Monday, 31 March 2014

Ethical Dilemmas: to hope or not to hope

Writing this post has been on my mind for some time now (actually a long time). I am not sure why I haven't been able to get around to posting this considering that I wrote this text several months ago. Anyway, better late than never.

For the last two years, the postgraduates of the Researchers in Development PhD Network (RiDNet) at the Center for Global Development, Leeds University have been organizing an excellent conference on 'Conducting fieldwork in Developing contexts'. The 2012 conference was themed around 'Reflexive Approaches to Practical Issues' and the 2013 conference on 'Practical Experiences of Data Collection and Analysis'. As an output of the 2012 conference they put together this excellent 'Practical field notes' document together as a guide for researchers working in middle and low income contexts.

The 2013 conference was organised on 7th November and luckily I got an opportunity to present at it. I was a part of the session on Ethical issues in research with organisations. However, my presentation was focused more on rural communities and societies and the ethics of transparency with them. The presentation was titled 'To hope or not to hope' and this is what I discussed:

to hope or not to hope

Often in fieldwork, especially in the global south, the researchers feel the dilemma of being truthful and transparent with the research participants. The transparency becomes critical with respect to the fact that often the research participants expect tangible benefits from the research. However, the research and the researcher, especially in case of PhD research may not be in a position to bring any immediate and tangible benefits to the researched. This is a dilemma of managing hope and expectations. Being truthful about the researcher's and the research's power (or the lack of it) cause loss of interest on the part of the research participants and ultimately loss of research participants. If the researcher raises the participants’ hopes he/she gets them whole heatedly involved in the project. On the other hand the research participants may be reluctant in participating if they don’t see any tangible benefits out of the participation, i.e. if the hopes are not raised.

In my research in rural Bihar (India), I tried to be truthful and transparent about my research, power and position. I conveyed to my research participants and the community around them that I was a researcher without any direct influence on the policy matters of the governments or private firms. Since my work is around rural electrification, people in my research villages often requested me to help them out with electrification or support and argue their cause. An example of this is a quote from a village which was waiting for the electricity grid connection:
If there is a scheme Sir…. You are associated with a scheme, you are doing survey for that Sir. I request Sir to provide us Sir (the benefits of the scheme).
They often took me to be a government official or development worker who had power to change their situation. In such cases they eagerly interacted and engaged with me. But as I explained them my actual position and role, many disengaged and in some cases ignored me.

So, hope can open gates, build rapport and enroll keen participants for the researcher. It is tempting but the researcher must think about questions like ‘can there be a quick change due to my research’ or ‘should there be a change, quick or not’. These are ethical questions that must always be kept in mind while in the field. The researcher must also be wary of the conflicting hopes and expectations that their research participants may have. Raising hopes may mean raising conflicting ideas and conflicts. Raising hopes and not being able to fulfill them may also lead to closing of gates for not only returning to the community for more research but also during the current research. I experienced this even with all the transparency I maintained about my research. After about a month in a village, I asked a young man who I had encountered before, to introduce
me to a participant I wished to recruit. The young man's angry/annoyed reply:
You have been visiting our village regularly for the last one month but we haven’t got electricity yet….. (rephrased)
This dilemma of hope is difficult to get out of. The solution for this may be to constantly balance truth and tact. It may be a good idea to tell the respondents truthfully what the researcher’s capabilities are. However, at the same time the researchers may point out that during the course of the research they would be encountering and in many cases interviewing those in the positions of power. The researchers in the process of the research (and in many cases as part of the research) would discuss the issues faced by their respondents, which may influence the people in the positions of power. This was certainly true for my research as I worked ground up through my research participants. As the last part of my research, I interviewed those in positions of power and many of my questions were based around the problems being faced by people in the villages engaging with various electricity projects.

Also, it may be advisable to point out that several publications like papers, magazine/newspaper articles, blog posts and books may come out of the research which may again bring the respondents problems in the public domain. These may reach those in the positions of power and influence them. These are important facts to be discussed also from the point of view that the research participants should be fully aware of the types of outputs that would be produced from the research and the ways in which the data generated from them would be used.

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The output from the 2013 RiDNet conference with briefs from other researchers could be found here.

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