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Ethics, ethics committees and indigenous considerations

December 23, 2012

In the final chapter of her ‘exploration of some tensions in the mediation of Social Sciences Research’, Joanna Kidman addresses the issue  of ethics as mediated by Ethics Committees. It’s a thought-provoking discussion and one that gives a different context in which to situate certain research…

She begins this chapter by describing an interaction with two research participants in the early stages of a research project begun in 2005 (that revealed certain suspicions and expectations in the research community), which led her “to consider my own role with the participating community, and the problems that social researchers face when negotiating ethical research practices between two competing traditions; namely tikanga Māori and academic convention.” (p.66)

“Over the past twenty years,” she continues, “human ethics committees in New Zealand universities have become an influential mediating structure in academic investigations.  Indeed, the ways in which researchers and research participants interact and work  together to create new knowledge is, by and large, governed by a set of ethical templates designed by university committees.” (p.66)

However, Kidman explains, “it wasn’t until debates about research methodologies became integral to social sciences discourse, and formal training in research methods was subsequently embedded in New Zealand postgraduate degrees, that university human ethics committees became central to the research process in these disciplines.” What is more, “despite the proliferation of research methods courses in universities, the training of qualitative researchers in research ethics often seems comparatively underdeveloped. This is partly because universities have established their own protocols and procedures for approving research involving human subjects, and this removes the burden from investigators of having to think too much about ethical complexities and tensions. Indeed, some critics would argue that the approval of research projects is sometimes little more than a polite ceremony, culminating in a formal university blessing to go forth into the field. In any event, qualitative research practices in the social sciences are mediated in significant ways by university human ethics committees, and consequently, the relationship between researchers and Māori communities is heavily regulated by institutional procedures and expectations.
There are strong arguments for ensuring that ethical research standards are maintained, but what hangs in the balance is the requirement for researchers to behave in responsible and ethical ways, and the need to satisfy a set of institutional conventions which do not necessarily reflect the priorities or understandings of research participants outside of university settings. This results in a series of tensions for research partners in Māori communities and universities who wish to engage in collaborative projects but are stymied by shortcomings in the institutional mediation of research practices.” (p.67)

“The origins of ethical codes in social sciences research” (p.68)

The origins of research ethics in the social sciences are inextricably tied to developments in other disciplines. In the early twentieth century, social scientists were eager to present their emerging disciplines on an equal footing with prestigious disciplines in the sciences which had already gained academic and public acceptance.

Anthropologists in particular, armed with the belief that universal patterns of human behaviour and organisation could be tested and explained through the careful application of rational, empirical methods, aimed to align their research findings with scientific conventions of inquiry. Thus, they turned to these areas of investigation for inspiration as they developed ethical paradigms in their own fields of research. Consequently, the ethical frameworks that university institutions apply to social sciences research involving human subjects were, and continue to be, largely derived from biomedical research practices within the sciences, most particularly, studies involving some form of clinical or laboratory testing of human beings, or the harvesting, storage and use of human tissue.” (p.68)

The biomedical ethical paradigm, which is mirrored in social research, was developed in the aftermath of World War II during the Nuremberg War Crimes Trials (the Doctors’ Trials). During these hearings, evidence came to light of horrific medical experiments conducted on unwilling subjects during the Nazi war-time research regime. In 1947, an international ethical statement, known as the 1947 Nuremberg Code, was designed with a view to preventing a recurrence of human rights abuses by future researchers. The Code upheld the principle that research participants should give informed consent, participate voluntarily in research as well as have the right to refuse to take part in fieldwork, and that researchers should apply the principle of nonmalfeasance, that is, they should do no harm to participants in the course, or as a result of, their research.

In fact, the Code was not immediately adopted by researchers, but over the next 20 to 30 years as the latent effects of these war-time experiments became manifest, public and government scrutiny intensified as the number of law suits rose. Professional societies were amongst the first to ratify the principles of the Nuremberg Code, and government bodies later followed suit. While it has been through many iterations as the fields of science and technology have advanced, the fundamental principles of the Code remain intact and are now widely employed by scientific and social researchers in many parts of the world.” (p.69)

Kidman goes on to discuss how the history of such ethical frameworks affects social research with Māori. She picks apart the notion of informed consent, considers the influence of individualism,and looks into the need to safeguard participants from harm. “Universities,” she maintains, “have a responsibility to ensure that social researchers behave in responsible and ethical ways, but the application of ethical templates and norms which have been developed in the biomedical sciences do not necessarily ensure that this aim is achieved. For this reason it is heartening to see that work is now being done on formulating ethical principles specifically geared towards recognising the priorities of [-p.80] indigenous peoples. To this end, the United Nations has recently ratified the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. The principles upheld within this document may eventually have some effect on the practices and perspectives of university ethics committees as decisions are made about social research practices in Māori communities.
The Mataatua Declaration is another document which has gained considerable international influence in the indigenous world. This Declaration was developed at the First International Conference on the Cultural and Intellectual Property Rights of Indigenous Peoples which took place in New Zealand in 1993. It was ratified by delegates from fourteen countries and has since gained world-wide recognition from a wide range of indigenous communities and groups involved in the protection of indigenous intellectual property rights. It is to be hoped that ethics committees in New Zealand take heed of this document….” (pp79-80)

