The Politics and Ethics of Research on Contentious Terrain

by | 4 Nov 2015 | The Blog | 0 comments

Reflectionson the politics and ethics of research: power, positionality, identity

On Monday 2nd November 2015, Movements@Manchester held the latest in our series of Protest Talks, this time a half day workshop entitled ‘The Politics and Ethics of Research in Contentious Terrain’. Assisted by a NWDTC Pathway Events Fund, we brought together postgraduates from Manchester, Lancaster and Liverpool to discuss and begin to work through the political and ethical issues facing their work.

The workshop was developed partly in response to a generalised sense that the university’s bureaucratic approach to ethics misses the reality of making real ethical judgements and decisions in the course of our research. While this may be a common concern across the social sciences, those of us working on social movements, political organisations and other explicitly politicised sites face very particular challenges in this area, as we must consider the political and personal consequences of our work for ourselves and our research participants.

The workshop began with a keynote address from Kevin Gillan, who took us right into the moment of ethical and political decision making as encountered in the field; in this case, the conundrum of whether or not to engage in arrestable and possibly dangerous direct action with a group of activists he was researching during his doctoral work. Should he jump the fence, clamber past armed soldiers and D-lock his head to that of a fellow activist to block the departure of warplanes? In such a moment one is far from the ethics forms filled out prior to fieldwork, and faced instead with a series of personal, practical and political questions, including personal safety, the implications for your research aims, affinity with participants, and the chances of messing up their action. This set the tone nicely for a day rooted in the personal experience of the researchers present.

In the first of two discussion based sessions, attendees joined small groups to introduce their work and attempt to tease out some principles that guided their approach to ethics and politics in research. With a significant variety of different projects and discipline areas, the conversation was able to make interesting links between seemingly disparate fields.

A common thread between all groups was a discussion of a researcher’s obligations to their participants. There was a strong sense that gaining and retaining legitimate informed consent meant not using exclusive jargon, but rather bringing participants into an understanding of the research process, responding patiently to their questions and addressing their sense of what they are participating for. The question of reciprocation and ‘paying back’ participants was less easy to find clear answers for, as the breadth of cases and research aims meant there were many positions on this. Some groups wondered if it was irresponsible to shed a light on participants’ problems or to challenge them on deeply held understandings, but this was challenged by some who found this risked condescension.

A related question was that of how we represent the words and actions of participants. This was of particular concern in work where literal translation was required or where data was gathered from less contextualised online sources, but there was a sense that we are all always translating, and that we must remain conscious of reproducing certain dominant discourses that have harmed participants and communities.

The position of the researcher was a recurrent issue. Groups tended to highlight the need for reflexive self-awareness of how issues such as the researcher’s gender might affect the data gathered. But there were also practical concerns about how much one reveals about oneself, especially in highly politicised environments where certain viewpoints or backgrounds might close off avenues of research or risk safety. Additionally there are the personal, emotional and psychological effects of research.

A major question framing discussions was what the research is for. On this answers varied significantly: to affect some area of policy, or the language that underpins it; active intervention in a social movement site; to bring attention to an issue of concern, or ‘give a voice’ to a marginalised group. There were questions raised about whether academic research was best placed to achieve some of these goals, and a recognition in post groups that some guiding principles were based far more on issue of developing a career, and publishing research. In this case, all the more need for a reflexive awareness of one’s commitments and aspirations as a researcher advancing a career in academia.

Following this first session, we turned from the general picture to a concrete focus on the different stages of the research process, with break-out groups discussing how these issues and principles play out in particular moments of live research.

Luke Yates fed back from the ‘Research Design and Analysis’ group. A common question across the very varied range of projects was one of access. There was concern that most researchers were beginning their research with some prior contact in their particular research sites, and what this would mean in limiting how far the research went from familiar and comfortable locations and participants. A useful reflection was that this is often necessarily the case with social science research as we are already in the world we wish to study, but that this therefore increases the need for attempting to gain the degree of critical distance required for rigorous study.

From the ‘Fieldwork and Data-Gathering’ group, Nadim Mirshak told us that a common experience in the group had been the confounding of the assumptions taken to the field. This had often led not only to a certain academic frustration, but an emotional impact aswell. The group had highlighted a tension between a concern that research was ‘parasitic’, extracting value from participants, and the recognition that those participating in research often really appreciated the chance to discuss the issues at hand. Their sense of where such a discussion might lead was an enduring question. With a good number of people conducting research abroad (in Guatemala, Egypt, Iran), the question of language emerged again, as both an ethical and practical concern.

Moving onto the ‘Writing and Dissemination’ group, Tessa Liburd introduced some important tensions between the practical demands of an academic career and the obligation to do ethically and politically sound research. The fact is that there is a need to publish, and the stakes are high for early career researchers in a competitive environment. This group wondered if making an ‘original contribution’ possibly pressured researchers into slightly unethical areas, and even asked ‘can you be too ethical, if this means your participants can withdraw consent from completed work?’ Nevertheless, the group was very concerned with getting its research outside of the elite university and low-readership academic journals. There was a strong sense of the obligation to reach other audiences, and that the internet provides a good avenue for this. But this returned to the question of how such visible work might affect professional reputations. In a nice metaphor, Tessa referred to the ongoing utility of PhD data, saying ‘the thesis is like a lump of plasticine; we keep ripping bits off and turning them into something else’. There was a sense then that the work could fulfil different obligations over time.

With the session complete we had the words of keynote listener, Ali Ronan. After noting the common threads of the day, Ali emphasised the things she had not hear over the day, feeling that mentions of class, race and gender were notably absent or sparing, signalling a set of questions attendees could well want to address. Her closing remarks were a reminder to remember your ethical obligations to yourself, and the need to be contented that you are producing good work and living a good life, of which you can be proud.

Thank you to everyone who turned up, and contributed to the workshop. We hope it will have sparked some useful lines of thinking, and introduced early carer researchers to others facing similar ethical and political questions. Perhaps some of these will be useful relationships as our research and careers progress.


Jamie Matthews

Jamie Matthews is a final year PhD candidate in Sociology at the University of Manchester. Jamie’s PhD thesis is a critical ethnography of Occupy London, focusing on questions of ideology, identity, and social movement spatial practice. The project emerges from his own participation in Occupy.