Originally published in the Scotsman.
In order to carry out fieldwork for my PhD, I’ve had to apply for clearance from my department’s Ethics Committee. I never thought about it much before, because I’ve never worked with children or “vulnerable” populations. But my study involves students in my own department, so I need to show there are no conflicting interests.
Unsurprisingly, the ethics paperwork was less about rigorous moral questioning, and more about protecting participants (and protecting the university from lawsuits). Will participants be risking physical danger or psychological distress? Will their information be kept confidential and anonymous? Does the project require highly personal information? Does it involve deception? Ticking the right boxes seems to ensure approval, implying that ethical research simply means avoiding immediate harm.
While it’s comforting to know there are oversight structures in place to protect participants, those structures lack space to consider wider ethical questions. Ethics paperwork is usually seen as just another hoop to jump through, disconnected from the actual work of research. But there’s very little else it could be, in the standardized structures of university bureaucracy.
For instance, paperwork cannot easily capture fundamental questions about the power relationships embodied in the research process, or the wider social role of a project or discipline. Red tape cannot easily quantify who benefits from the outcomes of research, and who suffers. But what we choose to study, how we choose to learn, and who we choose to share our knowledge with can have wide-reaching social effects. The ambiguity of these issues makes them crucial to address through self-reflection and honest conversation. The answers may never tick any boxes on an ethics form, but they will go well beyond protecting the immediate safety of participants.
In many ways, research can be used as a strategic tool for positive social change – but some scholars would cringe at that description. Better to remain morally neutral, they would argue, to seek knowledge for its own sake and avoid making value judgements about society. But the decision to avoid value judgements is itself a moral position, implicitly giving consent to the status quo. C. Wright Mills, one of sociology’s great pioneers, wrote in 1959 that “anyone who spends his life studying society and publishing the results is acting morally and usually politically as well.”
To me, these are the kinds of issues at stake when we talk about research ethics – if scholars don’t give careful thought to how we work and how our work may be used, who will? I’m lucky that my department takes these issues seriously and gives them more than passing mention. But leaving such fundamental questions up to luck seems irresponsible.
It comes as no surprise, though. Considering ethics through the tunnel-vision of paperwork reflects a much deeper pattern of fragmentation in society at large. Each of us is encouraged to focus on our own little life, without necessarily seeing how it relates to the lives around us, or to the history that has brought us here and the future we’re building each day. In some ways, fragmentation makes life in the modern world bearable, just as bureaucracy allows large universities to exist.
Still, I’m hoping to mend some of that fragmentation in my project by asking difficult questions. I want to open the conversation, create space to talk about real ethical issues, try to understand why we pursue knowledge, and what we hope for when we release it into the world. I’m not sure what will come out of those conversations, but I know it will be a lot more interesting than ethics paperwork.