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Investigating the Dilemmas of Ethical Social Research

By Johnson, Helen | Journal of International Women's Studies, November 2004 | Go to article overview

Investigating the Dilemmas of Ethical Social Research


Johnson, Helen, Journal of International Women's Studies


Abstract

The author's work with a university ethics committee and field research in Pacific New Caledonia is used as a basis to problematise the biomedical research models used by universities in Australia for assessing social research as ethical. The article explores how culturally specific Western emotional bases for ethical decisions are often unexamined. It expresses concerns about gaps in biomedical models by linking the author's description of field interactions with research participants to debates about the creation of knowledge.

Key Words: New Caledonia, ethics of social research, biomedical research

Introduction

How have my research experiences in Pacific New Caledonia shaped my thoughts about the ways that universities conceptualise ethical social research? In what ways can cross-cultural researchers contribute to broader debates in academia about ethical social research? Both questions are becoming increasingly urgent as Australian scholars engage in research with multicultural communities and across globalising yet locally different societies. This paper suggests that there is a problem with the ideas that frame ethical social research in the Western academy that can help scholars negotiate, but not fully resolve, the dilemmas that arise when conducting social research across cultures.

I begin by problematising the concept of ethical social research used in Australian universities. I move to examine the ways that emotion as an organising category can be constructed in different cultures in order to suggest that university ethics committee members seldom acknowledge the cultural specificity of the emotional bases of their responses to, and decisions about, ethical social research. I then connect emotion to an analysis of gender, linking both to my research in Pacific New Caledonia. From my research I propose that Western theories of ethical social research require the flexibility to recognise the diversity of women's discursive contexts across cultures. I make this proposal because women's constructions, interpretations and assertions about how gender shapes their lived experiences are not only complex, sophisticated, and contextual but are embedded in intricate histories of shifting relations of power, particularly relative to the production of knowledge. To not recognise the diversity of women's discursive contexts risks a further imposition of Western theories upon people whose voices are rarely acknowledged and heard. I conclude by presenting the implications and limitations of my proposal to social research practices.

To initiate my discussion I examine the ways that Australian universities may limit notions of ethical social research by reducing dynamic and unpredictable social relations and discursive interactions to a static and inappropriate biomedical model.

Universities and Biomedical Research Models

I became aware of the potential for biomedical models to be used as a template for judging ethical social research during four years service with an Australian university ethics committee. When a new ethical problem arose the proposed research project committee members would turn to Australia's National Health and Medical Research Council's (NH&MRC) National Statement on Ethical Conduct in Research Involving Humans (1999). The Statement has the authority to develop guidelines that are applicable to all research involving humans, a process that Susan Dobbs recognises as "appropriate and as contributing significantly to the culture of research ethics in Australia" (2000:19). While the guidelines provide a framework for considering how research should be conducted in general, they do not specifically address the ways that social research can be enacted across cultures.

Given the Statement's authority, why should social researchers problematise its basis in a biomedical model? I argued that a more effective model of ethical research should address the distinctive dilemmas of social research across cultures and should have a greater capacity to recognise and work with other people, particularly women, as active human agents.

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