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National Affairs

A new protection policy?

17 December 2013

University ethics committees and the social sciences make awkward partners, writes Gillian Cowlishaw


AdamG1975/ iStockphoto

AdamG1975/ iStockphoto

A YOUNGER colleague was thrilled last year at being one of the few successful applicants for a four-year research fellowship from the Australian Research Council, or ARC. Already an experienced anthropologist, she had spent months carefully crafting her project with the help of colleagues and university resources. She planned to continue her intensive field research in an Aboriginal community whose language she speaks. For eighteen years she has been building close and trusting relationships with people who appreciate the chance to explore and articulate their own values, perceptions and ambitions, in a social setting that the nation considers so problematic.

At the ARC, her proposal had gone through a rigorous ranking process involving external peer reviewers and an expert discipline-based panel. But then, suddenly and surprisingly, her application for ethics approval met with queries about matters of method and scientific merit from her university’s ethics committee that cut across the aims and methods that had already been examined and approved. She has been forbidden to begin the research until the committee is satisfied, and is now preparing her fourth attempt to gain approval.

This is one of several cases I’m aware of that are fuelling increasing concerns within the academy about the role of university human research ethics committees, or HRECs, in judging social science research. Another, even more distressing case involved a PhD candidate who received a scholarship through a highly competitive process, also for an original and valuable research project in an Aboriginal community, but has abandoned her university in despair after being faced with unanswerable questions that had nothing to do with ethics or the subject matter of the project.

In each case, all the sweat and tears of gaining the funding were brought to nought by committees seemingly dedicated to obstructing rather than facilitating. The qualitative research agenda of a peak research body, the ARC, is being blocked or seriously delayed by these committees. There is a puzzle here about the relationship between the major institutional players – the ARC, the HRECs and the universities themselves, with their need for research funds and research output. But my concern is with the common frustration of social researchers when a HREC exceeds its brief and uses spurious ethical grounds to demand damaging changes to a well-developed project.

The job of these committees is to make sure that any research with human subjects meets the guidelines set out in the National Statement on Ethical Conduct in Human Research. The kind of research that my students and I do – ethnographic research involving Aboriginal Australians – is subjected to the most intense scrutiny from would-be ethicists. At the heart of their concerns is an imbalance of power, and their aim is to protect powerless subjects from researchers’ exploitation or misrepresentation. In working by analogy with the medical model of research (where these ethics clearances originated), however, these committees misapprehend social science methods and aims in three ways.

First, qualitative social research depends entirely on subjects’ voluntary cooperation – they choose whether and how to participate and hence are by no means powerless in this context.

Second, most subjects are eager to be recorded, quoted and depicted, and desire to take an active part in the research, often to correct public misrepresentations. For people who do not themselves write, social research is an opportunity to be known by the nation of which they are a part.

Third, as Marcia Langton said in 1993, images of Aboriginal life should not be confined to flattering and favourable views but need to be rich and complex, reflecting a range of competing perspectives. And the same is surely true of any social domain.

In their attempt to protect vulnerable research subjects, HRECs obstruct opportunities for marginalised people to be heard. Experienced researchers are understandably offended by demands for accountability that imply they are dishonest, manipulative or exploitative of subjects who want to participate in their research.

So what are ethics committees worried about? Harm, or rather disturbance, to individuals or to the community appears to be a central concern, and so researchers must promise to provide extensive information and gain permission before the research begins. What started out as good practice has grown like a noxious weed, until the HRECs appear sometimes to be demanding the ultimate safeguard – that all community leaders agree to the findings before the research begins. This absurdity would make any research redundant.

There are ethical complexities involved in social research, as an extensive anthropology literature testifies. Human relationships necessarily involve moral matters. But these are not amenable to abstract rule-making and cannot be adjudicated beforehand. HRECs’ suspicions about unethical practices are counterproductive because of their serious misunderstanding of ethnographic research. I am not a moral philosopher – nor are HREC members – but grappling with moral questions has been an everyday experience during my many years of ethnographic work. Immersion in social relationships forms the basis of sound ethnographic research and is always accompanied by anxieties and dilemmas. Relationships formed during fieldwork are close and complex; the work is difficult, personally demanding and hugely rewarding.

Perhaps the HRECs’ suspicions are inspired by the caricature of the colonial anthropologist in a pith helmet, exploiting the knowledge he gains from naive Indigenous people and never returning anything to the community. But this image is quite contrary to contemporary ethnographic experience. It hardly needs pointing out that anthropologists, whatever their limitations, took colonised peoples seriously, recording details of social organisation and seeking to understand the meanings these others lived by. Their work has been a valuable element in the struggle for land rights. The fact that such knowledge didn’t penetrate very far into Australian public consciousness is hardly an ethical failing of anthropologists.

