Doing Things for Ourselves: Responding to the Condescending Ethos of Institutional Ethics Processes
This blog builds on the previous discussion of the condescending ethos of institutionalised ethics processes, by arguing for Maori/First Nation-led ethics processes:
In a powerful call to arms for the decolonisation of the edifice of Eurocentric, colonialist research, Arthur Smith (1997: 25/26) asserts that:
It is self evident that Indigenous people now want their voice in research, and they want it to be heard and understood.... [t]he right to establish and control the terms and conditions of cultural research is an inalienable right for all peoples of the Earth. The colonial era is dead, if not yet buried.
Given the experiences of Research Ethics Board-related conduct reported in the previous blog, one might argue that at least in the realm of academic, institutionalised ethics, the paternalism that characterised colonialism is alive and kicking in the present.
One strong justification for the need for an overhaul of First Nation experience of institutionalised ethics is the impact it has on us as ‘ethical researchers’. In the end, the repeated requests for assurances from the author that he would adhere to AUT University's preferred, individual-focused ethics protocols (particularly relating to informed consent) were given (albeit by my supervisor), simply so the REB would sign-off and enable my doctoral research to proceed. This was done with full knowledge that in all instances the ethics protocols of First Nation communities, participants (whether as individuals, groups or communities) would take precedence over the protocols of the REB in question (see Haggerty, 2004: 408, for further discussion of the related issue of ‘conscious subversion of formulaic, institutionalised ethics protocols’). Schwandt (2007: 92) refers to this strategy as ‘playing the game’ for the sake of receiving the gift of authorisation; a strategy she used from time-to-time to keep her own students safe (albeit from REBs) as related thus:
We publicly and privately complain about the onerous review process, but when it comes time to file the papers, we simply figure out what it is in terms of language and procedure that IRBs [REBs] are looking for and then find ways to say it just so.... a major problem with such a strategy is that it encourages confusing technical compliance with IRB regulations with careful and sound substantive ethical review of one’s research. Moreover, it creates the impression that ethical matters are dealt with once IRB approval has been granted (ibid: 92).
According to focus group participants in research I carried out in New Zealand and Canada in 2010-11, personal communications with Indigenous researchers, and the extant literature, ‘playing the game’ is widespread; indeed it is considered by some as necessary for their protection as a researcher, and for the protection of their participating Indigenous communities. Understanding a researcher’s decision to ignore the advice and direction of an institutional REB is easy when we see that “... research ethics boards can create an unproductive tension between receiving ‘ethics approval’, and being an ‘ethical researcher... because REBs regularly confuse the difference between ‘ethics’ as a noun (i.e. a process for ‘ethics’ review), and ‘ethical as an adjective (i.e. a research review process that is ‘ethical’) ’” (Riviere, 2011: 195).
While it is easy to understand or validate resistance strategies like ‘playing the game’, I wish to propose a different strategy, one that requires us to stop playing the ‘ethics game’ as dictated by institutional REBs. I am advocating that we develop our own REB(s), modelled on our specific socio-cultural and ethical principles and practices (see Brant-Castellano, 2004 and Manson, Garroutte, Goins and Henderson, 2004: 60S for similar arguments in other colonial jurisdictions).
What is being proposed here is neither novel, nor unrealistic. Similar calls have been made by Maori commentators in the past with regards the development of a Maori Ethical Framework (e.g. Palmer 2009; Te Ropu Rangahau Hauora a Eru Pomare, 1996) Precedents have already been set by other First Nations residing in Settler Societies; including the Cherokee (Manson et al, 2004: 65S-70S; Nuu Chah Nulth First Nation (Wiwchar, 2004) and Mi’kmaq Grand Council of Mi’kma’ki (also known as Sante Maio’mi within the seven districts of the Mi’kmaq nation, Nova Scotia). Indeed, in relation to Canada Menzies (2001: 21) writes that:
Many First Nations communities have now instituted research protocols that researchers must abide by when researching in a First Nation community. Such protocols, whether community – or researcher initiated, ultimately contribute to the establishment and maintenance of respectful research relations.
