Introducing “Beyond Guidelines”: Navigating Mismatched Expectations between Research Ethics and Institutional Ethics Regimes
By Banu Karaca
Guidelines designed to address research ethics in the social sciences highlight the need for protecting vulnerable populations from any harm that may arise to them during the research process, during data storage and analysis, or during the write up of research outcomes and their publication. This is true for the long-standing Institutional Review Board (IRB) procedures in the US and those required for projects funded by the European Research Council (ERC). Many national contexts within Europe have followed suit over the past few years, establishing research ethics review mechanisms of their own.
These guidelines are rooted in the working practices and historical problems of what today is often called the ‘life sciences’, especially the field of biomedical research involving human subjects. Without a doubt, such protections are also paramount in the social sciences. But as has been so often noted, their institutionalization, formalization and standardization within the guidelines continue to be orientated along liability laws. Geared towards averting possible lawsuits due to damages, they are ill-equipped to respond to the complex interpersonal encounters, indeed the intersubjectivity, that characterize ethnographic fieldwork relations. More often than not they fail to provide workable answers to the everyday experiences and challenges that emerge under the conditions of growing authoritarianism and the pressures on freedom of expression around the globe.
In this introductory post to the blog series “Beyond Guidelines: The Question of Ethics in Transregional Research and Knowledge Production” I would like to raise a few issues pertaining to the key concepts in ethics guidelines that emerge from the mismatched expectations between scholarly research ethics and institutional ethics regimes. Tackling these mismatches is ever more urgent as these ethics regimes are ultimately part of governance structures of higher education and academic research that are themselves increasingly subject to critique in the social sciences.
When I received funding by the ERC for Beyond Restitution, I was aware of these longstanding problems, yet felt well-equipped to deal with them given previous experiences with IRBs. I had received methodological training as a grad student that included ethics in research and knowledge production, and later had integrated these concerns into my teaching and the supervision of student research. Still, I was struck by the newest iteration of ethics requirements that have been formulated in the context of the EU and that of Germany, where our research group is located. Along with the often-diagnosed mismatch that these requirements engender in the face of real-life fieldwork, a second set of issues had emerged through the requirements of personal data protection and of open access requirements to what is designated as “research data” within the guidelines.
The requirement of protecting personal data seems straightforward, reasonable, and often necessary at first sight. In practice however, the guidelines tend to be narrower than the terminology suggests. In Germany, this provision refers, for example, to names, private telephone numbers and addresses. Given that written consent still poses the norm for ethics review boards against which advocacy for oral consent is constantly lined up, there continue to be serious questions as to how to efficaciously protect personal data and anonymization procedures while documenting consent in writing. I say this not to argue against data protection but rather to emphasize the mismatch between the purported imperative to protect research subjects and the realities of what protections actually come to mean within the current guidelines.
The requirement of open access to “research data,” presents another notable contradiction, especially as the originality of research continues to be a key criterion for forging “career” paths in academia, including funding applications and publishing. These conditions to some extent demand for a protective stance towards collected data, one that cannot be mitigated by simple moratoriums. In my experience as an anthropologist who has been working on the politics of art for the past 20 years, such “data” has no expiry date. For instance, I still use data – interview passages, observations, or exhibition documentations of arts events -, that I collected during the 2000s.
This requirement also raises questions regarding the notion of “data” itself. This notion again is rooted in the life sciences, and hence in fields that often work by testing hypotheses, rather than being exploratory in design. These fields are envisioned to have fixed methodological protocols that – ideally – should be replicable. While the replicability criterion is problematized within the life sciences itself, anthropologists and other scholars who use methodologies from the “ethnographic toolkit” (observation, interviews, etc.) have repeatedly stressed that ethnographic insights are grounded in rapport and trust often emerging from relationships that cannot be decontextualized from the fieldwork encounter. Indeed, as so often noted, anthropological research means that the researcher becomes in part a research instrument themselves. What is considered data in anthropological research does not render itself to be easily translatable into the category of laboratory data which are imagined to be transferable from one context to another. De Koning, Meyer, Moors and Pels go even further by proposing that the reduction of anthropological research findings to data is ethically questionable in itself, not least because these findings are rooted in peoples’ everyday lives.
As Peter Pels proposes, within ethics guidelines “data” is understood “as already commodified units of analysis, alienated from the social relations of research by contractual forms of informed consent and anonymization, and by ownership claims by researchers and employers.” This notion of data as commodifiable, or as something that can be distributed in a decontextualized manner is also antagonistic to the processual character of ethnographic research. This processual character manifests itself, for instance, in the continual revision of question guidelines over the course of a research project.