The requirement that research benefits the community appears to be unarguable. Yet both “benefit” and “community” are complex concepts and may only be revealed over time: the first successful native title claim after Mabo, for instance, used the work that anthropologist Barry Morris had done years before and for a different purpose. Benefits to some members of a community might disadvantage others, and a short-term gain might mean a long-term loss. What of local gatekeepers who want to keep a community’s dirty linen secret, thus precluding benefits to all? And how is self-interest to be separated from truth? As Aboriginal academic and film-maker Frances Peters-Little showed in her article “The Community Game,” the need to demonstrate “community benefit” has the potential to sink a research project because the unified and harmonious community is a fiction, an artefact of government policy. Healthy communities are, by their very nature, realms of contestation and negotiation.

The moral ambiguity of qualitative research is clear in relation to the payment of subjects, a practice that is now a formal requirement. Many of us have done this in various ways for many years, but it is not a simple transaction. In Bourke, where I worked intermittently for two decades, I employed research assistants and shared resources, sometimes giving people money when they needed it, but any formalised “payment for stories” would have been tactless and corrupting of people’s desire to share their knowledge and memories. People loved being recorded. I returned transcripts or even tapes, to be read and listened to by all and sundry. In some circumstances, offering payment can be insulting – imagine offering to pay your grandfather for telling you about his childhood.

Social science research may necessarily be disturbing because the analytic gaze always has the potential to penetrate local mythologies. Russel Ward’s The Australian Legend contested Australians’ 1950s self-image – would his HREC have given him ethics clearance if he’d sought to undertake fieldwork? Yet many people – perhaps nascent social observers themselves – welcome the ethnographer into their lives as an attentive and interested participant-observer. Such people carry a sense of their own habitus as contingent and historically constructed, and want to explain and explore it.

Ethics committees’ real purpose may be to insure universities against risk, using “ethical” edicts as a mask. But if we ask whether upsetting some people makes research unethical, the answer must be a resounding no. Rather, such a risk is a necessary element of any worthwhile enquiry. Further, marginalised, subaltern peoples do not, in my experience, want the protection of university ethics committees from unethical social scientists and yet these are in the HRECs’ highest risk category. What they really risk is being ignored. Those willing to undertake the difficult task of research in such environments require moral support if the voices of our silenced communities are to be heard. Perhaps the principles for judging the moral worth of a social research project should be reversed – unless harm can be proven, the research should go ahead. •

Show Comments


Anthony Welch

7 February 2014

An interesting discussion of a major issue that continues to stymie research in the social sciences.

This is particularly the case in cross-cultural research. Researchers who conduct case studies and ethnographies in Asia for example, know full well that an insistence on signing a Consent form often means the end of any potential interview. Numerous other examples could be given of HREC requirements that show there is no understanding of, or allowance for, the realities of doing cross cultural research, where trust and networks are key to access and cooperation. The formalities of HREC provisions are very much at odds with this culture, and often function as a form of cultural imposition, rather than an enabler of good social science practice.

Having recently been part of an institution wide review of an existing Ethics process, that included interviews with numerous cross cultural researchers, and ethnographers who presented detailed examples to show how HREC procedures needed to be reformed, it was frustrating to find the earlier model replaced by an (online) version that is even worse.

Charlie Ward

20 December 2013

As an Australian post-graduate student and practising oral historian I have been required to submit my research for approval to a university ethics committee on more than one occasion. It is obvious when navigating these labyrinthine, one-size-fits-all, ‘approval’ processes developed primarily for quantitative, biomedical research (as David Trigger describes) that there is a mismatch with social science, and particularly oral history methods and reporting.

As Gillian Cowlishaw illustrates here, university Ethics Committees have been vested with the power to make or break research. In the name of ‘best-practice research’, the practice of universities has been to transfer responsibility for institutional risk management to the researcher. While I recognise the importance of ensuring the minimisation of harm to research participants, I have concerns about the quality of the ‘expertise’ that is bought to these panels. The ethics committee of one university advised a researcher that if they were to interview Aboriginal people about their life history that ‘it is important to acknowledge that there may be cultural and religious issues involving the [name of town]’. When a committee’s knowledge of a language group is such that they are unable to distinguish it from the name of that group’s place of residence, its ‘expert’ advice is revealed as little more than moral exhortation and cultural tokenism. Nonetheless, oral historians, like other researchers, are required to arm themselves with sheafs of information letters, disclosure statements, letters of introduction, informed consent forms and rights agreements, and to proffer these by way of introduction to potential interviewees, who at times have no literacy. This impersonal and intimidating approach to social research is now compulsory, and unnecessarily alienates research participants while reifying the power of the institution. Under the guise of ‘protection’, this new paternalism is rampant.

