Friday, 22 March 2013

Explaining the Condescending Ethics of Research Ethics Boards in Neo-Colonial Contexts

The purpose of this blog is to provoke discussion and debate about the practices of University Research Ethics Boards and the important role they play in determining what is, and what is not, 'ethical' research; often without the requisite experience of Indigenous approaches to knowledge construction, and little experience of research with (as opposed to 'on') Indigenous peoples.


To assume that the Aboriginal past or knowledge can be adequately explained from a totally foreign worldview is the essence of cognitive imperialism and academic colonisation                                    

                                                                              Henderson (1997, p. 23, emphasis added)

In 2008 I enrolled in my PhD at AUT University, in Auckland, New Zealand.  At the end of the following year I handed in my ethics approval forms as required of all students wanting to carry out post-graduate research at  a New Zealand university.  Having developed research/ethics guidelines for government agencies in the past, assisted other Maori post-graduates experiencing difficulties with institutional ethics processes, and cognisant of the many and varied issues with these processes as reported in the growing, critical literature (see Absolon, 2008; Berg, Evans & Fuller, 2007; Ellis & Earley, 2006; Marker, 2004; Smith, 1999; Wax, 1991), I was especially attentive to the principles and process utilised by AUT to measure the ethics of post-graduate student research.  

After reading through the wad of papers provided by AUT's Research Ethics Board (REB) (known as AUTEC) I had quickly come to the following conclusions:
  1. the committee employed a set of risk-reduction focused, standardised  ethics 'tools'.  These tools were derived largely from the biomedical model that has long been challenged by 'critical' social researchers for privileging the 'autonomous, rational individual' over collective approaches with regards to all aspects of the research process;
  2. the key concepts and related practices, such as informed consent, risk, anonymity, etc,  were central to the ethics toolbox;
  3. the REB included the usual sub-section on 'engaging with Maori/Pacifica/minorities' which included the standard, vague command that we (researchers) 'ensure the cultural appropriateness of our research with Maori/minorities', etc, etc;
  4. the REB in question relied heavily on a set of standardised, 'tick-the-box' processes for guiding its decision-making; and
  5. despite having a Maori member, the Board had little experience of qualitative research with Maori, none whatsoever with Canadian First Nations, and no members with knowledge and experience of the discipline that informed the authors approach, Criminology. 
This situation was clearly going to cause problems for the proposed research as the methodology (including the ethics protocols - i.e., the key principles and practices that ensure you carry out respectful, appropriate research that does not place research participants at risk) was developed from significant, prior engagement with Indigenous advisers and potential research participants (both in Canada and New Zealand): in other words the 'ethics protocols' were set by the Indigenous participants themselves, accredited by experienced Indigenous researchers and experts from within the participating Indigenous communities.  This process - developing an ethical framework for research engagement with Indigenes - is central to much of the Indigenous scholarship on the subject of ethical research with Indigenous peoples (for references read pretty much all the references already cited in this piece, as well as Bishop, 1998; Glass and Kaufert, 2007 and Schnarch, 2004).  The engagement process resulted in an ethics protocol highlighted by the following:
  1. no recording of interviews/focus groups in long houses/marae (if these venues are utilised);
  2. informed consent for focus groups to be based on collective, verbal agreement and not signed forms;
  3. where verbal agreement is given (and due to recording devices not being used), one individual (delegated by the group, or a designated elder) will be contactable by AUT persons if verification of consent is required; and
  4. provisions will be made for individualised, written informed consent if requested by First Nation participants, but the emphasis would be on their preferred, collectivist engagement and consent practices.
In other words, the Indigenous-derived ethics process approach was to be privileged in both the New Zealand and Canadian contexts.

Unsurprisingly, the REB's response was less than ideal, with the original and subsequent applications being rejected, mostly on the basis of the privileging of collectivist, verbally derived informed consent over that of the standard, individual-focused, written consent process preferred by AUTEC.  The second application included a thorough critique of the REB's preferred consent process, based on Indigenous literature and the views of the author's Indigenous advisers, and a thorough explanation of the rationale behind the Indigenous ethics protocol.  As a compromise, the REB was offered a dual process: at the start of each community engagement, participants would be offered AUTEC's informed consent process; if this were rejected (as was likely), then the author would revert to the process stipulated by participants.  The REB in question rejected the compromise offered of a dual-consent process and continued to attempt to force its preferred individualised consent and engagement process upon the researcher and his research participants. Many more months were lost attempting to alter the approach taken by the REB, before my supervisor finally received formal sign off for the research to proceed in April 2010. 

