'Whose Ethics?': Codifying and Enacting Ethics in Research Settings

By Davis, Michael; Holcombe, Sarah | Australian Aboriginal Studies, Fall 2010 | Go to article overview

'Whose Ethics?': Codifying and Enacting Ethics in Research Settings


Davis, Michael, Holcombe, Sarah, Australian Aboriginal Studies


Courtesy, modesty, good manners, conformity to definite ethical standards are universal. But what constitutes courtesy, modesty and good manners and ethical standards is not universal. It is instructive to know that standards differ in the most unexpected ways. It is still more important to know how the individual reacts to these standards (Franz Boas in the foreword to Mead's Coming of Age in Samoa, 1928). (2)

This quote highlights the conundrum that those working in the social sciences and humanities face today with the ever-burgeoning development of ethical standards and associated tools and resources to ensure conformity and compliance to a standard. Whose 'standard' is it that is being developed and promoted? And who are the intended users of those resources (codes, protocols, guidelines) that are designed to manage and uphold ethical standards? These questions may seem commonplace to some people, as there is an increasingly sophisticated range of approaches to managing ethical engagement in research and applied projects, as this thematic edition illustrates. And, indeed, appropriately, codified ethical 'standards' are becoming increasingly localised with the development of locally and regionally specific resources. Nevertheless, even the most fundamental and pervasive of ethics concepts--'respect'--has a normative load that carries with it a range of performative and moral implications. For instance, in many contexts in Indigenous Australia, respect is shown to Elders through being attentively silent and listening, not asking questions and not interrupting the unfolding of events. Indeed, asking questions can be a sign of disrespect. This epistemological position has clear implications for ethical research practice, as several of the papers in this volume illustrate, notably the contribution by Christie et al.

Balancing codification with practice

One critical challenge in the field of research ethics is the relationship between ethical standards as codified in protocols, guidelines and other documents, and the actual practice of ethics: the upholding of moral behaviours in face-to-face encounters. This was a key consideration in a revision of the AIATSIS Guidelines for Ethical Research in Indigenous Studies (AIATSIS 2000), one of the factors that prompted this special issue of Australian Aboriginal Studies.

The Guidelines are formulated and administered by AIATSIS and are used to guide research conducted under the Institute's research grants program, as well as by research staff and other researchers sponsored by AIATSIS. The Guidelines were reviewed during 2009, after a decision by the Institute that such a review and revision was necessary in light of significant developments that have occurred since the 2000 version was completed. These developments include advances in law reform, such as moral rights amendments to the Copyright Act 1968; increasing trends in the use of digital and other computer technologies for data management, storage and access; and progress in international standards relating to Indigenous rights and cultural heritage. The endorsement by the United Nations of the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in 2007 was another important impetus for this review. The review and revision were carried out by Davis, and involved the preparation of a discussion paper and a draft revision of the Guidelines themselves, followed by a public consultation process and input by A1ATSIS committees and staff. The review of the Guidelines also examined the language of the document, which retained in places an archaic and outmoded approach to research in Indigenous studies. The paper by Davis in this special edition details the review and revision, and the process that was used to conduct it. (3)

The topicality of this issue of ethics is also evidenced by the theme of the annual 2009 Australian Anthropological Society conference--'The Ethics and Politics of Engagement'--at which Sarah Holcombe and Toni Bauman(4) convened a session on 'The Poetics and Politics of Voice'.

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