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Why I Don't Want to be an 'Ethical' Researcher

A polemical paper

Mitchell Rolls

© all rights reserved

This essay has had a response from Frances Peters Little.

To facilitate downloading,
this paper has been divided
into parts I & II


My work is often the target of charges proclaiming arid intellectualism. This essay makes no pretence to be anything other than unmitigated polemic, a Yarra bank or Sydney domain soapbox spiel. Nevertheless, it does flag a number of issues deserving not so much of scrutiny as ridicule, and points out some of the absurdities behind holier than thou proclamations as to how one should go about one's research. I speak from within the context and provide examples from the field in which most of my work is conducted, that being Aboriginal Studies. Whilst this field provides nuance (and much politicking under the guise of cultural sensitivity), the issues raised here have for the most part parallels in other fields.

I also need to clarify my use of the term 'ethical.' I'm not entering into the notion of ethics as defined by and argued about by philosophers, but am employing the term as it is simplistically and crudely bandied about by research police, including those bodies who euphemistically (and in a spirit of admirable optimism) call themselves ethics committees.

I just mentioned that I was provoked into wading into these issues. The source of provocation was an article that a colleague, in great earnestness, recommended. 'It's great', I was told. It provided a blueprint for research activities in our field of Aboriginal Studies. So I dutifully dug the article out and found myself irritated before I had finished the first of many pages. It wasn't that I could already tell the article was not going to make any new or useful suggestions. Nor was it the fact that it simply repeated that which has already been said ad nauseam. It wasn't even that many of the assertions made are patently ludicrous and gain their credibility through no other means than a conspiracy of political correctness. My irritation was not based on any of these things -- which, I hasten to add, are all perfectly acceptable reasons to be very irritated. It was the overweening righteousness that bled from every word that did it. The nauseating assumption that the authors were on the side of the good, and that those who in any way aspired to go about their business in an ethical manner must pay heed to the words written, and adopt the research methodologies and practices outlined.

It would be unfair to the authors to single them out. What they put forward, in March 2000, has been put forward a thousand times over the last two decades, and in short, they were recommending nothing other than what has become accepted orthodoxy. But still, why not say it again. Let's get the stick out of the cupboard and beat a few researchers of the past, make the ambit claim that nothing has changed, and put forward protocols that must be adopted to turn research into some quest that almost takes on spiritual overtones. Bugger truth, whatever that might be, don't even pretend you are aspiring to find it -- this is what one, as a researcher, must do, lest you be aligned with the forces of evil, or at least, those heinous anthropologists of yore, those easy and glib targets of so many.

So, what exactly are the Messrs Goody-Two-Shoes of Research practices advocating. The authors of the March paper, with all the gushing enthusiasm of born-again Aboriginalists, list, amongst other matters, the following protocols.

- research must genuinely benefit the community
- the researcher must receive appropriate (and ongoing) community permission before proceeding
- [the researcher must keep the] community informed and involved from start to finish as guided by principles of traditional law and custom determined by the community
They go on to say that '[t]hese protocols must underlie the research plan developed and followed by any researcher (Indigenous or non-Indigenous) working with an Indigenous community.' The requirement for academics to engage in ethical research demands that this be the case.

These demands are presented as if hot-off-the-press. Hear ye, hear ye, listen to this wonderful new advice that will overturn over 200 years of unethical research. One wonders what rock they've just crawled from under. Anyone engaged in research in Aboriginal Studies is well familiar with such exhortations. The surprise is that they are still being presented uncontested. That no revisionist scrutiny is applied, shows, I believe, just how easy it is to succumb to the dead weight of academic feel-goodism and political correctness. And it is so easy to keep on pumping out this tripe because no one will contest it. When in their essays undergraduates assemble the voodoo doll of past (and present) research practices and stick pins in it, who ever notes through marginalia that such a stance needs to be substantiated. It's accepted with a tick, possibly two. Not for these budding researchers to be a recital of the sins of the past. Look here, they're fellow travellers, and let's reward them for it. And how easy it is to explain to them the necessity of such research protocols. Protocols, which, although they may have their place, and perhaps it isn't the bin, certainly raise some serious and interesting concerns. And before we all get down into the dirt and commence our grovelling before the high priestess of research protocols, these concerns need to be fully explicated.

The first protocol given as that which we -- those of us researching in the field of Aboriginal Studies -- must obey if our research is to be ethical, and a protocol adopted by many university ethics committees, is that 'research must genuinely benefit the community.' Even if we ignore the problem of 'what is ์the๎ community?' how on earth is this to be determined? I enquired of a colleague relatively new to the field of conducting research into Aboriginal issues, and who subscribes to the principles behind such protocols with the fresh zeal of any black issues groupie, whether this proclaimed benefit was to be measured in the here and now, or could one offset any benefit for a date yet to be determined. The answer was to the effect that one must be cognisant of consequences down the track, as well as those of the here and now.

Such a stance seems to suggest that somehow or other we can predict the consequences of our research. It also suggests that how we will assess the merits or otherwise of consequences further down the track will be based on the very same principles and beliefs as those which it is argued should be guiding us today. As to the first point just made -- the difficulty of predicting consequences of our research -- I'm sure most would have their favourite anecdote of benign and approved research at one point in time re-manifesting with a devastating malignancy.