As many critics note, the term “data management,” another part of ethics guidelines, rather than protecting research interlocutors or researchers serves as a monitoring mechanism. The norms and conventions that ethics regimes are establishing not only stand to shape knowledge production of both funding and monitoring bodies but also of scholarship itself. As data has become a vital resource and commodity (indeed we know that our personal data are bought and sold all the time), its supposed protection by digital depositories remains unsecured – at least in the long term. Most academic repositories give a guarantee for 10-15 years. The long-term future of the data deposited there is uncertain as is, incidentally, the toll that their carbon footprints might take.
In the ERC guidelines, the emphasis is on the democratization of the research process and its outcomes. In practice, however, the bureaucratization of ethics continues, as Ruby notes, to “protect institutions from potential lawsuits in the name of protecting participants.” What is striking is that ethics guidelines do so by increasingly appropriating notions of vulnerability and care, of considerations of trauma and potential re-traumatization and by invoking something akin to notions of solidarity through the vocabulary of “benefit sharing.”Whilethis terminology seems to acknowledge the multilayered power asymmetries that characterize research, they also create the illusion that individual researchers, through their methodology or data management, can mitigate the systematic (geopolitical and social) problems in which universities and research centers are implicated.
Coming from the discipline of anthropology means having to face and actively engage a disciplinary history rooted in colonialism, imperialism, and – depending on the national and local contexts that one works in – in different practices of state violence (e.g. see the role of anthropology in Germany during National Socialism), of wartime counterinsurgency, or counterintelligence projects. This is also one of the reasons why the question of ethics is not solely one of operationalizing research questions but lies at the heart of conceptualizing any research project. In a research project like BEYONDREST that focuses on how dispossession and looting have shaped the knowledge production on art and heritage, research ethics must be part of an ongoing inquiry. Tracing dispossessed art means doing research in a field where legal and ethical issues are continuously co-constituted and were different stakeholders have vastly divergent aims and interests. Research ethics cannot be fixed at any one time, especially in authoritarian fields that characterize “the MENA region,” but have to be considered and reconsidered throughout the different stages of a research project.
This continual mismatch between the requirements of the current ethics regime and research ethics makes it difficult to navigate standardized guidelines. But even when one manages to match these requirements somewhat meaningfully with the ethical considerations of a given project, the question remains how current guidelines frame or shape knowledge production. Ethics applications feed into epistemological structures of (third-party) funding and monitoring bodies that increasingly shape academia. The issue researchers are faced with is not simply complying in ways that are readable to these bodies but that such compliance (formally or content-wise) is also always part of a knowledge production that consolidates the ways in which the social sciences are governed. As BEYONDREST centers on the question of how knowledge is made, we are, for instance, acutely aware that documents like Risk Management Plans for certain countries are contributing both to the knowledge formation on these countries and the conduction of social sciences research. To insist on critiquing current ethics guidelines is thus not to reject thinking about ethics but to move forward accountable research practices by advocating for infrastructures and “responsive ethics reviews” that substantially address inadequacies and inequalities in academia and beyond.
To illustrate this issue let me turn to the notions of “resource poor settings” and “benefit sharing” that are central to the ERC ethics guidelines. Both terms point to important issues of power asymmetries between and across different geopolitical arenas. And yet these terms are also ethically and epistemologically questionable, for instance, when they serve as stand-ins for the concept of “power” in the guidelines. They express both an acknowledgment of power asymmetries as well as an acceptance thereof, by placing the responsibility of dealing with power differentials engendered by larger geopolitical and historical configurations solely on the individual researcher, project, and research encounter.
To account for such asymmetries would also involve thinking about how the institutions that fund and host us, that we are part of, and that shape our research are implicated in the very conditions that make for these asymmetries and vulnerabilities of populations, especially in the field of transregional research – and to transform them.
The question then becomes, which institutional infrastructures are needed to support ethical research on both an individual and institutional level, to cultivate ethical research encounters, data analyses, and write-ups, or ground political commitments of equality and equity not just in words but in deeds? Would this – at a bare minimum – not include the easing or lifting of visa restrictions for interlocutors and colleagues with whom we work outside of the EU, so that benefit sharing is not just a box to tick on ethics forms? Or, for example, to finally rethink what counts as a publication within career trajectories to honor the choice of knowledge co-production?
