Protocols: Devices for Translating Moralities, Controlling Knowledge, Defining Actors in Indigenous Research, and Critical Ethical Reflection

Article excerpt

Abstract: Protocols are devices that act to assist with ethical research behaviour in Indigenous research contexts. Protocols also attempt to play a mediating role in the power and control inherent in research. While the development of bureaucratically derived protocols is increasing, critiques and reviews of protocols have been undertaken in an ad hoc manner and in the absence of an overarching ethical framework or standard. Additionally, actors implicated in research networks which include gatekeepers, guardians and gatecrashers--are seldom theorised. This paper sketches out a typology of research characters and the different moral positioning that each of them plays in the research game. It argues that by understanding the ways actors enact research protocols we are better able to understand what protocols are, and how they seek to build ethical research practices.


Has anyone ever told you a secret? Did you keep the secret confidential, or did you share it? When we are entrusted with a secret, there are implicit assumptions and expectations that the information is shared in confidence, and that it not be shared or widely distributed. When we share secrets we break the protocols of keeping secrets, and thus risk the possibility of losing a friend, or losing face. However, we also face the possibility of receiving a benefit from sharing a secret. Secrets are common currencies in research. At times, researchers classify information as secret to control the results in pursuit of intellectual accolades, to claim authorship of ideas or for commercial economic gains. Research, however, operates on the tension between the protection of confidential or secret information and the need for wider distribution of it. Thus, when actors in research receive information, they push up against this tension and are faced with the prospect of deciding if the information falls into the category of information of a confidential nature or information which can be distributed or shared. Because the development and distribution of information often relies on robust research relationships, there exists a strong incentive for actors to not share secret information. Sometimes information is clearly defined as private or secret, such as when it forms part of a 'trade secret' or a legal agreement. In this instance, it is clear to the actor that the intention, expectation and legal obligation is that the information should not be shared or distributed. Other times, however, the distinction is not so clear. In this fuzzy area protocols play a role in defining the nature of information as public or private and, on this basis, whether actors can share it or should keep the information from the public domain.

In light of postcolonial critiques of research (Ashcroft, B et al. 1998; Spivak 1994)--which problematise the role of universities in the exploitation of Indigenous peoples and Indigenous knowledge--research institutions are increasingly formalising protocols around the processes for accessing, utilising and sharing Indigenous knowledge. This is done to build robust collaborative research relationships with Indigenous individuals/communities, where Indigenous knowledge can be ethically accessed and shared. Through these relationships Indigenous knowledge is defined and categorised as public or private, and then joint decisions are made on how this information can be used and distributed. Protocols and guidelines are assumed by some within universities and Indigenous communities to work through using a prescriptive ethical approach to target researcher behaviour. That is, it is assumed that protocols establish a set of prescribed rules that all researchers will submit to and follow uniformly.

But not everyone enacts protocols in the same way. This divergence is influenced by differing conceptions of 'Indigenous knowledge' that sit within the spectrum of knowledge as an embodied experience to knowledge as a disembodied entity. …