The Other Side of the Table, or: Teaching Research Ethics
This year’s summer term, for the first time, I gave an undergraduate seminar – just after having come back from my last phase of fieldwork in South Africa. Hence, on top of the challenges of finding my way back into what I like to think of as ‘my German life’, I also had to come to terms with my new professional role and all the strings and joys attached to it.
In this post, I discuss my experiences of switching to the other side of the table, of becoming a lecturer. And that’s already where the uncertainty began that came with my new role: I definitely don’t think of myself as lecturing people and I truly hope I didn’t do it to the small group of students who joined my seminar on research ethics in the last term. Inspired by the legendary character of Mr. John Keating (“I stand upon my desk to remind myself that we must constantly look at things in a different way”) and admittedly overtly romanticized and probably naively idealized, I’d like to picture myself as a facilitator or moderator on a mission to organize joint excursions of the mind.
The six students who joined my seminar on research ethics had been studying sociology as a major or minor in their second or third year. Most of them already had experiences with qualitative research methods and were familiar with the basics of conducting interviews and participant observation. At my university, research ethics as a seminar of its own is not an integral part of the undergraduate sociology curriculum and hence, the students who joined the course had chosen the topic out of interest (or convenience). Every Wednesday, we met in an oddly colourful and way too big seminar room to discuss the development, role, importance and ambiguity of research ethics in the social sciences.
I had chosen research ethics as seminar subject out of manifold reasons: the topic allowed me to draw and reflect on my own ethnographic research during which I had regularly found myself in situations that demanded careful ethical considerations. Moreover, I’m convinced that every student should be encouraged to reflect upon what it means to be a good social scientist from the very beginning on. Earlier this year, during a discussion on research ethics among PhD students in Social Anthropology, the question had come up if there were ways to prepare oneself for the various ethical challenges one was sooner or later to encounter during fieldwork. Of course, there was no straightforward solution and the group decided it was best to openly discuss ethical issues with peers and in general, to engage in self-reflection and increase one’s sensitivity towards the topic. A general consensus emerged that how to deal with ethical dilemmas in research depended on the context and specifics of the situation. Codes of ethics (like the German Sociological Association’s Code of Ethics or the American Anthropological Association’s Statement on Ethics) could serve as orientation or point of departure but never as a substitute for own reflections.
Hence, when designing and outlining the contents of my seminar, I chose texts as compulsory reading that dealt with researcher’s unique ethical challenges, introduced emotional dilemmas and made researcher’s decisions, doubts and regrets transparent. Furthermore, I had the ambition to engage students in challenging discussions taking into account multifaceted perspectives that would allow them to scrutinize and shape their moral outlooks. In order to make things more interesting, I decided to invite a researcher who herself had conducted an international study on research ethics, the head of the university’s ethics committee and a graduate in games studies who each illuminated research ethics from their specific perspectives.
Moreover, students were given the assignment to conduct a semi-structured interview on the topic of research ethics with a researcher of their own choice. This side-project served two purposes: On the one hand, students received first-hand experiences conducting interviews and were encouraged to reflect upon each step (preparation, contacting the interviewee, obtaining consent, conducting the interview, sharing results) from the perspective of research ethics. On the other hand, they got in touch with more experienced researchers and learned about ethical challenges in their research. As the seminar progressed, we regularly discussed difficulties that came with the interview project and students shared their experiences and perspectives. For example, we intensively spoke about different ways to address and get in touch with possible informants, about which information should be passed on and if it was okay (or even necessary) to hold back information about specific research topics in order to keep the researcher’s influence on the interviewee to a minimum.
In total, we had 10 sessions – four of them being double sessions (2 x 90 mins.) – in which we discussed the following main topics:
Session 1: Brief introduction of important philosophical strands: consequentialism, utilitarianism, Kantian ethics
Session 2: History of research ethics, specific challenges for the social sciences, country-specific differences with regards to ethic committees
Session 3: Informed Consent
Session 4: Covert Research
Session 5: Bio-ethics and the role of anthropologists in the humanitarian Ebola crisis
Session 6: Ethical challenges in medical anthropology and the anthropology of religion
Session 7: Ethical challenges in quantitative research
Session 8: Specifics of virtual ethnography
Session 9: The role of the researcher as insider versus outsider
Session 10: Seminar reflection and interview experiences
Looking back, I’m very content with the course of the seminar: in general, students participated eagerly and discussions were lively. In the words of the anthropologist Jarret Zigon, the seminar can be classified as a situation of moral breakdown. Together, the seminar participants (including myself) engaged in the discussion and problematization of our latent and, in everyday life, unquestioned moral ways of being in the world (see Zigon 2007). And although ethical challenges during research come in all different kinds of shapes and a lot of them are impossible to foresee, I think the seminar served as a basic engagement with a number of fundamental aspects of research ethics. When at the end of the seminar, I asked students to write on the whiteboard what they found to be most important topics of our discussions and to connect them to each other, this was the creative output:
I’ll only translate a few of them: respecting privacy was linked to “other” cultures. Common sense was contrasted with self-reflection which was aligned to joint reflections with others, reflecting dominant categories, unintended positions and being both insider and outsider at the same time. Representation was identified as a major category and contextualized with striving for objectivity, thinking outside the box, do no harm!, and context sensitivity. Responsibility was marked as another major topic and aligned with responsibility towards oneself and towards others, good preparation, follow-ups and trust.
Me, I enjoyed my new role at the other side of the table which I found very fulfilling. However, I have to admit it was quite demanding at times. Being the one in charge of a seminar, there is no opportunity to daydream, to check messages on your phone, no permission to be, or – for that matter – to even look bored, tired or disinterested. After having conducted double sessions, I always felt as if having run a marathon, my mind squeezed empty, no resources left to concentrate on anything, my whole body just feeling exhausted and tired. However, I will happily do it again and I am already looking forward to my next opportunity to, well, uhm, teach?