No Bureaucratic Pain, No Ethical Gain

June 16, 2014

By Nathan J. Brown, George Washington University

* This memo was prepared as part of the “Ethics and Research in the Middle East” symposium

What are the ethical issues facing political scientists who undertake field work in the Middle East? The issues are hardly new but they have rarely been systematically discussed. While our colleagues in some disciplines have long wrestled publicly about the ethics of fieldwork, political scientists have more often discussed such matters among themselves informally.

And so most of us learn by example – often less the positive example of a mentor than the negative example of an apocryphal colleague or two who engaged in clearly unethical behavior by misrepresentation, exploiting colleagues (often from the country where the research is conducted), or blithely evading laws and policies. (In most such stories I have heard, it is the colleague’s interlocutors or researchers who came after him or her who suffered the consequences.)

But if our discipline makes few formal demands of us, a new bureaucracy now confronts us: Most scholars working at academic institutions in the United States now often are required to submit their research proposals to internal institutional review boards designed to protect the rights of the subjects of research.

Such boards are structures many of us love to hate. We complain with some justification that they often are staffed by people who understand what we do poorly; their mechanisms are cumbersome; and their rules sometimes seem better designed to elicit formalistic bureaucratic compliance than protect those whom we research. I have great sympathy with these complaints. But I worry that we can use our justified annoyance to evade the ethical discussions we should be having and to send signals to younger scholars that ethical concerns are bureaucratic niceties.

Underlying the internal institutional review is the principle that we should obtain the informed consent of all those whom we are surveying. Every element of that principle is elusive. The idea that we can “inform” people of the risks of our questioning them always seems a bit odd: They are often likely to know far better what the immediate consequences can be; and in the tumultuous political environment in some countries, even a sophisticated and able observer is unlikely to be able to predict many consequences. “Consent” can be equally confusing – yes, if we sit down and administer a questionnaire, consent makes sense. But what if we engage in an informal conversation? Attend a rally? Talk with someone who clearly hopes not that we will hold the information quiet but expects us to be able to intervene with a high-level official? What if we overhear a conversation? Are harangued by an official? Questioned by a police officer? What if we are part of an informal discussion in which an argument breaks out among participants? Do our ethical obligations end?

Of course not. But that leads us to the heart of the matter: So much of what many of us learn comes not from formally structured interviews but from all the other aspects of conducting field work. We all know this; even those most reliant on formal survey research would never posit it as the substitute for all other kinds of research. And there is much of what we uncover that could embarrass or harm someone.

What are our ethical obligations in such cases? There are several easy principles that we can follow. First, we should represent ourselves fully and accurately to those we meet. Second, we should not harm the person we are quoting. Third, we should not substitute our judgment for someone who wishes not to have sensitive information publicized – though we might sometimes supplement their judgment with ours by exercising more caution than our interlocutors might have requested.

But those principles, while most of them are laudable, do not always help us. What are our ethical obligations to tyrannical regimes or oppressive officials? Do we owe them the same protections? How do we react when we suspect – but do not know – that someone is assisting us in the expectation of help we are unlikely to be able or willing to provide?

Many of these are difficult situations that will likely be forever immune to clear rule writing. No institutional review board, however constructed, is likely to be able to give us guidance. Indeed, if such a board were staffed by people who knew our work much better, it is possible that such sympathetic familiarity would lead to too much flexibility rather than excessive rigidity.

I write not to advance answers to the detailed questions I have raised but much more modestly only to suggest that we take a slightly different view of our institutional review boards. Yes, they can be nuisances, but on how many other occasions are we required to think about the ethical implications of what we do? We can use their procedures to try to look at our work from the perspectives of those with whom we come into contact.

And when we act as mentors, what kind of signals do we send when we suggest that ethical concerns are rules to be massaged or evaded so that we can do what we really want to do? Can we deliver a more helpful message: These are not necessarily the questions you want to be asked about your research, but it is not a bad thing to be asked to consider what you are doing and its effects on those you will meet.

The bureaucratic change in our institutional environment is as good an opportunity as may arise for us to think a bit more self-consciously before conducting field research.

Nathan J. Brown is a professor of political science and international affairs at the George Washington University and non-resident senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

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