Kidman explains that “tribally developed policies and protocols [such as those described above] uphold ethical perspectives which reflect the needs and priorities of indigenous groups which ethics committees have been largely unable, or unwilling, to address. 
Universities then have important decisions to make about the role of institutional ethics reviews. They can maintain their status quo as moral gatekeepers, and risk being sidelined as Māori tribal and cultural communities develop their own research protocols, or they can encourage social researchers within the ranks to work alongside communities who have claimed ethical autonomy, as partners. If the latter is the preferred option, then there is much work to be done.

A large part of the way forward is for institutions to actively negotiate between their own ethical traditions and those of Māori. As different iwi continue the work of formulating their own ethical statements, this task will become much easier. It is likely too, that in the process, ethics reviews panels will also receive information about the ways in which social research can be considered, in its own right rather than as an adjunct to the ethical concerns of experimental scientists in different fields.” (p.81)

Earlier in this monograph, Kidman also describes how “the prevailing intellectual and political climate since 9/11 has shaped the research dialogues which take place between indigenous communities and outside researchers.” (p.25) …again, interesting reading….

Ref: Joanna Kidman (2007)  Engaging with Māori Communities: An Exploration of some tensions in the mediation of Social Sciences Research. A Monograph produced in the Tihei Oreore Series for Ngā Pae o te Māramatanga (Series Editor J S Te Rito). He Pārekereke: Victoria University of Wellington.

Refer also to : the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples AND The Mataatua Declaration on Cultural and Intellectual Property Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

It is perhaps also worth noting that Kidman introduces this work with reference to a Landcare Research Report that might be useful: she explains: “In 2006, I was awarded a Research Fellowship by Ngā Pae o te Māramatanga, the Māori Centre of Research Excellence hosted by Auckland University. My purpose was to explore the ways in which collaborative research relationships with Māori communities can be effectively and appropriately developed and, to that end, I was working with the hypothesis that the epistemological dimensions of academic inquiry are broadened when indigenous peoples are directly engaged in research processes which affect their communities.

My original intention was to prepare a set of ‘best practice’ protocols which could be applied to field research in Māori communities; however this task was set aside when I discovered Garth Harmsworth’s (2005) excellent report for Landcare Research New Zealand Ltd., which directly addresses the issue [Harmsworth, G. (2005). Good practice guidelines for working with tangata whenua and Maori organisations: consolidating our learning. Landcare Research Report LC0405/091. New Zealand: Landcare Research New Zealand Ltd.].” (p.1)

The contents of Kidman’s work are also worth noting:

“TABLE OF CONTENTS
INTRODUCTION – COLLABORATIVE SOCIAL RESEARCH ENGAGEMENT
WITH MĀORI COMMUNITIES ……………………………………………………………………………1
MEDIATING STRUCTURES………………………………………………………………………………..7
Mediating structures, cultural tensions and social research ……………………………………..8
Academic researchers and the problem of community ………………………………………….12
The bureaucratisation of community-based mediating structures……………………………17
Advice for researchers………………………………………………………………………………………21
COLLABORATIVE RESEARCH IN THE POST-9/11 CLIMATE…………………………..25
Civilisation and the forces of ‘evil’ after-9/11 ……………………………………………………..26
The suppression of dissent: universities and indigenous populations after 9/11………..27
Indigenous rights and the crisis in reason…………………………………………………………….31
Māori and the Crown in the post-9/11 climate……………………………………………………..35
Universities in the post-9/11 era…………………………………………………………………………41
THE MEDIATION OF MEANING: ACADEMICS AND THE CULTURAL LOGIC OF
THE TANIWHA …………………………………………………………………………………………………45
A brief history of silence …………………………………………………………………………………..46
The mediating gaze: visions of Māori in the academic disciplines………………………….52
Authenticity wars: ‘real’ and ‘fake’ Māori…………………………………………………………..55
Thinking beyond disciplinary paradigms…………………………………………………………….61
RESEARCH ETHICS COMMITTEES AS MEDIATING STRUCTURES………………..65
The origins of ethical codes in social sciences research…………………………………………68
Informed consent……………………………………………………………………………………………..72
Harm and the transferral of risk………………………………………………………………………….76
The way forward………………………………………………………………………………………………79
CONCLUSION …………………………………………………………………………………………………..85” (p.v)

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