“Responsible Research”: Reducing Risk or Improving Well-being?

I’m reposting here a piece I wrote for The Critical Investigations into Humanitarianism in Africa (CIHA) Blog:

A recent workshop held in South Africa convened two unlikely groups: San* groups in South Africa and sex workers in Nairobi. What do these two seemingly unrelated groups have in common? According to the workshop conveners, they have both experienced research exploitation, specifically citing being spoken down to, confused with language devised for technical specialists, or treated as ignorant. Taken further, I believe these groups are part of a growing trend of “over-research” on places and people that embody particular public narratives, especially of poverty. Studying these sentiments of being “over-researched” shifts the scientific conversation on research ethics from one of reducing the risks of harm to one of improving developmental impacts of science. This is because “over-research” does not appear to be defined by a measurable quantitative number or threshold, but rather is a temporally related, affective perception of being exploited in some way by the process of scientific knowledge production.

The question that follows from an identified increasing phenomenon of “over-research” then is what an alternative, more “responsible research” might look like. This question is one that is a long-standing interest of the Blog and other groups. For example, TRUST, an international project based in the UK that seeks to foster fair research partnerships convened the above referenced workshop, and the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation, an organization based in Cape Town that seeks to promote human-centered approaches to socio-economic justice, recently released a Safeguarding Policy document. This workshop and growing movement from the African continent compliments other existing work around indigenous research ethics codes and guidelines, including the First Nations principles of OCAP® and the Alaska Federation of Natives’ Guidelines for Research. There is also a growing conversation, especially out of North American and Australian aborigine communities, around “indigenous data sovereignty” that may be of relevance for those interested in indigenous research ethics on the African continent.

Following indigenous Native American and Australian communities, the San* as well as the Nairobi sex workers are thinking about and enacting an indigenous ethics code that pushes back against exploitative research. (For recent media coverage, see: herehere, and here.)

But, while local research codes and guidelines are a commendable and perhaps necessary intervention in some cases, as mentioned above, I worry that such research ethical guidelines may offer an illusion or promise of a template for an ethically unproblematic research project, erased of inevitable knowledge and power asymmetries. Do such indigenous ethics codes shift the fundamental measures of what is considered “responsible research”? Do they continue to operate within a paradigm of “reducing risks” or will they open up new possibilities of science in/with/for communities?

Since the 1980s, feminist scholars from both the global South and North, such as Abena Busia, Amina Mama, Kamala Visweswaran, Judith Stacey, and Lila Abu-Lughod, have been at the forefront of pointing out problematics and contradictions in the research encounter. Stacey writes: “I find myself wondering whether the appearance of greater respect for and equality with research subjects in the ethnographic approach masks a deeper, more dangerous form of exploitation” (1988, 22). If even research which seeks to have greater respect for and equality with research subjects masks exploitation, then perhaps the IRB and other ethical review processes should not focus so much on reducing the inevitable risks and problematics of research, but rather focus on emphasize uplifting and enriching those who participate in such knowledge production. Would such a shift change proposed research topics, subjects, and methods used?

Some may wonder, don’t Institutional Review Board (IRB) processes already exist to define exactly what counts as research and highlight the fact that all research involves risk (even if minimal)? In practice, IRB processes (viewed by many researchers as a bureaucratic requirement to reduce legal liabilities for Western universities) often do not relate to the broad range of contemporary studies and have trouble assessing more collaborative and participatory methods used in research, especially social science research conducted in Africa (and around the world) today. It is important to remember that current IRB classifications emerged as reactions to Western biomedical experimentation gone wrong (e.g. as a result of atrocities committed by Nazi doctors; and the U.S. Tuskegee Syphilis Study done on black men without their consent) and these underlying biomedical assumptions of what constitutes “high risk” do not seem to fully align with what African and indigenous research subjects believe counts as exploitative research. Furthermore, the IRB review process does not take into account the broader impacts of the research in aggregate. Any one particular study may not be problematic in and of itself. But as the examples of “over-researched” San* groups and Nairobi sex workers illustrate, it may be that research in the aggregate and on the same communities, time and time again is what leads to feelings of exploitation and disenchantment with the scientific process of knowledge production.

Therefore, taking our cue from generations of feminist scholars around the world may allow for greater recognition of the inherent asymmetries of research labor and contradictions that abound within the practice of research, especially development research “for the good” of particular marginalized people. Rather than avoiding these contradictions, openly grappling with them could strengthen existing and future research relationships. Moving away from bureaucratic ethical procedures designed to protect research organization/academic institution and reduce the risk of material or psychological harm for people only understandable under the IRB as “subject populations” and not co-producers of knowledge and expertise, and instead advancing thinking and attempts to realize the potential societal value of scientific research for all who participate in knowledge processes might be the start of a move towards more decolonized, ethical science.


  • * I use the term “San” here, but would like to acknowledge and flag the ongoing debates over the terms of reference for the groups: San, Jun/oansi, “bushmen,” “hunter-gatherers,” BaSarwa, e.t.c. For example, in Namibia, Jun/oansi call themselves “bushmen” when speaking Afrikaans, but otherwise call themselves Jun/oansi.
  • Several of these resources mentioned in this post were kindly shared on the “Responsible Data” mailing list managed by The Engine Room. To learn more and/or join, visit: https://www.theengineroom.org/responsible-data/
  • Thank you to Dr. Roy Richard Grinker, Director of George Washington University’s Institute for African Studies for his helpful feedback on this article.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Create a website or blog at WordPress.com

%d bloggers like this: