Three bloggers and tweeters had an online conversation in December and this post is a response to that discussion, which began when Naomi Barnes, aka @DrNomyn, posted her thoughts on qualitative research. She wrote of the politics and power of research and knowledge, and her realisation that there are ethical implications to every decision she makes as a researcher. Naomi describes that as ‘a huge and sobering responsibility’.
Naomi tweeted the link to her blog post, which was picked up by Ian Guest, aka @IanInSheffield. He responded, first on Twitter and then on his blog. Ian’s concern is with the ethics of representation, and in particular what and who is missing from accounts of research and communication. This leads to his interest in where knowledge shared online may go, and what impact it may have, beyond that which is visible in tweets and blog posts.
Then Deborah Netolicky, aka @debsnet, joined in. She problematises the ethics of writing: how to represent the messiness of research (and life) within the inevitable neatness of writing, and how much – or how little – of the author’s self is, and/or should explicitly be, expressed in their academic writing.
Each of these points links to my current writing project: the book on research ethics which I have spent the last two years talking about and researching, and which, this year, I will actually write. Like Naomi, I’m aware that there are ethical implications to every decision I make as I work on this book. What I choose to read; what I choose to take from that reading; who I speak to; what I decide is significant from those conversations; how I select and place each word in the text; how I acknowledge my reading and conversations within that process; what I leave out, and why – Naomi is right, it is a ‘huge and sobering responsibility’.
One of my proposal reviewers said, ” There is a considerable international literature on research ethics with which the author may not (yet) be familiar: Mertens and Ginsberg; Hammersley and Trianou; Tolich and Sieber; Posel and Ross; Iphofen; Israel; vd Hoonaard; Denzin, Lincoln and Smith; and even Stark; Schrag…” This was not a lack of familiarity – most of these are on my bookshelves or in my electronic folders – simply a lack of reference. But I am interested in the reviewer’s view of ‘international’ and – like Ian – in what, and who, is missing from that view.
Most of the work cited by this reviewer is written from Euro-Western locations. The exceptions are Posel and Ross (South Africa) and Sieber and Tolich (New Zealand). Yet I would argue that these authors, too, turn a predominantly Euro-Western gaze on the topic of research ethics. For example, neither text addresses the impact of colonization on research worldwide, nor mentions the work to decolonize research methods or the Indigenous research being done in their country of origin. I am currently reading a different body of work which highlights this as a huge lacuna at best, and imperial epistemological violence at worst. Books on Indigenous research and decolonizing methods are opening my eyes to the value, power, and ethics of non-Euro-Western research practices.
So of course I will include this body of work in my forthcoming book. To do that was an easy ethical decision: as soon as I knew the work existed, it was obvious that I should read and incorporate it into my own work. The hard part is how to do that. I guess I’ll figure it out as I write, but one thing’s for sure: it won’t be a tokenistic chapter or mentions in passing with a few footnotes.
Like Deb, I also need to figure out where and how to put myself into this writing. I am white, British, a descendant of some of the most predatory imperialists the world has yet seen. I benefit daily, hugely, from the legacy of colonization. I live in a country made rich on the profits of oppression, invasion, exploitation and slavery. I only speak English, because I only need to speak English, because my ancestors invaded so much of the land on this planet that now English is the most commonly spoken language worldwide. One thing I’m learning, in reading about Indigenous research, is that in many cultures worldwide, people value their ancestors as highly as their living relatives. For me, the dead are dead; if I was ever to have a relationship with my own ancestors, I would probably need to start by shouting at them for several years.
Sometimes I wonder whether I have any right to even write about this body of work. But then I think that the risk of perpetrating epistemic imperialism by leaving it out is worse than the risk of perpetrating epistemic violence through inept inclusion. Sometimes I wonder whether it’s even ethical to write books at all. I have discovered, since I began to write professionally, that being an author is a way of claiming authority. Is that ethical? I guess it depends on how you do it. My aim is not only to write about ethics but also to do so ethically. As Deb says, there will be ‘moments of awkwardness, uncertainty, openness, weakness, resistance, emotion’, and I want to reveal as many of these as I can. That, too, seems like an ethical approach. Yet I wonder how ethically I can write, given that I write with enormous privilege: access to structures such as universities and publishers, and social capital that is denied to most Indigenous researchers. I’m not arrogant enough to think I can write a book which will change that situation. But at least, perhaps, I can move the goalposts by acknowledging and including work on Indigenous research and decolonizing methods alongside Euro-Western methods and ethics. Also, I want to acknowledge the Euro-Western location of Euro-Western research methods and ethics, rather than maintaining the common assumption that these are the only methods and ethics on the planet.
It’s a tough and daunting task. I’m not even sure whether I’m going in the right direction – or whether there is a “right direction” at all. But I aim to consider all the ethical implications of each decision I have to make and, at each fork in the road, to choose the most ethical path. I think that’s the best I can do.