Estate Agent's mantra. It is a lively force in contemporary academic debates. Perhaps it was at one time acceptable to assume a neutral, omniscient, universal approach that would render objective, scientific facts. However, in the contemporary context of "posts" - postmodernism, poststructuralism, postcolonialism, postpositivism - such assumptions are now not only considered out-dated, but also wrong-headed. Scholars, and that includes you, are expected to place themselves in their work - to interrogate position.

In their book, Telling Truth about History, authors Appleby, Hunt, and Jacob assert:

"Our version of objectivity concedes the impossibility of any research being neutral and accepts the fact that knowledge seeking involves a lively contentious struggle among diverse groups of truth-seekers."1

Does this mean there are no truths, no facts, and no such thing as objectivity? Why does it matter and how can we move ahead to do research on such seemingly contested grounds? The key for us to begin answering these questions, and many others, is for us to critically reflect on our role as a researcher and to state our perspectives (our biases), approaches, limitations, and assumptions upfront. If we fail to do so, we implicitly assume the universality of our positions.

All researchers have "biases." We come with them and cannot escape them. Gender, language, age, class, race, sighted / blind, etc. affect how we analyze and interact with the world. We need to be clear about our biases and appreciate that while they locate and to some extent limit us, they are also a perfectly normal part of scholarly endeavors. We want them to shape us, but not keep us from recognizing the possibilities beyond their limitations. We must also acknowledge that who we are may keep us from doing some kinds of research.

When you are abroad, while you may be completely ecstatic about your research topic, some people may not want or be able to talk to you. One of your tasks is to overcome these barriers in an ethically responsible way. Consider these factors when designing your interview protocols or your questionnaires:

  1. In some cases, as an undergraduate or young person you are too unimportant. Perhaps your status is too low for you to be able to interview central governmental officials.

  2. In some cases, your privilege and power as an educated person, as an American, as a wealthy person, etc. are an issue for others. You may be intimidating to others.

  3. In some cases, personal and political barriers or differences exist. It may be difficult for a young woman to interview older men, for example.

  4. In some cases, personal connection with the individual matters.

These issues demonstrate the importance of critically reflecting on your research, your role in it, and your relationship to the people with whom you are interacting. As Dr. Bennish points out,

"Beginners should come to terms with the fact that idealism and caring, although laudatory, do not qualify them for research. Indeed beginners are typically very ill equipped to "help." The better strategy is to reflect seriously on one's experiences, learn as much as possible and bring that learning back to one's participation as a powerful global citizen. The most important think anyone can bring to international research is a healthy respect for local people, local knowledge, and local people's strategies to define and resolve the dilemmas they face."

Faculty Example:
Many of us will be limited by discipline, language, time, and training, among others.

Jeanne Penvenne is a foreigner among local people in Mozambique. She is white in a predominantly black society and old in a predominantly young society. She is highly academically educated in a society with a tiny academic elite. She is wealthy and privileged in a predominantly poor city. She develops and conveys history and research in written forms, whereas the majority population in Mozambique functions within oral forms - spoken and preformed. The majority does not read any language. She conducts most of her life in Mozambique in Portuguese whereas most Mozambicans conduct their lives in Mozambican national languages. She is a woman who wants to know about women.

Why should anyone want to talk to her? How will she be able to understand what people say to her? How can she know that what she "hears" is what people intended to "say" to her? When Penvenne writes up [probably in English] her understanding of what people "said" to her would any of the people whose history she purports to convey recognize it as their own? Does this mean she should not even try? Will the history she eventually writes up be valid? Will it be the same history urban women migrants in Maputo would tell? Will Penvenne tell it the same way urban migrant women would tell it? Is that the point?

For further resources on interrogating location, the impact of power and privilege in research, constructions of knowledge, and reflecting on your role as a researcher read the following resources. Some are posted in the IRN resource library, others are located in the Tisch library.

Michael Bennish Director of the Africa Centre in Mtubatuba, South Africa offers insightful tips and recommendations to conducting ethical research. While his points are geared toward Africa, they are applicable for nearly any location abroad.

Altheide, D.L. & Johnson, J.M. (1994). 'Criteria for Assessing Interpretive Validity in Qualitative Research' in N. K.

Bonnell, V. & Hunt, L. (eds.) (1999) Beyond the Cultural Turn: New Directions in the Study of Society and Culture, Berkeley, Univ. of CA.

Cooper, F. (2001). "What is the Concept of Globalization Good for? An African Historian's Perspective," African Affairs, Vol. 100: 189-213.

Cooper, F. & Packard, R. (eds.) (1997). International Development and the Social Sciences: Essays on the History and Politics of Knowledge , Berkeley, Univ. of CA.

Denzin & Lincoln, Y.S. (eds.) Handbook of Qualitative Research. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Lecocq, B. (2002). "Fieldwork Ain't Always Fun: Public and Hidden Discourse on Fieldwork," History in Africa, Vol. 29:273-282.

McIntosh, P. (1990). 'White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack'. Independent School, pp. 33-36.

Mishler, E. (1990). 'Validation in Inquiry-Guided Research', Harvard Education Review, vol. 60, (4): 415- 42.

Phillips, D.C. (1990). 'Subjectivity and Objectivity: An Objective Inquiry' in E. Eisner and A. Peshkin (editors) Qualitative Inquiry: The Continuing Debate. New York: Teachers College Press.

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