Research ethics

This is intended to be a living document, updated as I think further about ‘the difficult and hopeful ethics of research on, and with, social movements’ (to use a phrase from Gillan and Pickerill that has stuck with me). It will also change in response to developing new research methodologies, and in response to the work of activists to define how they want to relate (or not to relate) to academics.

For now, a few points, in no particular order:

  • University ethics procedures are necessary but not sufficient.
  • My position, as a relatively-privileged researcher, white, more-or-less-middle-class, cis, a woman, located in the Global North, matters, and should be visible in my writing and something I think about in the framing of my work.
  • Activists’ agency matters, and activists’ theorising and analysis of their own work matters. As far as I can manage, I want to find ways to draw on and acknowledge the work of activists who are the experts in analysing their own work. This will often mean referring to non-academic publications, including interviews, zines, blog posts, and other online material.
  • Similarly, this means that activists should always have the choice to be cited by name for their interview material, rather than being forced to participate anonymously. For many activists, it is important that their contributions are visible and acknowledged.
  • Anyone interviewed for research should be able to read the final draft before publication, and have their feedback incorporated. This doesn’t mean, necessarily, changing the argument, but it might mean removing certain information seen as potentially harmful, or making critiques visible (for example, “While we argue …, at least one participant disagreed with this argument, pointing out that instead…”).
  • I don’t want to focus my work solely on privileged groups, but I also want to be careful about appropriating the lives and stories of people who are already in vulnerable positions. I’m not sure I’ll always get this balance right, but I also don’t want to be scared into only ever writing about largely-white movements: this is, I think, a particular problem when it comes to social movement research, because it means vastly underplaying the political contributions of movements lead by people of colour. I tried to manage this in my book, Global Justice and the Politics of Information, by emphasising the agency and importance of the Indian movement against GM crops, and by being open with the activists I worked with about my ideas and arguments as they developed.
  • Activists have no obligation to interact with researchers, and have good reasons for being sceptical of researchers’ motivations. These include a history of academia’s deployment by the state for surveillance; the ways in which researchers profit from activists’ data; and the power inequalities between researchers and activists when it comes to the ability to frame movement narratives. This means that not only should I be willing to accept refusals of interviews, but I should also respect requests (implicit or explicit) to avoid including particular online material.
  • I recognise that academia is an imperfect base, but at the same time I see ways in which it can be useful. There are constraints on academics, ways in which the system we work within shapes our work in undesirable ways. Academia is largely a neoliberal institution, which is amply demonstrated by the massive shift towards casualisation and insecure employment. However, other sectors are constrained in their own ways: non-profit work, for example, often works within the charity model rather than seeking structural change, and organisations often end up having to shift to meet funding requirements, which brings its own problems. So I work within academia because it seems like a space that offers possibilities for hosting useful and ethical research.
  • My work should, as far as possible, be available to activists and the broader community, because it draws on contributions made by others (including public funding and the time activists give up for interviews). All publications should be open access if possible. There should be spaces where activists’ replies, if any, can be included. (So far, I haven’t had any activists who wanted to publicly comment on my research. If this happens, I’ll make sure comments are linked to from my ‘publications’ page.)
  • Recognising academia as a privileged space shaped by structural exclusions, I want to work to make it a safer and more inclusive space for marginalised voices. This includes working to encourage my students and value the differences they bring to the classroom; supporting the work of people of colour, disabled people, parents, other women, and other marginalised groups; attempting to build academic networks, collaborations, and spaces which have more open and inclusive cultures; and paying research assistants properly and respecting the work they do.

I recognise that many aspects of these ethics are a work in progress, developing as my own skill does. For example, effectively weaving my own presence into my writing is difficult when I have been so effectively trained in writing ‘objectively’, in removing all the poetry and personality from my work. I want to learn to put that back, but it’s a slow process. Similarly, the publishers of Bluestocking’s edited book and of my own single-authored book were unwilling to release copyleft versions of the book: it’s possible that later on in my career I’ll get better at negotiating for more accessible, affordable, book contracts.

I’m sure I’ll make lots of mistakes. There’s already writing that I look back on and cringe. I hope that by educating myself about research ethics–a process which takes place both inside and, increasingly, outside academia–I can avoid the worst mistakes. I hope that I’ll be able to listen to feedback and respond appropriately if anyone ever feels the need to correct me, and takes the time to do it.

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