Global Context

Ethics, politics and the reflexive researcher

Instead of viewing morality as a system of principles to be grasped by the detached intellect, and emotions as motivations that either support or subvert our choice to act according to principle, we . . . [should] consider emotions as part and parcel of ethical reasoning.

Martha C. Nussbaum, Upheavals of Thought: The Intelligence of Emotions (2001)

Acknowledgement of the duty to care towards participants is fundamental to ethical research. Basic guidelines and advice are set out under other tabs (especially ‘Obligations to those researched’ and ‘Informed Consent and Anonymity and confidentiality’). Many would argue that the ethical duty of care does not necessarily end with a precautionary approach, but involves the researcher taking a socio-political stand. However, the relationship between research ethics and political responsibility is a not a matter of agreement between all researchers.

The issue can be seen as hinging on how the researcher understands the basis of her/his relationship to those researched (which is an epistemological issue). If the research is seen as scientific, then the participants can simply be seen as the subjects of research and the researcher has a privileged position as objective observer: in this situation the question of ethical obligations beyond the immediate research context do not necessarily arise. However, the “reflexive turn” has been highly influential on social science in general and anthropology in particular. Reflexivity has far-reaching implications for ethics: for the reflexive researcher involvement is inherent not optional.

The French philosopher Alain Badiou has been influential on the development of a reflexive approach to ethics in social research. Badiou proposes a positive doctrine that he calls "The Ethic of Truths," ultimately arguing that "there is no ethics in general." 1Instead, there are only "processes by which we treat the possibilities of a situation.” For Badiou and others, such as Jessica Benjamin and Lisa Baraitser, ethics is:

  • Concerned with processes of truth – a labour that brings some truth into the world.
  • Practiced in the specificity of the research encounter and research practice – being faithful.
  • Process, immanent, lived, intersubjective.

Moreover, only in bearing witness to ordinary situations and actions can an ethical practice be transformative. In the self-reflexive understanding of fieldwork the ethnographer, her/his feelings, experiences, identity, etc. moved centre stage from the margins of ethnography and these experiences are reflected upon as part of the way in which data are generated and knowledge is produced.

What, then, are the practical implications for the planning, development and carrying out of a research project? The reflexive practitioner needs to be aware that research projects take on a life of their own, and thus that what it neatly and tidily encapsulated in the ethical review submission may be very far from what happens during data-gathering or dissemination. The Canadian anthropologist Marilyn Silverman 2 exemplifies this in her work, arguing that ethics are less about big decisions than about the everyday practice of ethnography. She states that ethical behaviour in the field is actually about “crafting a persona”, or making an identity. Using a comparison between her own statement to a university ethics committee before she went into the field in Ireland, and the reality of what she calls “the reciprocity and confidentiality of fieldwork relations” as informants became friends, Silverman concludes that ethical decisions are also moral decisions, “in every day and with every decision”, and it is this which makes anthropology a “moral discipline”. 3 This suggests that during the data-gathering phase, ethical questions have continually to be re-visited. Further, it serves to emphasise that the actualities of fieldwork situations may not be covered by written ethical codes. In contrast, the self-reflexive researcher cultivates attentiveness to the fluidity of the research situation and the relationships which comprise it.

The researcher’s ethical stance with regard to the limits of the social scientists’ engagement is likely to be determined by their own political stance. For this reason, it is very important that researchers are reflexive and that they acknowledge their own standpoints while interrogating those of others, including their possible audiences/users. At the very least, researchers should consider the implications of the research for those who have the power to act – either within or outside developing countries, including governments, research councils, private companies and researchers.

The following example from Pat Caplan serves to illustrate the complex relationship between the research process and its potential for political influence:


Writing about Nepal in 1969 … and Nepal in 2008

Last year, I went back to Nepal, where I had last conducted fieldwork in 1969 and subsequently written a short book published in 1972. The book concerned relations between upper and lower castes in a Hindu village in West Nepal. It was reviewed rather unfavourably on, with the (lay) reviewer commenting that it was too academic to help lay people to understand the situation in Nepal in the 1990s, when there was a Maoist insurgency that then turned into a bloody civil war lasting two decades. On my return to Nepal in 2008, I was amazed but delighted to find that many academic colleagues had read that book published so long ago and had even circulated Xroxed copies of it, as it had long been out of print. They in turn were very happy to learn that a Kathmandu publisher had recently decided to republish it.

I basked in this happy combination of circumstances, until one of the academics at Tribhuvan University said ‘But of course, some people blame you too’. ‘For what?’ ‘For unmasking the notion that Nepal, officially a Hindu kingdom, had no caste conflict, that difference was contained peacefully within the panchayat system. Books like yours helped us to see ourselves as we are – fragmented, with multiple identities of caste, hill/plains, tribe/non-tribal. And ideas like this led to the conflict.’ I was considerably shaken by this remark, and have thought about it many times since. Did the anthropological stress on difference of which I had been a part really let the genie out of the bottle?


