Cross-Cultural Research Ethics

cross-culturalLast week I presented at a seminar at the University of Nottingham hosted by BAICE, aka the British Association for International and Comparative Education. Like the UK and Ireland Social Research Association (SRA), on whose Board I sit, BAICE is a learned society and an organisational member of the UK’s Academy of Social Sciences (AcSS). I was presenting, in my SRA role, on behalf of the AcSS. This always makes me slightly uncomfortable as I’m not a Fellow of the AcSS and don’t really feel qualified to speak for the Academy. Luckily another of my SRA colleagues, who is a Fellow, was at the seminar and was able to help me out.

The seminar was on ‘cross-cultural research ethics in international and comparative education’. Presenting for the AcSS on this topic was an interesting exercise, as the Academy is not a very cross-cultural organisation: the Fellows are 93% professors, 69% male, and my contacts with them suggest that the white middle classes are in a massive majority. My presentation focused on the five generic ethical principles the AcSS has developed for its member societies to use. I’ve been working on a redraft of the SRA’s ethical guidelines based around these principles, and had already registered that they are focused around concepts which are not culturally neutral, such as democracy and inclusivity. There are cultures that despise democracy, seeing it as a discredited belief system, and others that either do not practise inclusivity or practise a very different version from that which the UK educational and social research culture espouses.

Perhaps because BAICE is focused on international matters, ‘culture’ was in danger of being conflated with ‘nationality’, so I argued that it is a much wider issue. The previous day I had been in a workshop for a piece of evaluation research that had included service users, volunteers, staff, partners, and evaluators. That’s five different cultures, right there. Then of course those professionally defined cultures intersect with people’s race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, etc, to create a whole world of cultural complexity.

The other presentations covered a wide range of related questions. How should we manage cultural conflicts within and beyond academic departments? How ethical is it to use RCTs in educational or social research when you know that members of control groups will be disadvantaged? How can we be inclusive as researchers in situations where including marginalised people, or those living in difficult circumstances, may put them at risk? How can we support researchers and teachers who are operating in a global environment, whether physical or virtual, to work in ethical ways?

Then we were asked to discuss whether we thought it would be possible to formulate generic ethical principles for cross-cultural research. We didn’t reach firm conclusions, but we did agree that if such principles were to be devised, the fundamental value should be respect, and the key process would be dialogue. Any generic principles would need to be broad, neither prescriptive nor vacuous, and should be tested in a variety of locations. Generic principles will always be open to interpretation, and may in some contexts conflict with each other, so they would need to be constantly negotiated. But generic principles could be useful in overturning the current myth of cultural neutrality in some academic mechanisms such as anonymous peer review.

We also agreed that ethical research is not, and should not be, only or predominantly about data collection; it is relevant to all stages of the research process. And we agreed that it is not only students, researchers, and teachers who need educating in ethics, but also funders and members of ethical review committees.

As researchers and educators, we have an ethical duty to keep educating ourselves, because ethical approaches to research change as the world changes. It is essential to take a reflexive approach to this, including locating ourselves culturally. It helps to realise that the same ethical issues arise in lots of different types of work in different disciplines and locations, so if you look beyond your professional and geographic boundaries, you can often learn from others rather than re-inventing the ethical wheel.

We concluded that, from an ethical perspective, the quality of human interactions should be fundamental to the quality of research and teaching. This is especially the case in cross-cultural work, where people may be operating with very different assumptions. However, this is not considered relevant by the current arbitrators of quality in research or teaching. Our view, though, is that it would be more ethical all round to shift the focus away from regulations and bureaucracy and towards human well-being.

While I am, generally speaking, irrepressibly optimistic, I do wonder whether that will happen in my lifetime.

Why I Am Saying No To Some Universities

piggy bank and coinsIn the last few weeks I have been asked to deliver seminars at the universities of York and Leicester. I had the time and would have enjoyed the experiences. Also, in both cases, the people inviting me were my friends. So why did I say ‘no’?

I was asked to work for nothing.

Both universities offered to pay my travel expenses. This has been standard practice for many years, designed to ensure that academics would not be out of pocket when visiting another institution. Visiting academics don’t need to be paid by their host institution because they are already drawing a good salary from their own institution.