Having provided the background, I want to move to explaining why this type of situation commonly occurs when Indigenous researchers, and research participants, find themselves engaging with academic REBs.

Indigenous critique of institutionalised ethics

Recently, a number of First Nation researchers have criticised the role REB’s play in stifling Indigenous-led, community-driven research.  Indigenous and (critical) non-Indigenous  critique of REB conduct covers a broad range of issues, including (but by no means exclusively):

Individualism marked by the privileging of the autonomous research participant, and informed consent processes that forces individualised research and ethics protocols upon collectives.

Lack of expertisemembers of REBs often lack adequate disciplinary, epistemological and methodological expertise in Indigenous research/issues, resulting in an over-reliance on tick-the-box approaches that ensure the hegemony of institutionally-derived protocols.

Universalism – the propensity for REBs to utilise processes derived from Eurocentric notions of ‘right’ (research) conduct, and essentialist notions of what does/does not constitute an ethical researcher, all of which eulogise the ‘individual’ research participant and marginalise social groups which prefer collectivist constructs to guide the research process.

Formulism – an over-reliance on standardised, formulaic, ‘tick-the-box’ approaches that mask the complexity of the social context within which research takes place.

I argue that the research-related universalism described above, forms a key operating principle for AUT's REB, and perhaps for all academic institutions across Settler Societies.  

Universalism works as a dominant operational principle throughout the country, despite the fact that all REB-related guidelines include text exhorting researchers (and, one presumes, REB’s) to ‘respect difference’.  Universalism, especially the Eurocentric, 'one-size-fits-all' approach to ethics it encourages, poses a significant risk for the Indigenous researcher and their research participants; a point repeatedly made during the interviews and focus groups I proceeded with in the second half of 2010 and throughout 2011 - and to which I included a set of questions on my participants views of AUTEC's behaviour.  For example, one prominent Maori researcher, when interviewed for my doctoral research said the following about AUTEC's attempts to override the Indigenous-derived ethics protocols I had initially developed:

The issue seems to me to be about their (the REBs) authority, and not about the best way of going about this business.  As Maori we have the right to determine how both insiders and outsiders research with us... reading that document [the REB’s written determination re: the second EA1 application], reads like they didn’t want to understand because it was easier to stick with what they know.  That is not a system based on everyone being the same [Universalism], but on everyone being like them. It is condescending to the extreme to tell us our ways are unethical.

The condescending ethics of research ethics boards
‘Condescending ethics’ – positions participants as the ‘Other’, reinforces powerlessness, and further marginalises them with knowledge production processes.                                    
                                                                               Reid and Brief (2009, p. 83)

So how do we explain the current state of affairs of institutionalised ethics processes in New Zealand and other Settler Societies?  To begin we might describe their processes and behaviour as little more than a contemporary manifestation of the condescending ethos that formed the basis of the role played by the academy and its research activities in the colonisation of First Nations (Battiste, 2000; Smith, 1999).  

The condescension of academic REBs and their processes relates directly to their preference for individualised research ethics, and the categorisation of the ‘subject’ as an autonomous entity to be engaged in meaningful ways, preferably after the institutionally-focused review process has been followed.  It is in the construction of the 'ethical' research subject as he/she whom acts autonomously (apart from the collective), and who can only give consent 'in writing', that we find the basis of the condescending institutional formulation of the 'right way' to engage ethically; a way that by necessity, marginalises any and all other approaches to gathering, analysing and disseminating knowledge.

Butzs’ invocation of Habermas’ concept of communicative action in relation to his own experiences of REB’s, provides a useful conceptual framework for understanding the condescending ethos that supports institutionalised ethics processes such as those employed by AUTEC and other, similar institutional Boards.  

According to Butz, Habermas distinguishes between two principle forms of ‘action’ in late modernity, Instrumental and Communicative.  Instrumental action is “oriented to technical manipulation and control, and communicative action to the ideal of intersubjective understanding and consensus among individuals” (Butz, 2008, p. 250).  As Butz states (Ibid, p. 250, emphasis his)

The former is outcome oriented, the latter process oriented.  For Habermas, communicative action is ethically prior to instrumental action, in that the justice of an outcome is contingent on the justice of the process that yielded it.  In contemporary modernity, he argues, the communicative effort to reach consensus is frequently sacrificed to the imperative of bureaucratic efficiency.

