How ethical can research relationships be in Development Studies?

By Isis Barei-Guyot

The COVID-19 pandemic disrupted research practice, and where research was possible to continue nevertheless, researchers had to ask themselves how it could do so ethically. The context of the pandemic meant that many of such ethical considerations were new to researchers, and we witnessed a moment of overcoming and adapting that produced changes on a scale and at a pace that would have been previously inconceivable. However, these extraordinary efforts to keep research moving during the pandemic highlighted the inequalities that had become normalised within research practice, and particularly within research relationships.

Research relationships can include those between researcher and participant, as well as the relationships between researchers. The uneven distribution of power within these relationships is an ethical issue that is particularly salient for Development Studies, mainly due to the transnational nature of many of the research relationships in this field, as well as the role of colonialism in the field’s origins.

Decolonising research relationships

In order to continue research in the face of national lockdowns and travel restrictions, researchers from higher-income countries (HICs) were increasingly reliant on partners in middle-income countries (MICs) and lower-income countries (LICs). This reliance on researchers in lower-income contexts opened up space to reflect on the enduring colonial legacies plaguing transnational research relationships, such as the silencing of research partners and participants by what can be considered colonial practices.  

There were concerns that, without a coordinated effort to rebalance power in research relationships, resources would be re-dominated by institutions and researchers in HICs post-pandemic, signalling a return to ‘normal’. The pandemic therefore offered an important moment for researchers from HICs to work towards decolonising transnational research by reflecting on the meaning they give to their work and the way in which they engage with others in the course of this work. Fortunately, there are frameworks available  researchers can use to start decolonising their research.

Postcolonial Feminist Ethnography (PFE): An ethical framework

Feminist standpoint epistemology gives us the tools to address issues of power and positionality in research. A set of ethical principles within Postcolonial Feminist Ethnography (PFE) – namely the principles of reflexivity, positionality and representation- can be internalised by researchers in order to understand the distribution of power in research relationships and to ensure that research is rooted in ethical decision-making.

Reflexivity is a continuous practice in which the researcher reflects about their own power, position and influence in the field. Positionality comes from the understanding that researchers occupy multiple, shifting positions in the field, and that this will affect all elements of the research process. Positional reflexivity is therefore critical for researchers to address differences in position, privilege and power and avoid ‘othering’ participants or exploiting research partners. This reflexivity, driven by an ethics of care for those we work with, should be carried through to the final stages of research and have a depth that goes beyond removing perceived biases to allow researchers to truly combat the ‘violence’ of representation.

Researchers who are interested in breaking down the power imbalances in research relationships need to begin their research by reflecting on their own involvement in structures of domination with the intention of transforming the political relations supporting these structures. This may mean accepting that, although research meets the standards of procedural and institutional ethics, it could still contribute to inequalities in research relationships through unethical yet normalised practices.

It is therefore recommended that researchers from HICs reflect on the motivations behind their research in order to understand the balance of power within research relationships through continual reflexivity. It is also important to recognise that those who have lived experience of a context will likely be the best candidates for research in this context. Dominant western ideology, which is influenced by colonial ideology, gives researchers in HICs more power than those in lower-income contexts, invalidating the voices and knowledge of those outside of Western academia and perpetuating academic imperialism.

Therefore, researchers who are serious about decolonising research need to ensure that research is collaborative to challenge uneven balances of power in research relationships.

Collaborative research relationships

International research collaboration was an integral element of the response to the pandemic, yet this effort to work collaboratively made clear the “unresolved historical inequalities of access and connection that [usually] hinder us from doing so”.

Research practices since Euro-American colonialism have been characterised by inequalities and exploitation, evidenced in normalised practices such as research agendas being developed in HICs and serving the interests of HICs and Western researchers being given an ‘expert’ status that is denied to local partners. On top of this comes the inadequate compensation of local researchers; and the lack of credit local researchers receive in published work who are sometimes not even being informed about the publication at all.

Collaborative research which is underpinned by an ethics of care is a primary way in which inequalities in research relationships can be addressed. In order to make the shift from working on to working with, researchers from HICs must abdicate control in the field and transfer skills and legitimacy to local research partners. At the same time it is important to acknowledge that research is often funded and subject to ethical approval which limits the extent to which researchers can relinquish control in the field. Actors such as funding agencies and universities must therefore be pushed to create an integrated environment with incentives for collaborative research to be sustained beyond the context of the pandemic.

Moving forward with care

There is more to consider on what can be done to support ethical research relationships than can be discussed here. Although the discussion is not new, the pandemic has demonstrated that we are capable of enacting changes that would have been deemed unfeasible under different circumstances, and, even more importantly, that this change can be driven by an ethics of care. Researchers must commit to the ethical principles highlighted here in a way that gives them equal importance to formal ethical considerations and procedures.

Researchers in the field of Development Studies must care enough to commit to ethical changes as individuals. Decolonising research relationships requires peeling back layers of honesty, particularly when unethical research practices have been normalised and this honesty it is not required. This is likely going to be an uncomfortable experience that will bring up complicated emotions, yet if this is not done, researchers will continue to be in denial about the ethics of their research relationships and miss an important opportunity to learn from their mistakes.

Note: This article gives the views of the author, not the position of the EADI Debating Development Blog or the European Association of Development Research and Training Institutes.

Isis Barei-Guyot is a PhD Development Policy and Management candidate in the Global Development Institute at the University of Manchester. She is a feminist researcher with an interest in postcolonial theory and urban inequalities. Her current research focuses on the politics of women’s urban safety in higher-income contexts.

Image: P. L. Tandon und a creative commos licence on Flickr