Independent researchers are not drawing a salary and often don’t earn a great deal. I have been open about my income. As I thought about the invitations from York and Leicester, it occurred to me that universities were probably open about their income, too. So I did some research and found that, although often buried deep within layers of web pages, they do indeed publish their financial statements.

In 2013/14, the income of the University of York was £305.4m and its expenditure was £297.2m. It has total net assets of £243.8m, and a retained surplus of £10.5m.

In the same financial year, the income of the University of Leicester was £286.7m and its expenditure was £279.2m. It has total net assets of £172.6m, and a retained surplus of £7.6m.

Clearly universities must exercise sound financial stewardship. They have staff to pay and to provide pensions for, and I believe that university staff work hard and should be paid appropriately. There are buildings to be maintained and refurbished, equipment costs, perhaps debts to service, and so on. But these are wealthy institutions with an annual surplus of millions of pounds. Yet, while they evidently want my expertise, they won’t pay me a couple of hundred.

I found it embarrassing to refuse my friends’ requests. In both cases they said they had no budget to pay visiting scholars. Clearly universities hold on tight to their cash. But in doing so, they minimise the types of expertise available to their students. Is that a sensible educational strategy?

In recent weeks, I have been cheerfully paid a sensible fee for work at Staffordshire University, which is significantly less wealthy than York or Leicester (income: £118.4m, expenditure: £116m, net assets £44.2m, surplus £3.6m). I have also been paid by Swansea University (income £205.8m, expenditure £182.3m, net assets £156.5m, surplus £7.2m). And I am in discussions with Birmingham City University, who said my fee was what they were expecting (income: £173.8m, expenditure £153.6m, net assets £219.9m, surplus £23.2m).

Although this is not any kind of a representative sample, I used my researcher’s eye to try to discern a pattern. York is a Russell Group university; Leicester and Swansea were founded around the same time in the early 1920s; Staffordshire and Birmingham City are post-92. So there is no apparent consistency here.

I wonder what prospective students might think. Would you like to go to a university that will encourage you to learn from a wide variety of expert people? Or would you prefer one that will restrict you to learning from its own faculty and some volunteers?

Creative Research Methods conference – 8 May 2015

This SRA conference, where my latest book was formally launched, was a wonderful gathering of diverse researchers. We had academic researchers, government researchers, researchers working in research companies and charities and other organisations, and independent researchers. There were researchers from North and South America, Canada, and other European countries as well as the UK. And we had researchers from across the arts, humanities, and social sciences: from media, design, law, sociology, psychology, and geography, among others. This diversity made for an incredibly stimulating environment. A delegate commented to me that the conference could easily have run over three days, not one, and I think they were right.

Some of the delegates during the pipe-cleaner exercise (photo by David Gauntlett)

Some of the delegates during the pipe-cleaner exercise (photo by David Gauntlett)

The keynote speaker was Professor David Gauntlett. He spoke about the ethical imperative of reciprocity and dialogue in research, and how making and discussing metaphorical artefacts could provide a positive experience for participants. David often uses Lego, but on this occasion he used the pipe cleaners in delegates’ packs to involve us in a participatory demonstration, asking us to build a metaphor of our feelings on our journey that morning to the British Library conference centre. This short exercise was entertaining and instructive, and David built on that to show how making things and talking about them could yield richer data for researchers than simply asking questions. His presentation was dynamic and set the tone for the day.

The morning and afternoon workshop presentations made up a wonderful patchwork with 24 vibrant blocks of colour. They were in four concurrent streams, which regular readers of this blog will recognise: arts-based research, research using technology, mixed methods research, and transformative research frameworks. Presentations included:

This is only a small selection, chosen because they had further information online that I could link to for anyone who wanted more than just a headline. Details of all the workshop presentations can be found in the conference storify which was ably created by our official live-tweeter, Annika Coughlin. The presentations I went to (in the transformative research frameworks stream) were excellent, and I gather from those in other workshop streams that the quality was consistent throughout.

