Refusing to Research: An Alternative Lens on Ethics

Willoughby-Herard (2015) writes about why she decided not to write about and research black South African women (despite attempts by South African archivists to redirect her to write about them). She states: “We do not get to claim space in each other’s histories simply because we want to or because we have been in political solidarity,” (xvii). Given that black South African women intellectuals had already made decisive and lasting scholarly interventions in critical theory and history at incredible personal cost and knowing that as an “American,” her findings were likely be regarded as more insightful and powerful than those of women from black South Africa, she opted not to be seen as the leading flag bearer on the topic and chose a different research object (poor Whites in South Africa).

I find Tiffany’s reflection fascinating in relation to my project (on the phenomenon of heavily researched populations) for two reasons. First, this move appears to be a similar flavor to growing feminist literature theorizing research participants’ refusal (McGranahan 2016; Simpson 2007; Ortner 1995), but from the standpoint of the researcher rather than the research subject. What are the implications or effects of refusing to study something/someone (esp. that is articulated by other scholars/audience as the obvious or natural object that “needs” to be studied)? I find this particularly relevant for my project because I am interested in the narratives used by researchers as to why they landed on their particular projects… most decisions about research objects seem to be for a combination of pragmatic (ease of access, language, contacts, etc.), academic (field of study, affiliations, etc.), historical (what literature/data already exists?; existing research infrastructure) and serendipitous (“it just happened…”<– although I think this rhetoric needs to be further distilled) reasons. But Willoughby-Herard’s rationale highlights one more angle that I have not yet read or heard articulated: the researcher’s decision NOT to study something as an intentional, ethical move.

Willoughby-Herard acknowledges that in spite of any sense of political solidarity, by the fact of her “Americanness,” her work would travel in a different way from that of Black South African scholars. So as not to overshadow or diminish the existing work that they have done, she therefore opted to venture elsewhere (in the moment (1990s?) that she found herself in). She reflects how today (20 years after apartheid), she feels more comfortable to do original research on black South African women because the black South African women have published their work and there are many highly theoretical texts now about Black South African women. These further details are also interesting because they highlight the contextualized, temporal aspects of ethics about research. What in Willougby-Herard’s view didn’t sit ethically well with her at one particular moment in time became acceptable at another moment.

I find this contextualized understanding of research ethics in stark contrast to what is traditionally thought of as “research ethics,” i.e. universal standards that designate the ethical bar that should be met when conducting research anywhere around the globe. Institutional practices such as the institutional review board (IRB) have been designed to delineate such clear and universal ethical boundaries for research. However, work by medical anthropologists across Africa has more recently revealed the complexity of putting such processes into practice when working with context-specific vulnerable populations (Abadie 2010; Geissler 2011; Brada 2016). Looking at decisions about when/where/why to do research in/on/with any given community brings to the forefront a rethinking of what is “ethical” in research. How can implementation and enforcement of “research ethics” move beyond project-based parameters and take into consideration local histories and political economies in which projects and ethics are situated (Biruk 2017)?


Works Cited

Abadie, Roberto. 2010. The Professional Guinea Pig: Big Pharma and the Risky World of Human Subjects. Durham [NC]: Duke University Press.

Biruk, Crystal. 2017. “Ethical Gifts?: An Analysis of Soap-for-Data Transactions in Malawian Survey Research Worlds: Ethical Gifts?” Medical Anthropology Quarterly 31 (3):365–84.

Brada, Betsey Behr. 2016. “The Contingency of Humanitarianism: Moral Authority in an African HIV Clinic.” American Anthropologist, 1–17.

Geissler, P. W. 2011. “Studying Trial Communities: Anthropological and Historical Inquiries into Ethos, Politics and Economy of Medical Research in Africa.” In Evidence,Ethos and Experiment The Anthropology and History of Medical Research in Africa, edited by P. W. Geissler and C. Molyneux, 1–28. Oxford: Berghahn.

McGranahan, Carole. 2016. “Theorizing Refusal: An Introduction.” Cultural Anthropology 31 (3):319–25.

Ortner, Sherry B. 1995. “Resistance and the Problem of Ethnographic Refusal.” Comparative Studies in Society and History 37 (1):173–93.

Simpson, Audra. 2007. “On Ethnographic Refusal: Indigeneity, ‘Voice’ and Colonial Citizenship.” Junctures: The Journal for Thematic Dialogue 0 (9).

Willoughby-Herard, Tiffany. 2015. Waste of a White Skin: The Carnegie Corporation and the Racial Logic of White Vulnerability. Oakland, California: University of California Press.


2 responses to “Refusing to Research: An Alternative Lens on Ethics”

  1. A very interesting question. There are certainly places where the positionality of the researcher (I speak as an older white male professor from the UK, with few non-English language skills) should restrict how I plan research and what groups / organisations I work with. Typically that has been because I didn’t believe I had the necessary skills to actually discover anything very useful from someone whose language I don’t speak and whose life experience is so different to mine. I do consider how me speaking about a topic, when I’m doing participatory design/research, might stop other people from speaking up, but I have not previously onsidered how me writing about a topic might prevent other authors with better understandings of the context getting heard (except by co-authoring with those people).


    1. Thanks for reading and commenting Andy! Yes, I think this is a very interesting aspect to think about in terms of whose work is able to circulate or is seen as more “authoritative”… this is a particular interesting point to consider while advocating for things like Open Access (which is important for a variety of reasons!) because in spite of opening up access to knowledge, often (esp. given limits on academics’ time, etc.) politics of citation still revolve around existing centers of knowledge for a variety of social capital/infrastructure/etc.etc. reasons. Anthropologists have long studied the “Other” – someone whose “life experience is so different from theirs” as you mentioned, hence why I think there is a significant body of literature in Anthro that grapples with these sorts of questions. I don’t think it is enough to think through positionality… there are broader infrastructural questions that go beyond ones’ subjectivities (though they are also linked in certain ways of course)…I am also not convinced that we cannot study people/cultures/places that are “so different” from our own… But it just requires much more sensitivity and perhaps alternative approaches to “research.” I don’t have any concrete answers but these are some of the questions I am exploring in my own project — looking at the relationships, relevance, (ethnographic) research ethics of research (looking at a case study of a “hyper-researched” community like Kibera)… I think we clearly still need new relational forms of the research encounter.


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