Ethics and Research on the Middle East

By Wendy Pearlman, Northwestern University

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

Ethics are pertinent to research on Middle East politics both as rules for morally appropriate behavior in gathering information and as the principled commitments that guide our choices about what to study and how to interpret its implications. As a preliminary entry into these topics, I pose and discuss three questions.

A first question concerns the degree to which ethics should direct the questions that drive our research. Various factors generate and justify our research agendas, from theoretical debates to the availability of data and a researcher’s own methodological preferences. In political science, it is customary to legitimate a research topic as “filling a gap in the literature.” While this is important for scientific progress, it suggests that our overriding goal is to make a contribution to an academic discipline rather than to do good in the world. Sometimes ethical issues emerge in a sentence or two, often at the end of a piece, indicating why the research matters. This risks reading like an afterthought, a begrudging anticipation of what we frequently call the “so what” question.

Yet, for many of us, ethical commitments loom larger than this would suggest. Many of us study conflict because we are moved by the suffering of victims of violence. We study authoritarian regimes because we are committed to free and accountable government, service provision because we care about how people get what they need to live healthy lives, protest movement because we respect individuals’ struggles for change, etc. In addition to informing the topics that motive us, they can also shape how we approach them. For example, most Middle East political scientists who study Islamist movements apply concepts and theories generalizable to movements and political parties at large. Some choose such frameworks not only because they are intellectually compelling, but also due to an ethical stance that groups ought not be treated different simply because they are comprised by Muslims or invoke Islam.

Ethical issues are implicit in these and many other topics. However, they are not typically addressed explicitly. What is gained or lost due to the relative limits of our discussion of the ethical dimensions of our research questions? Are there substantive choices we might make differently if ethics features more directly, openly, and prominently in our disciplinary conversations?

A second question is to whom or what we have ethical considerations. Identifying the ethical commitments relevant for political scientists of the Middle East entails identifying the sets of relationships in which we are embedded. Here I identify four. First and foremost is our relationship to the people from whom we obtain data. I discuss this further below.

Second is our relationship toward the scholarly community of which we are members. This professional affiliation raises questions about ethical duties to act on issues of academic freedom, inside or beyond the United States. We are able to succeed in our own work only to the degree that we enjoy space to express ourselves. Who will speak up for other practitioners of our craft when they are denied such rights, or punished for their attempted exercise of them? As their natural allies, we arguably have a special responsibility to show solidarity.

Third is our relationship toward own home state and society, insofar as it engages with Middle East politics. The many of us who are U.S. citizens watch as our government’s actions in the region sometimes contradict our understandings of what is best for its peoples and/or our own national interest. As academic specialists and citizens, should (or must) we actively attempt to promote the policies that we believe to be appropriate? Should (or must) we attempt to contribute to public discourse?

Fourth is our relationship toward the Middle East and North Africa itself. We have made careers and livelihoods from the region. This implies some kind of moral debt: an obligation to “give back.”

Within these realms in which ethics are relevant, there is a final question: How do we act ethically? While I will not brave a direct answer to this big question, I put forth a few distinctions for conceptualizing categories or levels of ethical behavior relevant for our research.

In some situations, we have ethical obligations. Some minimal standards for appropriate behavior are obligatory. As scholars, we have an ethical duty to be honest and professional in producing knowledge. We also have ethical duty to “do no harm” to the human subjects from whom we obtain data. As directed by university internal review boards, we must abide by principles of informed consent and confidentiality for interviewees and avert exposing them to any undue physical, social, and psychological risk.

Apart from these matters, I would add that it is requisite – or at least highly preferable – to show appreciation and respect for the people who share their knowledge and experiences with us. I have heard of Syrian activists receiving queries from researchers who are crude in addressing them as data sources rather than human beings who have endured horrors. We should remind our students who do fieldwork that politeness and compassion are proper field research practices. We must not forget that ourselves.

If ethical obligations compel us to do no harm, ethical opportunities invite us to be of benefit. Here I have in mind the myriad ways in which we can share from our time, access, resources, and knowledge to assist those whom we meet in the Middle East or in the course of studying it. This might entail editing someone’s grant application, translating an NGO’s press release, offering academic advise, endorsing a charity, etc. It might also involve connecting others with resources that we are especially poised to locate, such as the funds for scholars at risk, scholarships for students in need, or the services of human rights organizations.

We do not, strictly speaking, have a duty to provide such assistance. But it is a worthy thing to do. To do successful field research, one must be vigilant in seizing unexpected chances to learn. Similarly, to do ethically virtuous field research, we can be vigilant in identifying and taking advantage of micro-occasions to help others as innumerable individuals have helped us. In our instruction of students and our own example, we can establish such attention to ethical opportunities as a facet of our work.

Finally, distinct from both ethical obligations and ethical opportunities are ethical judgment calls. Politics is about conflict. In attempting to study politics scientifically, we typically distance ourselves from the parties to conflict. Though studying politics is never value-free, the norm of our discipline is to strive for some ideal of objectivity and neutrality in our analysis of causal processes and outcomes. In analyzing the implications of our research, however, we might form judgments about the rightness or wrongness of some actions, policies, or parties, and what should be done in response. When is it ethically appropriate or inappropriate to take an open political stand, or cross the line from scholarship to advocacy?

These questions are not easy in theory or practice. In the complex political situations that we study, “right” and “wrong” are not always obvious. Even when we can justify an action as morally correct, it might be detrimental if it conflicts with other values or politically desirable ends. For example, Nikolaos van Dam recently critiqued the Western approach to the Syrian uprising for giving precedence to “supposedly moralistic ideals” rather than realpolitik. He explains:

By branding the rule of President al-Asad as illegitimate, Western countries may have been morally just, but they thereby prematurely cut off any opportunity they had to play a constructive role in helping find a political solution to the crisis. What should have priority: being morally correct or helping find a solution?

The methodologically inclined among us might model resolutions to such problems. Those of us who are more skeptical will view them as dilemmas that defy science. As Elisabeth Wood writes, “Ethical research inevitably depends on the informed moral judgment of the researcher.”[1] Our judgments will likely differ. What we can demand of ourselves is that we take into account multiple points of view, think carefully, and act in good faith.

Wendy Pearlman is the Crown Junior Chair in Middle East Studies and an assistant professor of political science at Northwestern University.


[1] Elisabeth Jean Wood, “The Ethical Challenges of Field Research in Conflict Zones,” Qualitative Sociology, Vol. 29, Issue 3 (September 2006), p. 374.

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