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.


“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:
  • Thank you to Dr. Roy Richard Grinker, Director of George Washington University’s Institute for African Studies for his helpful feedback on this article.