In the US, steps have been taken to exempt oral historical research in particular from the common, biomedical model of risk management by Institutional Review Boards (IRBs, the US equivalents of HRECS):

“Numerous complaints by investigators about the fit between the federal regulations and its IRB review requirements as they relate to social science research have been received. Broad complaints range from the legitimacy of IRB review, the applicability of the concepts of risk as it pertains to social science (e.g., possibly unneeded, over-burdensome requirements), and the requirements for the documentation of participants' consent, i.e., consent forms). Social scientists have criticized biomedical IRBs for failing to adequately understand their research methods (such as ethnography). In 2003, the Office for Human Research Protection (OHRP), in conjunction with the (US) Oral History Association and American Historical Association, issued a formal statement that taking oral histories, unstructured interviews (as if for a piece of journalism), collecting anecdotes, and similar free speech activities often do not constitute "human subject research" as defined in the regulations and were never intended to be covered by clinical research rules”.*

It is hoped that conversations of this type (and examination of the ‘hard cases’ such as that described by Tim Rowse) will be forthcoming in Australia too. Indeed, from searching the web it would appear that in the US now most oral history research is exempt from IRB (Ethical Committee) requirements, as oral history does not meet the US government’s narrow definition of ‘research’.

* Ritchie, Don; Shopes, Linda (2003). Oral History Excluded from IRB Review: Application of the Department of Health and Human Services Regulations for the Protection of Human Subjects at 45 CFR Part 46, Subpart A to Oral History Interviewing. Oral History Association. From Accessed 19 December 2013.

David Trigger

18 December 2013

This is an important issue which I think deserves more serious debate than normally occurs.

I have not been a member of a university ethics committee but I have dealt with them at two Australian universities over many years. I have found the best outcomes come from making a cogent case about the nature of qualitative social science research including ethnography and its signature methods of participant observation and informal conversational interviewing. I think it is important to acknowledge that the committees include members of goodwill seeking to ensure positive outcomes for projects.

However, there is also a risk of individuals on ethics committees allowing their personal political dispositions to intrude into judgments about proposals. Examples I have encountered include:

• A committee ruling that participant observation with (Euro-Australian) pig hunters in north Queensland was not approved in part because: ‘The activity of pig hunting (with guns and knives) is contentious. Apart from the element of risk to participants, the issues of animal welfare and the broader community standards need to be considered. Although the researcher proposes to ‘observe’ a hunt and not be physically involved in the actual hunt itself, it may be argued that her voluntary presence as an observer nevetheless [sic] compromises her integrity and makes her an ‘accomplice’ to a contentious activity. […]’. (see Carla Meurk’s contribution to Revelatory moments in fieldwork, Qualitative Research 2012 12: 513. DOI: 10.1177/1468794112446049) Here we have the committee members deciding because a fieldwork setting is ‘contentious’, &/or perhaps distasteful in the personal views of some or all of the members, the PhD project cannot proceed.

• A committee commenting on the supposed inappropriateness of research in Indonesia because it may risk offending the government of the day.

• A committee questioning the adequacy of methods using snowballing techniques to choose interviewees rather than a more statistically representative sampling method appropriate in quantitative studies.

In the case of research including Australian Aboriginal people there are in my experience added risks that naïve identity politics intrude into the deliberations of ethics committees. Confounding issues that have arisen include the question of who has a right to carry out research, whether it is feasible for a project to guarantee positive outcomes for those who are the subjects of the studies, and an assumption that the results of the research should be vetted and potentially censored through some process of submitting drafts for approval. On the latter point, apart from the obvious problem of exactly who as individuals or organizations might rule on the acceptability of the researcher’s conclusions, there is the extraordinary proposition that for research to be of value it needs to present findings that those in the study group agree with. As soon as this is thought about outside such settings as Indigenous Australia, including research investigations with powerful & influential sectors of society, the wrongheadedness of such an approach is clear.