What of the belief that consequences realised much further down the track from the date of the research will for some reason or other still be assessed by the standards of today? The successful prosecution of a land rights claim, and the successful registration of a claim to native title, involves, amongst other issues, demonstrating 'traditional' association with the particular tract of land in question. One of the primary ways this is achieved is through the work of anthropologists, and indigenous groups that have had a long history of contact with anthropologists are often best able to substantiate their claims. Genealogies and people's connections with particular sites and associated Dreaming stories and/or song cycles are all produced as evidence. Yet the discipline that produced this work which today is proving to be of benefit to indigenous peoples is the subject of constant criticism. Furthermore, one could argue persuasively that had the anthropologists collecting this data developed the argument that their research would be in the long term interests of Aborigines several decades down the track because upon this data such things as land rights and native title would hinge, the ideologies of the day would have not sanctioned the research. The forerunners of our ethics committees, dancing to a different tune, would have thought such a suggestion ludicrous at best, and certainly not in the long term interests of Aborigines, which, as everyone would know, were thought to lie elsewhere. Vanishment or assimilation into the broader community, for example.

Why, then, do we assume that today we know it all, that somehow or other our generation has been blessed with a universal and timeless blueprint on how to conduct ethical research? If we follow these protocols not only will we be doing good today, but every generation to come -- black or white -- will be the beneficiaries of this goodness. And, unlike the researchers of yesteryear who we keep in the crosshairs of our opprobrium, our goodness will be recognised and respected. We've confused what's in our hearts with rude realities. But as just stated, research that is proving beneficent to indigenous communities today is the target of constant criticism, and had that research been predicated on principles that we accept today it would not have got off the ground.

Another of the protocols we must adhere to if we are to be given a smiley stamp is that we must receive appropriate (and ongoing) community permission before proceeding with our research. Here too, in the constant criticism of the work of early anthropologists we find assumptions deserving of scrutiny. Yes, to some extent anthropologists of yesteryear did swagger on to whatever land or community took their fancy, and yes, often that fancy was informed by a sensibility that we today find offensive. But once wherever it was that they set up their participant observation post -- which someone wryly commented was designed to enhance observation, not participation -- anthropologists sought informants. And by and large their informants were not selected from the local louts, the tribal truants or clan clowns. In other words, many informants enjoyed some sort of status. Some were elders. Their information was credible. These people chose to divulge information to the prying anthropologists. The issue of how much they understood about how the information they were divulging would or could be used is not only a moot point. For us today to point to these informants with the judgment that they were ruthlessly exploited by the dominant culture is to enter the realm of saying Aborigines are stupid. We are effectively saying that if only these people had known the sort of evolutionary framework that anthropologists were nailing their information to then they would have remained silent. Implicit in this is that those who did divulge information simply did not understand. I think this is arrogant and paternalistic. Pity the poor tribal elder too dense, or not sufficiently acculturated to understand, what was being made of his or her contribution to the field of anthropology. Perhaps the informants did understand. Perhaps they did take the long view, that in the long term indigenous interests would best be served by a candid response to whatever questions were asked, despite how such information was being used at that particular time.

Furthermore, the anthropological tomes of yesteryear are proving to be essential references for those many groups and individuals engaged in the process of cultural revival. If we discredit all this early work on the basis that it was racist and informed by evolutionary sentiments, or on whatever grounds, what are we doing to the evidence being presented in land rights claims and native title registrations, what are we saying to the cultural revivalists, what are we saying about a contemporary Aboriginality that in some cases has grown to a greater or lesser extent from a close reading of these sources? 'Sorry, we are now living in more enlightened times, and we regret to advise you that the information that you are basing your land rights claims on, the sources you are thumbing in your quest for cultural revival and identity, are so deeply flawed as to be useless.' We feel sorry for the informants who were dragooned into telling their stories, but is it not possible that instead we should admire their faith that some good would come of the knowledge divulged? And should we not be thankful, at least to some extent, that the anthropologists of yesteryear did not anticipate, at least in writing nor publicly, how the recorded information would or could be used at some future date? If they had done so it's a fair bet their research would have been stopped by public and institutional opprobrium. To suggest in the 1930s and 40s that you were undertaking research that could assist in the restitution of land to Aborigines and in their cultural continuity would be like suggesting today -- for the outrage that it would provoke -- that we should use fairy penguins as targets in javelin competitions.

In other words, despite the existence of research protocols and ethics committees, and irrespective of how faithfully we adhere to their dictates -- perhaps especially if we adhere to their dictates -- I am of the firm belief that we researchers of today will be similarly blasted by those of tomorrow.

"Why I don't want to be an 'ethical' researcher" continues with part II ...

Dr Mitchell Rolls lectures in Aboriginal Studies in Riawunna, University of Tasmania. His research interests include non-material cultural appropriation, cultural colonisation, and Australian indigenous life-histories and autobiographies. He has published recently in The Journal of Australian Studies, Balayi, and Australian Aboriginal Studies.

This essay has had a response from Frances Peters Little.

In Australian Humanities Review, see also