Toward Transparency in the Ethics of Knowledge Production

By Jillian Schwedler, Hunter College and the Graduate Center – CUNY

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

Neither knowledge production nor scientific modes of inquiry are normatively neutral. Most of us studied at least some basic texts in philosophy of science in graduate school, often in gateway courses offered at the beginning of multi-year programs. The readings – typically including Imre Lakatos and Karl Popper – often represent only a narrow (and outdated!) set of debates taught in a manner that emphasizes what one might call the mechanics of knowledge production: to build on the existing paradigm until it is overturned, which will happen rarely. A few dissenting perspectives are typically included, but even when courses cover a broader range of epistemologies, these debates are often left checked at the door when the semester ends.[1] Forgotten or minimized – if they were addressed at all – are the substantive questions about the ethics of knowledge production, which I take to mean the rules that guide how we adjudicate our moral judgments about the topics we choose to research and the arguments we put forward in our publications. That is, we forget that our professional ethics should include thinking about how our work intersects with our moral commitments.[2]

Why does this happen? “Social” sciences obviously deal with people, so why have ethics been marginalized? One reason is that the ethical and moral dimensions of research are not always immediately evident. Some ethical questions are obvious, such as “do no harm.” Most people would agree, for example, that torturing humans to learn about pain is unethical even if it produces useful knowledge. But when the effects of our research are less immediately transparent, what are the boundaries of our obligations? These questions are not easily answered, but my concern is that we too often fail to routinely ask ethical questions about social science research. Perhaps this is because we are not trained (or reminded) to think about it, or perhaps we are under the mistaken belief that our work is simply less consequential in terms of affecting people’s lives. And methods are too often treated as technical issues devoid of moral substance: The near ubiquity of “KKV” in research design courses both illustrates this point and reproduces its consequences.[3] Even as interpretive and other qualitative methods struggle to regain lost ground in political science, ethical questions are often erroneously assumed to be relevant primarily to those who do field research, whether ethnography, participant observation, elite interviews, or field experiments.

Some academics who do field work were mentored by advisors who regularly demanded we reflect on the ethics of our research and publications. But for others, the ethics of field research emerge primarily through the process of seeking Internal Review Board (IRB) approval for human subjects research – a process that is far too often treated as an annoyance. While many IRB committees do indeed have difficulties understanding social science (as opposed to natural science) research methodologies and the risks they entail, the IRB process should remind us that we have obligations to those individuals whose lives we touch with our research. As other contributors to this series of essays on ethics emphasize, we would do well to pay more attention to the substantive issues that motivate the IRB process, and not routinely dismiss it as merely a hurdle to overcome.

Unfortunately, caring about the world, seeking to change or improve it, and empathy toward the communities we study, are treated by many of the gatekeepers in our field as lesser pursuits to “science.” Yet on a personal level, these issues remain important for most of us engaged in area studies research, even when we speak little of them at conferences or in our publications. Indeed, it is hard to find an issue related to the Middle East or Islamic world that isn’t saturated in tense debates about what’s “wrong” with the region, how to “fix” it, and indeed what the world “should” look like. We cannot avoid engaging these normative claims even while we reproduce the (false) veneer of scientific objectivity in order to succeed (through recognition and status) in a discipline that overwhelmingly privileges “fact-based” (that is, not normative, reflexive, or interpretive) knowledge.[4]

I would like to turn our attention to a specific question about the ethics of knowledge production, beyond the IRB issues related to research design or the professional trend of marginalizing normative issues. Here I am thinking about our choices of research topics and how those choices are used either to challenge or reinforce power relations in ways we may or may not find morally acceptable. In the remainder of this short piece, I will draw out what I mean and provide some examples.

Choosing a research topic is never neutral. Our discipline urges us to select topics based on perceived weaknesses in the literature, while advisors routinely urge students to choose something that interests them. We have all heard – and given – the sage advice to choose a topic we find interesting because we may well spend the next decade (from dissertation through publication) working on it. But what we find interesting is necessarily an interpretive process: “Puzzles” are not like Easter eggs waiting to be discovered.[5] They reflect our own curiosities and anxieties, which often mirror those of the societies in which we live. And as such, they are necessarily produced, at least in part, by the dominant ideas circulating at any given time – ideas about what is interesting, what is important, what is worth knowing, all of which are framed by moral notions of what is good and bad.

