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Ethical research in a global context

(Published on http://www.lancaster.ac.uk/researchethics/index.html )

Nayanika Mookherjee
Reader in Socio-cultural anthropology,
Durham University

The global context involves an intersection of the global and the local - and a juncture at which they can influence each other. This situates the researcher in a complex, layered and politically informed arena. Moreover, research at the global crossroads can involve working in international or transnational organisations; and/or undertaking research outside one's own country and therefore in varied contexts and 'cultures'.

The word culture is predominantly understood as referring to local practices of non-western countries and that of ethnic minorities. It is important to remember that the idea of culture can encompass corporate, youth, club, consumer, religious (with various overlaps amongst each) etc. 'cultures' in the 'west' and non-west' and not just ethnic spaces and enclaves. As a result there is no absolute distinction between social science research ethics in global and intra-UK contexts, and the same fundamental ethics apply. Issues of ethics related to decorum, cordiality, custom, common sense should be kept in mind in all contexts. For example a researcher undertaking research in a predominantly middle class area in the UK would need similar permissions to enter a house to interview people to those in 'non-western' places. Similarly issues of decorum, safety and risk, interactions with bureaucracy and authorities would need to be borne in mind whether working in a local authority housing estate in the 'west', on floods in English villages, a music festival in a village in Mali, club cultures in New York, shopping malls in Shanghai or call centres in Bangalore.

The following fundamental principles of ethical practice need to be kept in mind in all contexts:

  • Respect for persons and cultures Treating people as autonomous agents; protecting the vulnerable
  • Beneficence (and non-maleficence) Doing no harm and maximising beneficial outcomes
  • Justice Treating human beings as equals: not being exploitative, distributing risks and benefits fairly

Much research work in the Global Context is undertaken within the social anthropology research tradition. Anthropology's self-awareness of its 'dark past' (colonial contexts) has led to ethical questioning and rigour in relation to contemporary practice.1 The reflexive turn has been of particular significance to the ethical approach of ethnographic researchers: for the reflexive ethnographer ethics are negotiated with personal sensitivity in response to the emergent needs of the situation. However, this has fed into concerns in wider social science practice and a reflexive, process orientated approach to ethics is also characteristic of other forms of social science such as participatory research. Above all research at the global crossroads is not just an 'anthropological' concern but has implications for health, development, human rights, politics, biotechnology, genomics and gender and so forth.

Researchers need to develop knowledge of contextualised norms and decorum in all research contexts, especially where these impact directly on the research work. Research conducted inside/outside one's own community/country raises special ethical and political issues relating to personal and national disparities in wealth, power, the legal status of the researcher, political interest and national political systems. The imperative to protect the vulnerable may take on particular significance in contexts of volatile political situations or repressive regimes.2

Specific contextual and political situations can make ethical judgements concerning the imperatives for beneficence and justice difficult. Moreover, research in the global context can involve the researcher in a complex interplay between governments (one's own and local), international politics and other transnational interests such as NGOs and multinational corporations. In considering issues of justice and injustice, researchers may be located between competing value systems whilst working under the necessity to navigate a range of competing agendas. Governmental, NGO or multinational sponsorship of research can also lead to acute ethical dilemmas relating to accountability.

  1. See Mookherjee, Nayanika 2009. 'Debates on Ethical Practice: A Perspective from the Association of Social Anthropologists' in Anthropology News (American Anthropological Association) Vol 50, issue 6. Co-authored article with Dr. Ian Harper. September 09: 10-11.
  2. See Mookherjee, Nayanika 2008. 'Friendships and ethnographic 'encounters within left-liberal politics in Bangladesh' in H. Armbruster and A. Laerke eds. Taking Sides: Politics and Ethnography. (A Nancy Lindisfarne Fetschcrift). Oxford: Berghahn: 65-87 Also Mookherjee, Nayanika 2003. 'Ethical Issues Concerning Representation of Narratives of Sexual Violence'. Women and War – activist website seeking to raise funds for war- affected women of 1971, http://www.drishtipat.org/1971/war.htm