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Book review / Seeking a Research-Ethics Covenant in the Social Sciences

Book review / Seeking a Research-Ethics Covenant in the Social Sciences

Will C. van den Hoonaard
University of Alberta Press, 2023; 152 pp;

By Udo Krautwurst​

We all know ethics is in the doing, a truism. What constitutes the standard(s) or principle(s) to guide or motivate the doing is a more difficult matter. That there should be a lot of ground between the doings and the principles in academic social research is the focus of the book, especially in regard to sociology and anthropology, though it also speaks to the social sciences and humanities broadly.

The problem for primarily qualitative researchers, according to van den Hoonaard, is that a research ethics monoculture is expected to be applied to a research practice polyculture. Paraphrasing Isabelle Stengers, a noted philosopher of science, what we need instead is an ecology of ethical practices. The author is well-versed in the topic, having researched and written on it for decades both as an academic sociologist and, significantly, as a member of various Tri-Council committees on ethics.

Over the course of seven short, very readable chapters and an appendix, he takes us from outlining the issue in the first chapter to proposing a strategy for doing ethics otherwise in the final chapter. Those looking for more elaborate or detailed discussion on the topic could delve into the ample references, since the book itself seems geared more toward a wide audience.

The issue that propels the narrative from the start is that a medical research ethics framework has become the standard by which all academic human research investigations are measured. This first chapter does not deny the need for research ethics (an impossibility at any rate), nor does it discount the variable ways Canadian Research Ethic Boards (REBs) interpret and apply the TCPS2 (or national equivalents elsewhere). The problem is structural.

Globally, policy makers external to the academy have enshrined a model of what I’ll call ‘state-sponsored ethics’ that assumes the isolated, decontextualized, individual-as-object of post-Enlightenment modernity, rather than groups of people, human and non-human, relating to each other in uneven and unequal ways. Usefully, he shows how Indigenous, feminist and other minoritized communities have resisted the attempted reductions to state-sponsored ethics over decades, demonstrating that other ethical principles and practices are both possible and desirable. There is little to disagree with in this opening chapter, save the suggestion that the promotion of interdisciplinarity by universities combined with the dominant medical research ethics framework undermines the integrity of sociology and other disciplines. The quibble may be small, but I suspect there are many ways to be interdisciplinary, and we might not want to circumscribe what disciplines might become.

The next couple of chapters provide a historical background from roughly 1980 to the present. We are reminded that institutional rather than disciplinary ethics oversight emerged in a particular context, i.e., the rise of neoliberal political economies globally. As neoliberal policies were imposed on the postsecondary sector through government agencies, they manifested in the form of what has been termed audit culture. The ostensible aim was to prevent ethical misconduct in advance of research through standardization. The effect, van den Hoonaard argues, was to limit the kinds of questions qualitative researchers could investigate and, arguably more importantly, the kinds of relationships that can be formed with the people in the research project. The standard that was applied, and largely internalized since, is based on the clinico-medical model mentioned above. The research subject is in essence a research object isolated from the communities in which they participate, assumed to be largely or insufficiently aware of their environment, and always in a position of disadvantage or cognitive lack vis-à-vis the researcher.

The concern that van den Hoonaard brings to the fore here is that qualitative researchers are compelled to use an ethical framework that does not fit with what they actually (want to) do in fieldwork. Several before and after examples emerge in the two chapters that follow, one focusing on socio-cultural anthropology, and the other focusing on qualitative and ethnographic approaches in sociology written by Marco Marzano.

The chapter concerned with the current state of research ethics identifies four groups of people seeking to alter the status quo. The smallest group is composed of those who want the current structure intensified. Most researchers want to introduce more flexibility into the system without abandoning it altogether, while a third group wish to establish two or more parallel streams under the same regulatory premises (e.g., a medical stream and a social science stream). The last group, a minority to be sure, want to eliminate top-down institutional regulatory structures, one version of which van den Hoonaard endorses.

Without doubt the final chapter in the book is the most important, and for many it will be the most contentious since it advocates doing away with the institutional and state-sponsored oversight that wants to guarantee that which cannot be guaranteed. What is offered instead is not ‘the’ solution to a problem, but a strategy. Rather than developing a universal research ethics standard, promote instead principles that are flexible enough to deal with contextual and methodological variability. The term van den Hoonaard puts forward for this strategy is a research ethics ‘covenant’. He is well aware of the religious connotations of the term, even as he steers it toward secular ends. What is compelling in this is the shift of focus from the modern isolated individual researcher as ethical or not to the relationship(s) in question as ethical or not, relationships which always imply at least two persons in ongoing negotiations (political, moral and ethical) in a unique context. This avoids treating persons as objects methodologically disconnected from one another.

Indeed, an important element of the proposed ethics covenant is to raise awareness among undergraduate and graduate students from early in their training that ethics is always situationally immanent regardless of the field of study, and not a separate ‘add-on’ to research or research methods courses. Ethical conduct demands reciprocity in an ongoing exchange that moves toward a negotiated fairness, always dynamic, instead of compliance with a monolithic model abstracted from socio-historical context. Certainly this is where there is overlap, and therefore significant possibility, to work with and among the Indigenous and feminist research practices mentioned throughout the text. We are back to ethics in the doing, but with the difference that there is no claim to a universal standard, only ongoing negotiation in an ecology of ethical practices.

Udo Krautwurst is an associate professor in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at the University of Prince Edward Island.


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