It is easy to view the author’s experience of REB’s in New Zealand (and, according to the extant literature, other Settler societies), in this vein, especially: 

[w]hen it is assumed that the problem of voluntary informed consent is solved by asking participants individually to sign written consent agreements regardless of the research context, then a fully communicative appreciation of the adjectives voluntary and informed are subordinated to the instrumental purposes of the monitoring and controlling attached to the noun consent (Butz, 2002, p. 251 – emphasis his).

Central to our understanding of the condescending nature of REB process and Indigenous research, is the concept of power.  In the mythology of the development of contemporary research ethics, REBs arose from concerns of power imbalances between the researcher - all powerful, and therefore ‘potentially dangerous’, and the research subject – powerless and in need of protection, provided, of course, by REBs as the independent arbiter of ‘righteous research conduct’ (Juritzen, Grimen & Heggen, 2011).  Juritzen et al argue in favour of expanding the conceptualisation of power in the researcher-research subject relationship to critically encompass “ethics committees as one among several actors that exert power and that act in a relational interplay with researchers and participants” (ibid, p. 640).  Thus, given the considerable power REBs wield, they cannot be exempt from critical commentary.  Let us now turn to explaining how and why condescending ethics processes manifest themselves through institutionally-derived REBs.

Lack of expertise, REBs and condescending ethics
The reported experiences of First Nation commentators and researchers points consistently to one key source of discontent with REBs, namely that their members generally lack experience of Indigenous communities, and the core principles and practices that are central to knowledge construction and dissemination within these Nations (Smith, 1999).  Sadly, in my experience, and that of other Indigenous researchers, this results in REBs that are dominated by non-Indigenous academics and external advisors' who make decisions about appropriate ethics protocols, while lacking the necessary socio-cultural experience and knowledge to make informed decisions on the 'ethics' of Indigenous research conduct. 

Van den Hoonaard (2006, p. 269) contends that the issue for many researchers is not the ethics codes used by REBs, but rather how these codes are interpreted and employed by committee members; especially where members clearly have little experience of the context within which research takes place.  This position is supported by significant literature (e.g., Anthony, 2004; Bradley, 2007; Haggerty, 2003) and comments made to the author during his recent engagement with First Nation researchers, including one research participant who stated that:

In my dealings with IRBs, I find they will have a standard ethics guidelines; go to the bibliography and all the usual experts are there, Henderson, Smith... they [REBs] say the right things, consult, engage, privilege [the Indigenous], but the practice is different.  Mainly white committees, no experience of us, who revert to their ways, to what they understand to be right.

Reid and Brief (2009, p. 83) highlight this failing with respect to their own experience of REB interference in their ethnographic project: “.... they did not have the capacity or resources to fully support ethical decision-making in the project, nor did they have the mechanisms in place to hear from the community researchers themselves”. 

Arguably, in the case of Indigenous-focused research, the lack of knowledge and experience of the research context is of greater risk to both researcher and participants than lack of disciplinary expertise.  Hammersley (2006, p. 4) describes the dangers thus: “Researchers’ decisions about how to pursue their enquiries involve weighting ethical and other considerations against one another, and this requires detailed knowledge of the contexts concerned”.  By drawing conclusions on the ethics of research situations they have little expertise in or knowledge of, and ignoring advice from those with the relevant experience, REBs place Indigenous researchers and their research participants in danger of experiencing ‘unethical institutionalised research’.  Hammersley (2006, p. 6) further states that:

What is involved here, to a large extent, is a great pretence: ethics committees are to operate as if making research decisions were a matter of applying a coherent [standardised] set of ethical rules that do not conflict with any other considerations, or that override them, and that good decisions can be made without having much contextual knowledge.

While following and conforming to an institutionalised bureaucratised ethics process means you have ‘acted’ as an ethical researcher in that particular context, the experience of the author, his research participants and the published (critical Indigenous) record, demonstrates that simply following REB processes does not guarantee ethical research ‘on the ground’.  It is argued here that conformity to the Academy’s bureaucratised processes comes with significant, potentially ‘unethical’ baggage because, as Knight et al (2004, p. 397) argue, institutionalised ethics protocols are a set of “cultural norms that [serve] the interests and reflects the values of the IRB and the academy”.   These cultural norms, replicated through mandatory engagement with institutional ethics processes, reflects the ‘knowledge by mass production’ that permeates so much of the Academy today; the dangers of which are beautifully summarised by Lorenz (2012, p. 606) who writes that:

We should not be surprised.... that universities have been changing in the direction of academic capitalism in the form of entrepreneurial McUniversities.  This development boils down to ‘a move from elite specialisation with strong professional controls towards a ‘Fordist’ mass production arrangement’. 

