Research ethics/research subjects

Over the last few days I’ve stumbled across a few different texts that relate to research ethics and the ways in which we treat the subjects of research…


"If you don't know what's going on or what we're talking about turn off the news and tune into the movement"
Tune into the movement, by Flickr user Meneer De Braker

The first, Jennifer Earl’s (2000) ‘Methods, movements and outcomes‘, advocates a more rigorous approach to the study of social movement outcomes. Earl outlines some of the problems involved in trying to determine how effective movements are in achieving social and political change, and suggests a number of solutions to these problems. Many of these suggestions are useful, although most involve a shift towards a ‘hard science‘ approach which I think has serious limitations when it comes to the study of social movements.

However, the first suggestion which Earl makes seemed particularly problematic to me. Earl argues that,

researchers should begin to use theory to define sets and types of outcomes that they would expect to be associated with a movement. Instead of relying on informants to “voice” goals, researchers should define broad, theory-driven categories of possible outcomes that are independent of SM [social movement] or SMO [social movement organisation] demands (p. 13).

She goes on to add that, “with theoretically driven outcomes categories, researchers could still study identity change as an outcome of social movements even if no social movement representative
ever articulated identity change as a goal” (p. 14).

While I think that Earl raises some excellent points about the difficulties involved in social movement research, I’m troubled at the suggestion that these can be effectively addressed by using an approach that sidelines activists’ autonomy in favour of tidy theoretical models. Activists, after all, have often devoted significant amounts of time to the causes they’re involved in, and have thought carefully about what they’re trying to achieve and why. To presume that activists’ statements about their goals can be overridden by movement researchers is to devalue activists’ knowledge and choices, as well as their role in building an understanding on their movement (for more on this I recommend Cox and Fominaya‘s work).


The second text is this video, which my partner was watching this morning. It shows chimpanzees who have been kept in captivity for all their lives being let out into the daylight for the first time:

I have trouble articulating how I feel about this, particularly in a tone that’s suitable for this blog. On an intellectual level, I find the arguments for seeing animals as non-human beings that are capable of suffering and worthy of respect deeply compelling. On an emotional level I’m deeply saddened and upset that we can, as a society, accept keeping sentient beings in cages for decades (and doing far worse).


A close up of one of the gorillas from the New York Natural History Museum diorama
Photo by Thomas Hawk

Finally, as part of the research I’ve been doing on curation I’ve been reading Haraway’s Teddy Bear Patriarchy, which explores the creation of the New York Natural History Museum displays in the early part of the twentieth century. Haraway explores the ways in which the structures of race, gender, class, and colonialism shaped the production of the museum, focusing on Carl Akeley’s role in producing natural history dioramas. There’s more to Haraway’s chapter than I have time to unpack here, but reading it I was struck (again) by the ways in which we have been prepared to sacrifice others (both human and non-human) in the service of science and ‘truth’.

Having just watched the above video, Haraway’s account of Akeley’s hunt for gorilla ‘specimens’ for the museum had a particular resonance. Haraway relays Akeley’s account of himself as “a naturalist interested in preserving wildlife” who wanted to “do anything to make killing animals less attractive” (such as devaluing the activity by showing that even women could do it) (p. 57). Akeley’s hunt was, in his eyes, undertaken out of necessity and with the aim of killing as few animals as possible.

Haraway’s retelling of the hunt is, despite (or perhaps in part because of) the reference to Akeley’s rationale, gruelling:

Within minutes of his first glimpse of the features of the face of an animal he longed more than anything else to see, Akeley had killed him, not in the face of a charge, but through a dense forest screen within which the animal hid, rushed, and shook branches … The second quest resulted in two missed males, a dead female, and her frightened baby speared by the porters and guides. Akeley and his party had killed or attempted to kill every ape they had seen since arriving in the area (pp. 57-58).

In each of these texts, there’s something that disturbs me about they way in which researchers have placed themselves in relation to the subjects of our, and in the sacrifices (of others) that have been made to produce (a version of) the truth. There isn’t, I think, a tidy lesson to tie all this together, or at least not one I’m willing to offer right now. There’s plenty of excellent analysis out there about research ethics, but the sense of unease that flows across these texts is important to me in itself.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s