Obtaining Informed Consent in Missiologically Sensitive Contexts

By Mostert, Johan; Gilbert, Marvin | International Bulletin of Missionary Research, January 2013 | Go to article overview

Obtaining Informed Consent in Missiologically Sensitive Contexts


Mostert, Johan, Gilbert, Marvin, International Bulletin of Missionary Research


Investigators (including missiologists) who conduct research with human participants ethically follow guidelines established by international conventions and covenants. (1) These guidelines must be applied universally, without regard to the potential benefits they may hold to the participants (e.g., as in testing of an experimental medical treatment, where some participants receive a potentially helpful medication while others receive only a placebo). (2) The academy has embraced these standards as evidence of best practice when approving research in religion and, by implication, within missiology. (3)

Before initiating data-gathering methodology involving people, a researcher must solicit freely offered informed consent (IC) from potential participants. The IC protocol is both well developed and essential to credible research in the scientific community in general, (4) and in medical and biogenetic studies in particular. (5) In recent years, some within the scientific community have raised serious concerns about IC violations by researchers, particularly those pursuing data in non-Western nations. (6) Any violation of best-practice methodology is deeply troubling (7) On a positive note, these strongly voiced concerns underscore the commitment of the research community to ethical research, including the use of an acceptable IC protocol.

The absence of missiological literature addressing research ethics in general and IC protocols in particular is perplexing. Missiologists are, as a whole, committed to the practice of biblical ethics. As cross-culture specialists, they are also sensitive to cultural issues that may complicate research efforts. Missiologists are thus positioned by both calling and experience to lead the discussion of how to apply research ethics in Majority World contexts. Yet the missiological literature has been strangely silent in regard to IC issues. This article is an attempt to address this lacuna. We first examine the use of IC research protocols described in the secular research literature. We then incorporate these insights into a model that holds promise for obtaining valid IC approvals in missiologically sensitive contexts.

Informed Consent as a Benchmark

Stacy Lee reviewed six of the international agreements that have established the requirements for ethical research. (8) Most are specifically focused on pharmaceutical research and medical trials. Three of these six apply to broad fields of academic research with human subjects, including (by implication) missiological research: (1) the 1948 Nuremberg Code, (2) the 1966 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and (3) the 2007 U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (with special reference to article 11). They were written to protect the rights of participants recruited for academic and scientific research. Paramount among the stipulations in these documents is the right to refuse participation in research without loss of any kind, including services and privileges. The means of enforcing these various agreements, however, are typically not specified. Generally, the primary responsibility for their enforcement lies with the Institutional Review Boards (IRBs) approving the research. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has highlighted the oversight role of IRBs for ensuring that ethical guidelines in human research are maintained. (9)

Essential Elements of Informed Consent

What exactly does a conventional IC protocol stipulate? Of the eight elements listed in Title 45, Code of Federal Regulations (45CFR46.116, 2009), five seem especially relevant to missiological researchers (MRs):

* An explanation of the study's purpose, duration, and procedures.

* A description of any foreseeable risks or discomforts, presumably including psychological risks from being associated with a published study.

* An explanation of how the participant's identity and research data will be kept confidential and secure. …

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