Let us consider the example provided by the eminent leaders of the Mi’kmaq First Nations who authorised the development of the Mi’kmaw Ethics Watch (Ethics’ Eskinuapink) “to oversee research processes that involve Mi’kmaw knowledge sought among Mi’Kmaw people, ensuring that researchers conduct research ethically and appropriately within Mi’Kma’ki” (Battiste, 2007: 114). Battiste (2007: 114-115) relates that developing the process was “... a significant step toward ensuring Mi’kmaw peoples’ self-determination and the protection of our cultural and intellectual property”. The said Ethics Committee oversees the research protocol and ethical research throughout the seven traditional districts of the Grand Council, which includes the provinces of Newfoundland, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, and Quebec. Members of the original Mi’kmaw Ethics Watch included community elders, leaders and researchers. This body works in similar ways to REBs; members receive and consider research proposals, assessing them against identified ethics norms and protocols. The purpose is again, similar to that of an institutionally-focused REB, except in this case the primary goal is the protection of Mi’Kmaw peoples and Mi’Kmaw knowledge (Battiste, 2007: 126-127).
Doing Things for Ourselves
The important thing is that the time has passed when non-Indigenous researchers could even presume to speak on behalf of Indigenous Australians or speculate for one moment about whether their research is different and what the current priorities are, or will be. This is Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander business. The right to establish and control the terms and conditions of cultural research is an inalienable right for all peoples of the Earth. The colonial era is dead, if not yet buried (Smith, 1997: 25).
No doubt that the construction of a pan-Maori ethics process would cause discomfort for some REBs and non-Indigenous researchers. After all, as Glass and Kaufert (2007: 27) write REBs “are accustomed to being the sole arbiters of the ethical acceptability of a project. With contemporary demands for indigenous participation, they may now be asked (or told) to collaborate with communities who perform another review”.... and furthermore that “[m]ost conventional boards are not yet well prepared to meet the demand of communities for a more interactive partnership”. No doubt some, including Maori and other Indigenous researchers, will likely advocate for continued participation in REBs, in order to enhance their processes ‘from within’, in a display of beneficial co-operation. There is some validity to this position because most, if not all New Zealand REBs involve Maori academics as members or external advisors'. Also, most committees in their protocols a sub-section dedicated to ‘protecting’ vulnerable populations such as Maori and Pacifica peoples. And yet despite all this, too many Maori academics and post-graduate researchers report being victimised and sidelined by analysis and decision-making behaviour of these committees. So, by all means let us carry on being members of REBs, and provide gentle chastisement for any unethical, disempowering conduct and decisions. But let us not lose sight of who they work for in the first instance – the institutions in which they reside. We need to force the issue by developing a body dedicated to advising, nurturing and supporting our post-graduates and established researchers; a body capable of holding REBs, government agencies and private researchers to task if their conduct negatively impacts Maori researchers and Maori research participants.
In response to the anticipated resistance from REB, their members and the wider Academy, I offer the following rationale: I believe that a separate Maori ethics review forum is a necessity because it would:
- underline the unique status of Maori as Treaty partners;
- serve as a real, observable action that operationalises self-determination in the realm of knowledge production (see Bishop, 1998: 201);
- send a strong message to the non-Indigenous academy, and in particular the institutions they serve, that their perspective on ‘how to research’ the Indigenous Other is no longer hegemonic;
- provide emerging and experienced Maori researchers with an experienced body of experts to whom they can turn for support; advice on methods, methodology, analysis and all other issues relating to scholarship;
- provide an experienced body to which non-Maori/Indigenous scholars, REBs, etc, can engage with to enhance their ability to carry out ethical research with Maori; and
- provide a Maori-dominated body to which Maori individuals, organisations, hapu, iwi and communities can turn for support when confronted with issues involving researchers, REBs and academic institutions.