It is with these questions in mind that we want to start this blog series. We welcome contributions that reflect on how to cultivate productive research ethics beyond what the guidelines currently have to offer. We invite you to think beyond the guidelines with us, but alas we have guidelines ourselves: For submissions details, follow this link. For inquiries, please reach out to beyondrest(at)trafo-berlin.de.
About the Author
Banu Karaca works at the intersection of political anthropology and critical theory, art, aesthetics, and cultural policy, museum and feminist memory studies. She is the Principal Investigator of the ERC-funded project “Beyond Restitution: Heritage, (Dis)Possession and the Politics of Knowledge (BEYONDREST)” and researches how dispossession and loss have shaped the scholarly and legal knowledge production on art in Turkey and beyond. For more information, visit her profile.
This article is part of the BEYONDREST blog series Beyond Guidelines: The Question of Ethics in Transregional Research and Knowledge Production. BEYONDREST is a five-year research project funded by the European Research Council (ERC) under the European Union’s Horizon Europe research and innovation programme (Grant Agreement No. 101045661), hosted by the Forum Transregionale Studien (Forum), and related to EUME.
Views and opinions expressed are however those of the author only and do not necessarily reflect those of the European Union or the European Research Council Executive Agency. Neither the European Union nor the granting authority can be held responsible for them.
 For details see, European Commission, Ethics in Social Science and Humanities, Brussels, 5 July 2021. https://ec.europa.eu/info/funding-tenders/opportunities/docs/2021-2027/horizon/guidance/ethics-in-social-science-and-humanities_he_en.pdf
 Martin Sökefeld, “Keep Research Ethics Dirty!,” International Quarterly for Asian Studies 53/4 (2022): 519-523.
 For an overview on issues around data management see, https://erc.europa.eu/manage-your-project/open-science .
 For a succinct critique of the notions of science that shape IRB procedures and how these notions are themselves problematic, see Tabassum Fahim Ruby’s “A Peek into Institutional Review Board (IRB) through an Ethical Lens,” International Quarterly for Asian Studies 53/4 (2022): 524-526.
 Martijn de Koning, Birgit Meyer, Annelies Moors, and Peter Pels, “Guidelines for anthropological research: Data management, ethics, and integrity,” Ethnography, 20/2(2019) 171.
 Peter Pels, “Data management in anthropology: the next phase in ethics governance?” Social Anthropology/Anthropologie Sociale 2018/26: 391.
 For a comprehensive overview over the processual character of research ethics, see Margaret D. LeCompte and Jean J. Schensul, Ethics in Ethnography: A Mixed Methods Approach (London: AltaMira Press, 2015).
 Ruby, “A Peek into Institutional Review Board (IRB) through an Ethical Lens,” 525.
 See for example, European Commission, Ethics in Social Science and Humanities, https://ec.europa.eu/info/funding-tenders/opportunities/docs/2021-2027/horizon/guidance/ethics-in-social-science-and-humanities_he_en.pdf, (2021).
 For a conceptualization of the “authoritarian field” and the ethical challenges it poses for researchers, see Marlies Glasius, Meta de Lange, Jos Bartman, Emanuela Dalmasso, Aofei Lv, Adele Del Sordi, Marcus Michaelsen, Kris Ruijgrok, Research, Ethics and Risk in the Authoritarian Field (Palgrave Macmillan, 2018).
 Cite Rosa Cordillera A. Castillo, “Subverting ‘formalised’ ethics through mainstreaming critical research ethics and a responsive review process,” Social Anthropology/Anthropologie Sociale 2018/26: 406-407.
 The TRUST Consortium, Global Code of Conduct for Research in Resource-poor Settings, https://ec.europa.eu/info/funding-tenders/opportunities/docs/2021-2027/horizon/guidance/global-code-of-conduct-for-research-in-resource-poor-settings_he_en.pdf .
 See Birgit Meyer’s forthcoming contribution to this series.
 See Anne-Marie McManus’s forthcoming contribution to this series.
Citation: Banu Karaca, Introducing “Beyond Guidelines”: Navigating Mismatched Expectations between Research Ethics and Institutional Ethics Regimes, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 18.01.2024, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/50182
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Forum Transregionale Studien (2024, 18. Januar). Introducing “Beyond Guidelines”: Navigating Mismatched Expectations between Research Ethics and Institutional Ethics Regimes. TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research. Abgerufen am 29. Februar 2024, von https://doi.org/10.58079/vmch