Thus choosing a topic that we find interesting or important not only reflects the power of certain discourses, but it can also reproduce or challenge those discourses in ways we do not always recognize or acknowledge. Choosing itself is an act of power, and as such cannot be neutral. Of course the primary goal in our research is to get the story right, but that typically means pushing up against other versions of that story (or against stories that say that our story is irrelevant). Even in seeking to correct a wrong narrative, however, we may inadvertently reinforce other narratives that trouble us. For example, we often argue that “Islam” has no analytic utility in understanding why some individuals (or communities) support or engage in political violence while others do not. The assertion that the doctrinal elements of a particular religion explain little in terms of its adherents’ predilection to violence challenges the demonization of that religion as inherently violent. In our field, we are right to critique the pervasive but spurious claims of Islamophobia. But we must also recognize that our critiques may reinforce the idea that religious extremism is rightfully an abiding concern of our day, and that the challenge is to identify the correct factors that give rise to it. In this way, our critical intervention may serve to reinforce narratives that we may otherwise reject.

To be clear, I am not arguing that religious extremism either is or is not an important research topic. But I am asking us to more systematically reflect on how our choices of research topics bolster some discourses (and thus power configurations) while challenging others. In the face of dominant ideas that structure what we view as worthy of our attention, sometimes we may choose to engage those ideas head on, and sometimes we may choose to not engage at all (under the view that engaging problematic ideas may nevertheless lend those ideas some ongoing credibility). These are difficult issues to consider, and there is certainly no right answer to whether or not to engage those frustratingly persistent narratives, particularly those about the regions we study. But I do want us to think more deeply and routinely about those decisions.

To give an example that came up at a recent panel on this topic, a political scientist in the audience commented that he had been asked to contribute a piece to a prominent national publication defending the two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Palestine, which declared itself a sovereign, independent state years ago, is actively seeking recognition in many international bodies (particularly in various U.N. agencies). Our colleague, who believes in the right of a Palestinian state to exist, declined to write the piece as solicited (defending the two-state solution). The reason was that while he would welcome the existence of a sovereign and independent Palestine, the reality on the ground was that aggressive Israeli settlement expansion and rampant land appropriation had made an independent Palestine an impossibility without massive Israeli withdrawals from settlements – something he believes would never happen. To write an article defending the two-state solution, he felt, would give credence to the idea that such an outcome was still possible. Such a narrative works in Israel’s favor by maintaining the illusion that the conflict is stalled because the two sides cannot agree on the details of a two-state solution, thus buying time for Israel to continue its aggressive appropriation of Palestinian lands that make a two-state solution impossible. He felt it was unethical to contribute to that narrative, even while he would support a real two-state solution.

As this example illustrates, we need to consider the ethics of knowledge production in addition to the ethics of field research. We each need to be personally comfortable with the ethical and moral implications of whatever knowledge we contribute.

This is not easy work. The reality is that we cannot control how our scholarship is used or interpreted by others, but we can anticipate how it might be used and be more self-conscious about what forms of power our work challenges or reinforces. And we can be explicit and transparent in our publications, our mentoring and advising of students, and our public speaking about those ethical choices, pointing out where we find ourselves conflicted and where we are concerned about how our work may contribute to modes of power we otherwise hope to challenge.

Jillian Schwedler is a professor of political science at the City University of New York’s Hunter College and the Graduate Center.


[1] The exception, of course, is those majoring in political theory or political philosophy, for whom normative questions remain central. But for most of the top doctoral programs in International Relations, Comparative Politics, and American Politics, normative theory is marginalized in favor of the pursuit of “science.”

[2] Whereas morals are our ideas about what is good and bad, right and wrong, ethics here refers to the rules of professional conduct concerning our moral values.

[3] The extent to which “KKV” needs no translation to most people in the field of political science – even those who oppose its approach or the dominance of its approach – illustrates the norm that “science” is the preferable method in the field. For those (perhaps luckily) uninitiated, KKV refers to George King, Robert Keohane, and Sidney Verba, Designing Social Inquiry: Scientific Inference in Qualitative Research. Princeton University Press, 1994.

[4] Lisa Wedeen’s “Scientific Knowledge, Liberalism, and Empire: American Political Science in the Modern Middle East,” argues that American political science is characterized not by neutrality and objectivity, but by a deep commitment to two intersecting sets of norms: “belief in the inherent value of science as a method of producing objective truth about the real world, on the one hand, and a commitment to the value of preserving liberalism, on the other” (p. 1). Working within this framework, “the Middle East or Islam, as laggard or trouble-maker, becomes the problem to be solved, the incommensurably ‘other’ place that needs special attention – and new assertions of control” (p. 42). Social Science Research Council, 2007. Available at:

[5] Jillian Schwedler, “Puzzle,” Symposium on Deconstructing Social Science Concepts, Qualitative and Multi-Methods Research 11, no. 2 (Fall 2013): 27–30.

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