Furthermore, by developing our own REB, albeit freed from the ideological strains brought about by Eurocentric hegemony, we will move towards enveloping knowledge construction within the movement towards sovereignty (Wilson, 2004). We will, in effect, be better positioned to meet the required actions of a sovereign people, as identified in First Nation literature, namely to:
- resist or reject Eurocentric theory – in this instance theories about the gathering and dissemination of ‘valid’ knowledge;
- resist or reject versions of ourselves that are fantasies of the power elite – in this instance the hegemonic constructions of ‘otherness’ that permeate New Zealand REB’s;
- free ourselves to explore epistemological differences, thus freeing ourselves from the constraints of Eurocentric epistemology;
- reclaim that which is too often denied us – namely the right to gather and disseminate information as we see fit, and resist (if need be) what is said and written about us (see Tuck and Fine, 2007: 163 and Battiste, 2000).
Any arguments (especially by members of the Academy and REB’s) to this suggestion will need to respond to the recent United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples adopted by the General Assembly in 2007 that recognises the often poor treatment of Indigenous peoples by its member states and calls for “control by Indigenous peoples over development effecting them and their land”, and the need for Indigenous peoples to give their “[f]ree, prior and informed consent” to any decisions or actions that affect their well-being. Inarguably, the actions of researchers and research bodies – including academic institutions and their REB’s – can be considered as such. And as Castellano (2004: 102) rightly points out:
[f]undamental to the exercise of self-determination is the right of peoples to construct knowledge in accordance with self-determined definitions of what is real and what is valuable. Just as colonial policies have denied Aboriginal Peoples access to their traditional lands, so also colonial definitions of truth and value have denied Aboriginal Peoples the tools to assert and implement their knowledge. Research under the control of outsiders to the Aboriginal community has been instrumental in rationalising colonialist perceptions of Aboriginal incapacity and the need for paternalistic control.
The Academy, especially members of REBs, and the general population of researchers, might balk at an Indigenous-led ethics process. No doubt some will view it as just another level of ‘red-tape’. Schnarch (2004: 93) preempts such concerns when he writes that:
Some researchers may balk at the idea of a First Nations review/approval process, construing it as political interference contrary to academic freedom. They do, however, readily accept the constraints of peer review for funding proposals, journal articles, and so on. As with academic review, a First Nations review process is generally intended to ensure quality of the work, its relevance, and the appropriateness of interpretation.
Having prompted some of the likely counter-arguments, I see no reason why we cannot proceed to develop a Maori-specific ethics body in the social sciences. We already have a ready vehicle upon which to build the process, the Maori Association of Social Sciences, which I believe can easily be turned from a representative/relational body, into one that actively works to support and protect researchers and research communities.
This now brings us full circle, back to the opening section of the previous blog, that highlighted the range of First Nation criticisms of Eurocentric, institutionalised research processes. A key motivation for the First Nation focus on Western modes of knowledge construction was the role this activity played in the colonisation process and its ongoing role in Indigenous marginalisation in the neo-colonial context (Tauri, 2009). As Battiste and Henderson (2000: 132-133) write “[m]ost existing research on Indigenous peoples is contaminated by Eurocentric prejudice.... [thus the development of] ethical research must begin by replacing Eurocentric prejudice with new premises that value diversity over universality”. It is my contention that if we are to achieve the retrenchment of Eurocentric hegemony over knowledge construction and dissemination, we must challenge the power and authority the academy has granted itself over the production process; a power that is personified in institutionally-centred bodies such as REBs.
As if we need further justification for Indigenous resistance, we might consider Bradley's (2007: 341) comment that:
By controlling the models of research, who gets to speak and how subjects get to represent themselves, IRBs are in a powerful position as part of the institutional structure. In this position they can, and often do, silence the voices of the marginalised and perpetuate an academic political economy and a traditional top-down research and professional model that quantify and objectify human lives by keeping them nameless, faceless and voiceless.
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