The McDonaldisation of the Academy is perhaps most evident when the formalisation of research becomes married with an over-reliance by academic institutions on universalistic processes of knowledge construction.  This situation, combined with the general lack of expertise of REB members of the Indigenous social context, generates an environment for the Indigenous pursuit of knowledge that is often seriously impeded by the inherent contradictions and condescension of the Academy's Eurocentric notions of 'right conduct' in the research context.  

In the next instalment of The Indigenous Criminologist I will offer a solution to the current dominance of REBs in determining what is/is not ethical conduct with Indigenous peoples, by arguing for a Maori-led process developed and delivered through the auspices of the Maori Association of Social Sciences.  

Absolon, K. (2008). Kaandosswin, this is how we come to know!  Indigenous graduate research in the academy: Worldviews and methodologies, unpublished PhD, University of Toronto, Toronto.
Anthony, R. (2004). Consistency of ethics review, Forum Qualitative Sozialforshung/Forum: Qualitative Social Research, Vol. 6 No. 1, online.  
Battiste, M. (2000). Introduction: Unfolding the lessons of colonisation.  In M. Battiste (Ed.), Reclaiming Indigenous Voices and Vision, xvi-xxx.  Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press.  
Berg, L., Evans, M. and Fuller, D. (2007). Ethics, hegemonic whiteness, and the contested imagination of 'aboriginal community' in social science research in Canada, ACME: An International E-Journal for Critical Geographies, Vol. 6 No. 3, pp. 395-410.  
Bishop, R. (1998). Freeing ourselves from neo-colonial domination in research: A Maori approach to creating knowledge, International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, Vol. 11, pp. 199-219. 
Bradley, M. (2007). Silenced for their own protection: How the IRB marginalises those it feigns to protect, ACME: An International E-Journal for Critical Geographies6(3), 339-349. 
Butz, D. (2008). Sidelined by the guidelines: Reflections on the limitations of standard informed consent procedures for the conduct of research, ACME: An International E-Journal for Critical Geographies, Vol. 7 No. 2, pp. 239-259. 
Ellis, J. and Earley, M. (2006). Reciprocity and constructions of informed consent: Researching with indigenous populations, International Journal of Qualitative Methods, Vol. 5 No. 4, pp. 2-13.
Glass, K. and Kaufert, J. (2007). Research ethics review and aboriginal community values: Can the two be reconciled?  Journal of Empirical Research on Human Research Ethics, Vol. 3 No 2, pp. 25-40. 
Haggerty, K. (2003). Ethical drift: Governing social research in the name of ethics, paper presented at the American Law and Society meeting, Pittsburgh, 5-8 June. 
Hammersley, M. (2006). Are ethics committees ethical?  Qualitative Researcher, Vol 2, 4-7. 
Henderson, J. (1997). The Mi'kmaw Concordat. Halifax, Fernwood Publishing.
Juritzen, T., Grimen, H. and Heggen, K. (2011). Protecting vulnerable research participants: A Foucault-inspired analysis of ethics committees,  Nursing EthicsVol 18 No. 5, pp. 640-650. 
Knight, M., Bentley, C., Norton, N. and Dixon, I. (2004). (De)constructing (in)visible parent/guardian consent forms: Negotiating power, reflexivity, and the collective within qualitative research,  Qualitative Inquiry, Vol 10 No. 3, pp. 684-699. 
Lorenz, C. (2012). If you’re so smart, why are you under surveillance?  Universities, neoliberalism, and new public management.  Critical Inquiry, Vol. 38, pp. 599-629.
Marker, M. (2004). Theories and disciplines as sites of struggle: The reproduction of colonial dominance through the controlling of knowledge in the academy, Canadian Journal of Native Education, Vol. 28 No. 1/2, pp. 102-110. 
Reid, C., and Brief, E. (2009). Confronting condescending ethics: How community-based research challenges traditional approaches to consent, confidentiality, and capacity,  Journal of Academic Ethics, Vol. 7, pp. 75-85.
Smith, L. (1999). Decolonising methodologies: Research and indigenous peoples. Dunedin: University of Otago Press.  
Scharch, B. (2004). Ownership, control, access, and possession (OCAP) or self-determination applied research: A critical analysis of contemporary First Nation research and some options for First Nation communities,  Journal of Aboriginal Health, January, pp. 80-95. 
van den Hoonard, W. (2006). New angles and tangles in the ethics review of research,  Journal of Academic Ethics4, 261-274. 
Wax, M. (1991). The ethics of research in American Indian communities,  American Indian Quarterly, Vol. 15 No. 4, pp 457-469. 

No comments:

Post a Comment