Doing Research Under Current Ethics Regimes: Some Observations
By Birgit Meyer
Even if one does not find issues regarding data management and research ethics particularly exciting as such, it is necessary to delve into the rules and regulations that underpin the institutionalization of current ethics regimes in the social and cultural sciences. This is part of the basic infrastructure of knowledge production, that scholars need to know so as to be able to operate therein. In the following, I want to share some observations from my own standpoint in the Netherlands, where I have studied and worked since the mid-1980s.
For scholars of my generation, these new ethics regimes – as developed within Dutch universities and by major funders – are a rather recent intervention. I have conducted anthropological research in Ghana since 1989 and have supervised many young scholars in African studies, anthropology and religious studies without having to go through a formal ethics review. Of course, this does not mean that ethics were not thematized. They certainly were, especially on the part of critical anthropologists who have problematized and deconstructed “how anthropology makes its object”, as the subtitle of Johannes Fabian’s magisterial book Time and the Other has put it. In his classes and his writings, Fabian, with whom I studied in Amsterdam between 1985 and 1990 and who supervised my dissertation, argued against the treatment of ethics and methods as separate domains. He insisted that both were inextricably tied to epistemology. The big concern at the time was to reinvent anthropology through a thorough postcolonial critique of mainstream epistemologies that produced objectifications of the Other. The idea was to take the “coevalness” of researchers and interlocutors as a starting point for developing non-Eurocentric, co-produced knowledge. Debates about ethics were embedded in this larger project and were discussed extensively within the discipline. We were critical of the formulation of an ethics code, as it existed within anthropology in the US, for fear of operationalizing ethical issues into a handy format that would allow for ticking the boxes without the need for thorough reflexion about the underlying aims and condition of knowledge production.
This situation endured until rather recently. In 2016 the FAIR (“Findable, Accessible, Interoperable, and Re-usable”) principles were widely debated and adopted in the Netherlands. The responsibility for knowledge production was no longer left to disciplines alone (with their longstanding practices, guidelines and codes) and became a matter of policy for universities. The main concern was the quality, availability and accessibility of research data, as well as their availability for reuse. The implications of these new requirements regarding accessibility of data meant a major challenge for anthropological research. Together with my colleagues Martijn de Koning, Annelies Moors and Peter Pels, I organized a symposium to debate the new developments in 2018, leading to our statement “Guidelines for anthropological research” (published in 2019). This document expressed our concern about “the problems that occur when protocols for data management, integrity and ethics, that were developed for sciences that employ a positivistic, hypothesis-testing and replicable style of research, are applied to different scientific practices, such as social and cultural anthropology, that are more explorative, intersubjective and interpretative.” We outlined our understanding of knowledge production in anthropology as a co-production of researchers and interlocutors, and in addition stressed that anthropologists feel “responsible for keeping such personal and potentially sensitive materials protected and confidential”. Against this background we argued against the setting as a default the open access to fieldwork materials. The guidelines of the Dutch Anthropological Association echoed this view, about which a broader consensus was reached (also in Germany, as a joint publication by Dilger, Pels and Sleeboom-Faulkner stressed) .
Anticipating the weaving of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) into the FAIR principles, we hoped that this would soften the requirement to publicly share data. In my view, however, the embracement of the GDPR made the pendulum almost swing to the other direction. The protection of interlocutors, beyond requiring (in)formal consent via forms or oral recordings, became much more emphasized in the work of ethics review committees, to which as a rule, all research proposals now have to be submitted at Dutch universities prior to the start of research. Certainly, at a time when research materials are stored online, it is of utmost importance to spell out the implications of assembling “data” and the ethical responsibilities of the researchers to live up to the anthropological adage “Do no harm”. At the same time, in the current ethics regime it has become more and more difficult to conduct ethnographic research, especially in societies outside of Europe. This is not only a question of the use of consent forms, but also of all the measures to be taken to protect informants during the research and of how to handle the materials collected. This involves highly complex copyright matters and legal issues concerning privacy that may differ in countries outside of Europe and cannot always be translated straightforwardly into the GDPR.
I hasten to stress that I am very much in favour of thinking through all the implications of research from the angle of interlocutors’ potential vulnerability. However, it is questionable whether this thinking through is well served by the excessive number of rounds through which ethics reviews have to go (both by the institution where the research takes place and by the funder) prior to the moment when a project may finally be started. The number of pages of such reviews may amount to the size of a book. I think that this process serves above all the ability of research institutions and funders to prove that they have submitted the proposed research to extensive scrutiny before declaring it cleared. The danger I see is that ethics and data management require a lot of attention at the expense of the actual research and sustained epistemological reflexion. I hear many young researchers complain, or even despair, about the new ethics regimes. This is not because they want to do their research un-ethically. The concern rather is to reflect on and “do” ethics “beyond the guidelines”, as a situated and contextual research practice, as pointed out the by initiators of this blog series Banu Karaca and Çiçek İlengiz.
Research ethics and data management take place in a highly complex, transforming configuration, with many different actors, interests and concerns. The impact and scope of the GDPR in relation to current ethics regimes is still to be worked out. It is of utmost importance that scholars invest in fully understanding this configuration, so as to be able to navigate and negotiate. Many questions arise: Which profile of researcher is required in the new ethics regimes and how does it differ from previous profiles? Which promises are to be made by researchers in order to get the green light, and is it practically feasible to implement them? Which impact do the current ethics regimes have on knowledge production, especially regarding research in societies outside of Europe? How do research ethics relate to (i.e. overlap, coexist yet also clash with) everyday ethics both in researchers’ and interlocutors’ practices? I am excited about this blog series because it opens up a forum to discuss such questions. Communicating researchers’ experiences with and ideas about ethical issues on the ground to ethics commissions on the level of research institutions and funders, will hopefully yield a more workable way of doing research ethics.
 Johannes Fabian, Time and the Other. How Anthropology Makes Its Object (New York: Columbia University Press, 2014).
 Hansjörg Dilger, Peter Pels, and Margaret Sleeboom-Faulkner, “Guidelines for Data Management and Scientific Integrity in Ethnography,” Ethnography 20, no. 1 (2019): 3–7, https://doi.org/10.1177/1466138118819018.
About the Author
Birgit Meyer (PhD Cultural Anthropology, 1995) is Professor of Religious Studies at Utrecht University where she directs the program Religious Matters in an Entangled World. For more information see 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.
Citation: Birgit Meyer, Doing Research Under Current Ethics Regimes: Some Observations, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 08.02.2024, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/50386
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Forum Transregionale Studien (2024, 8. Februar). Doing Research Under Current Ethics Regimes: Some Observations. TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research. Abgerufen am 29. Februar 2024, von https://doi.org/10.58079/vs5o