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.

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