The work of ethics committees in assessing proposals for work including Australian Indigenous individuals or groups is arguably made unworkably complex by some of the requirements adopted by the National Health & Medical Research Council particularly as health related research matters can be taken to apply to all social science or humanities research. The Australian Research Council takes its ethics requirements largely from the NHMRC. To take just a couple of examples, the NHMRC’s guidelines document requires a project to demonstrate how ‘strategies have been identified to eliminate any threats to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Peoples’ ability to enjoy their cultural distinctiveness’, not only a questionable assumption that some version of ‘cultural distinctiveness’ is always agreed to be a good thing, but also a big ask for especially an early career scholar finding their way for the first time with a study of complex social & cultural issues. Or the requirement that researchers and ethics committees owe ‘an obligation to the spirit and integrity of communities not just to individuals’, presumably based on assumptions that awareness of such a ‘spirit’ can be addressed in the research with Aboriginal people and that the idea of a collectivity or ‘community’ is always of key significance across those in the study setting. It is not necessarily impossible for a new project to address such matters but no doubt ethics committee members along with researchers find themselves at risk of mouthing fairly meaningless assurances and judgments about just how proposals can realistically address these issues.

In my view, it is hardly rocket science to know that ethics are important in social science research and that ethics committees are here to stay. But we have enough cases to know there is a substantial risk that good quality projects can be stymied for the wrong reasons.

John Bacon-Shone

24 March 2014

I do not work in the Australian system, but I have chaired the non-clinical human research ethics committee in my university for more than 5 years.

There certainly is a tension between clinical researchers and non-clinical researchers about what is an ethical research process, which needs careful management and education of both sides.

However, it is essential that all researchers are required to reflect on whether their research process could be improved and whether it is possible to reduce the privacy risks, reduce the perception of conflict of interest or improve the transparency with potential participants. There are some university colleagues who assume that because they are senior, nobody should question anything about their processes!

Tim Rowse

18 December 2013

A recent paper by anthropologist Brian Klopotek is relevant to any discussion about how researchers should commit to 'respecting' their host communities. Klopotek was studying Choctaw (Native American) efforts to achieve US government recognition, when he was moved by the ‘decolonising methodologies’ mandate of ‘collaborative process’ to ask ‘tribal members’ to comment on his drafts. This elicited a tense conversation, he reports, because Choctaw ‘indigeniety’, as his research presented it, included racism (against African-Americans). One way of dealing with that tension - perhaps a way that is implied to be 'good' by some institutional ethics committees? - would have been to self-censor or to allow the community readers to delete passages that challenged their good opinion of themselves. Klopotek resisted the temptation to be a 'good' researcher in this sense. He saw himself as obliged not to collaborate in Choctaw denial of their racism. His subjects’ discomfort, he argues, was the price that must be paid if US ‘white supremacism’ is to be challenged, even when some of those reproducing it present themselves as ‘indigenous’. His paper is valuable as a case study of a conflict that may arise between our conceptions of what is 'ethical'. I wonder how many members of Ethics committees are interested in discussing such hard cases (and they might start by reading - if they have not already - Isaiah Berlin on the plurality of 'the good').

Source: B. Klopotek 'Dangerous decolonizing: Indians and Blacks and the legacy of Jim Crow' in Decolonising native histories: collaboration, knowledge, and language in the Americas (Florencia Mallon ed ) Durham and London, Duke University Press, 2012, 179-195

Paul McKechnie

31 January 2014

Gillian Cowlishaw writes, 'Perhaps the HRECs’ suspicions are inspired by the caricature of the colonial anthropologist in a pith helmet.'

But this is not realistic. Committee members are social science professionals, not amateurs whose views would be formed by this kind of stereotype. Advice from and requirements imposed by Ethics Committees are in almost all cases well informed and ought to be taken seriously.

In the VERY FEW cases where a grant is lost because an Ethics Committee isn't satisfied that the proposed research is ethical, there are other applicants waiting in line, whose work was probably just as good in the first place.

Wendy Rogers

31 January 2014

As Prof Cowlishaw notes, the National Statement on Ethical Conduct in Human Research, published jointly by the Australian Research Council (ARC), Universities Australia (UA) and the National Health and Medical Council (NHMRC), provides guidance for human research ethics committees (HRECs). The National Statement applies to all research with human participants. The guidance it provides aims to be relevant, no matter what the research method or discipline.

The National Statement is currently being evaluated via a survey. This evaluation is being undertaken by a working group of the Australian Health Ethics Committee (AHEC), with representatives from the ARC, UA and NHMRC. The link to the survey is

We encourage all those who research is reviewed under the guidance of the National Statement to participate in the evaluation, as this will help to ensure that future versions of the Statement address any methodological or disciplinary problems encountered by researchers, HRECs and others.

Wendy Rogers

AHEC member and Chair, working party on evaluating the National Statement

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