One of the most exciting moments for me came just before lunch, when I discovered the conference hashtag #CRM15 was trending on Twitter! After lunch Jude England, Head of Research Engagement at the British Library, gave a talk on ‘The Pleasures and Perils of Digital’. She encouraged researchers to find, use, and reference secondary data, and gave some good tips on how to do this, as well as explaining how the Library works and how it can help researchers.

At the end of the conference, I gave a short speech to launch my book, Creative Research Methods in the Social Sciences: A Practical Guide. This was immediately followed by a celebratory wine reception, kindly sponsored by my publisher Policy Press. Overall it was a wonderful and inspiring day. I can hardly imagine a better conference, or a more enjoyable book launch.

Walking to work: me and my treadmill desk

me at treadmill desk picI guess by now pretty much everyone knows that it’s not a great idea to spend the majority of your time sitting down. But when you’re a researcher and a writer, that’s exactly what you do, at your desk, often all day every day. Now and again you get to go out and sit down in your car, or on a train, till you get to a meeting where you sit down and talk to people. Not a great improvement, as I’m sure you’ll agree.

A couple of years I heard about standing desks, and was interested, though unsure I’d be able to stand for hours at a time. I asked around on Twitter and found some people who liked them and said I’d get used to it. But I still wasn’t sure. Then I found out about sit-stand desks, which let you swap between sitting and standing. That sounded more manageable, but I still wasn’t entirely convinced, and the price was prohibitive with (at the time) nothing available for under £1,000.

Also, the received wisdom is that we should all walk ten thousand steps a day. I don’t have a gadget to count my steps for me, so I did some old-fashioned counting and sums a while back and worked out that I rarely hit 10K, most days landing somewhere between 2K and 5K. I couldn’t see how a desk that simply enabled me to stand would help much with my overall fitness.

Then I heard about treadmill desks. And I really, really wanted one. But the prices were even more eye-watering than for the sit-stand desks. Also, I was worried about how many electrical components could go wrong – which, in a worst-case scenario, could mean shelling out for a whole new ensemble.

Social media came to my rescue, specifically the lovely Nicola Morgan (@nicolamorgan), eminent writer, speaker, haver of bright ideas, and all-round Good Egg. She in turn had been alerted by her friend Vee Frier to the possibility of using a standing desk with an office treadmill. Nicola implemented this ensemble and found that it worked really well for her.

And now I have one too. Specifically: a Stand Steady desk, which sits on top of my old desk (I don’t usually shop at Amazon but they’re the only UK stockist), and an Office Fitness walking treadmill. The treadmill goes up to more than 4 miles per hour; Nicola is happily working at 2.5 mph and I’ve accelerated from 1.5 to 2 mph over the last few weeks. At that speed, I do 76 steps a minute, or 4,560 in an hour. Which means that, in just two hours a day, I do 9,120 steps – and suddenly my 10k target is very achievable indeed. And I have no trouble typing while walking slowly and steadily, as this video demonstrates:

I have no idea whether I’ve lost weight, as I don’t use scales, but I feel a little more toned in places. And fitter. Also, like Nicola, I don’t need to use the heating so much, as moving keeps me warm. The sound of the treadmill doesn’t worry me at all, in fact it’s quite soothing. The only thing I don’t like is that the treadmill stops, after 30 minutes, very suddenly with no warning. I think some beeping and a gradual slow-down would be safer and more pleasant. But I do like the textured footplates on either side of the treadmill, which make it easy and safe to move to a standing position, so I can e.g. reach down to my old desktop for my headphones when the phone rings, and then step back onto the moving treadmill while I chat with whoever has called me.

I can’t walk all the time I’m working – I tried that to begin with, and wore myself out – so I’ve had to create another workstation for sitting (I have arthritis which affects my hands and they don’t work well enough for me to shift everything around when I want to change position). Luckily I have another desk, which already had a computer screen and most of a docking station so, a few accessories later, I was sorted. I can’t imagine going back to sitting all day. I love my treadmill desk!

Creative research methods in the social sciences [FC]There are two other things I love this week. One is the first review of my new book on Creative Research Methods, which I was glad and relieved to see is a positive review. And the other is the conference on Creative Research Methods at the British Library conference centre, this Friday, where the book will be officially launched. I can’t wait!