Exactly how the individual practitioner translates self-reflexive engagement into action in a political arena will be a matter of personal conscience; and, as noted above, there is likely to be two-way influence between a person’s politics and research ethics.

For some practitioners, political engagement in the research field is necessary and fundamental. For instance, Nancy Scheper-Hughes – known for her work investigating the international illegal trade in human organs – holds a vision of ethical research as being radical and politicised, where the ethnographer takes up a position on the side of the oppressed and exploited.

I want to ask what anthropology might become if it existed on two fronts: as a field of knowledge (as a ‘discipline’) and as a field of action, a force field, or a site of struggle. Anthropological writing can be a site of resistance. ..We can practice an anthropology-with-one’s-feet-on-the-ground, a committed, grounded, even a ‘barefoot’ anthropology. We can write books that go against the grain by avoiding impenetrable prose… so as to be accessible to the people we say we represent…We can make ourselves available not just as friend or as ‘patrons’ in the old colonialist sense but as comrades (with all the demands and responsibilities that this word implies) to the people who are the subjects of our writings, who lives and miseries provide us with a livelihood... In doing so, we can position ourselves, as R. Redfield once put it, squarely on the side of humanity. We can be anthropologists, comrades and companheiras’.

Scheper-Hughes, Nancy. ‘The Primacy of the Ethical: Propositions for a Militant Anthropology’
Current Anthropology
36, 3, June 1995: 409-40. Page 420

Others, however, have adopted a less radical stance, and have sought to ‘do some good’ by getting involved in development, by working for NGOs or the UN or other agencies whose purpose is supposed to be about helping people. However, some have suggested that such a move is not necessarily the perfect answer to the desire to ‘do some good’. As Fluehr-Lobban notes:

A significant problem with ‘doing good’ …. is the subjective nature of what ‘good’ means to different persons or cultures. Doing some good can evolve to fulltime research-activist agendas …. that might readily be critiqued as international social work driven by paternalistic/ maternalistic, top-down agendas. 5

Clearly, researchers should be attentive to the problem of importing ethnocentric values into their research context – what is ‘good’ in one setting may not be appropriate in another. Moreover, the transnational context of much contemporary research accentuates the relativity of such basic values as ‘doing good’, ‘treating participants equally’ and ‘not causing harm’. Questions arise concerning the scale on which one attempts to do ‘good’, the fact that participants may not be ‘equal’ and the issue of doing ‘harm’ to people considered to be oppressors. The ESRC Research Ethics Framework acknowledges that researchers may encounter situations where doing ‘good’ for the oppressed can involve doing ‘harm’ to the oppressor:

2.1.7: Some research that poses risks to research subjects in a way that is legitimate in context of the research and its outcomes. This might arise for two reasons. First, as is recognised elsewhere (see Tri-Council of Canada, 2002. research may be ‘deliberately and legitimately opposed to the interests of the research subjects’ in cases where the objectives of the research are to reveal and critique fundamental economic, political or cultural disadvantage or exploitation. Much social science research has a critical role to play in exploring and questioning social, cultural and economic structures and processes (for example relating to patterns of power and social inequality), and institutional dynamics and regimes that disadvantage some social groups over others, intentionally or not. Such research results may have a negative impact on some of the research subjects. Principles of justice should, however, mean that researchers would seek to minimise any personal harm to such people. Secondly, researchers should also consider how to balance the potential of immediate or short-term risks to research subjects against longer-term gains to future beneficiaries. It is the responsibility of the research proposers to make such a case in detail to an REC.

(ESRC, REF: p,22; emphasis added)

1 Badiou, A. 2002. Ethics: An Essay on the Understanding of Evil. Verso: London

2 Silverman, Marilyn, 2003. ‘Everyday ethics: a personal journey in rural Ireland, 1980-2001’. In P. Caplan (ed.) Ethics and Anthropology: Debates and Dilemmas. London and New York: Routledge.

3 Silverman, Marilyn, 2003. ‘Everyday ethics: a personal journey in rural Ireland, 1980-2001’. In P. Caplan (ed.) Ethics and Anthropology: Debates and Dilemmas. London and New York: Routledge, p.128

4 Scheper-Hughes, Nancy. ‘The Primacy of the Ethical: Propositions for a Militant Anthropology’ Current Anthropology 36, 3, June 1995: 409-40, p.420

5 Fluehr-Lobban, Carolyn, 2008. ‘Anthropology and Ethics in America’s Imperial Age’ Anthropology Today



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