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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


An example I want to consider is that of the Kumarangk debate, better known as Hindmarsh Island. This island near the mouth of the Murray River and the notion of 'secret women's business' allegedly pertaining to it became the focus of the national media in early 1995 when a group of Ngarrindjeri women proclaimed that other Ngarrindjeri had fabricated a 'secret women's' tradition. It was this tradition that had led to the banning of a proposed bridge linking the island to the mainland, a ban that jeopardised the commercial interests of developers who were building a marina complex. Some residents of the island were also in favour of the bridge being built -- the island was accessed by cable operated ferry -- whilst other residents opposed its construction, as did conservationists on a number of grounds. (The bridge is now built and open).

As most would know, the congealed rabble that was at the time the state government of South Australia, established a Royal Commission charged with the task of examining the claims and counter claims. In Commission parlance the group of Ngarrindjeri asserting the existence of 'secret women's business' were the proponent women. The group claiming that the 'business' was a fabrication the 'dissident women.' Taking the second protocol -- that a 'researcher must receive appropriate (and ongoing) community permission before proceeding' -- which group of women should we have consulted in this instance? And which group of women were best able to advise what would 'genuinely benefit their community?' Amongst the proponent women are elders who we might suspect would be custodians of such knowledge if it existed. However, there are 'elders' amongst the dissident women too, and not just self-proclaiming elders, but individuals who are recognised by other community members as having elder status. Here is an example where a community is fundamentally divided on an important issue. If one wanted to research the 'traditional' beliefs of the Ngarrindjeri who should we speak to? Both groups, you might think. But bear in mind that we must be 'guided by principles of traditional law and custom determined by the community,' and that another protocol stipulates that we need community permission to publish our findings.

The Kumarangk debate is especially interesting, for many people working or studying in the field of Aboriginal Studies who labour under the belief that they are sensitive to claims such as there being 'secret women's business' find an abundance of reasons to support the proponent women. For example, I discuss this debate in one of my units and in straw polls taken before the discussion all students who have heard of Hindmarsh Island naively accept the claims of the proponent women, despite the fact they know little if anything of substance about the nature of the claims. So by dint of our sensitivity to a field of affairs we accept certain claims and reject others. And we can find community members who would support our research into this field and subsequent arising publications on the basis that we are substantiating a claimed tradition. But is this appropriate in this instance?

The authors of the March 2000 paper acknowledge that communities may not speak as one. They suggest that we must wait until we know someone in the community who can introduce us to the appropriate groups and/or agencies and/or individuals who can authorise our research project and supervise its undertaking. This might at first glance seem reasonable. But does this achieve a more ethical approach to research? Hardly. For example, I know some of the proponent women, some of the non-indigenous researchers who have worked closely with the proponent women over many years, and know others, both proponent Ngarrindjeri and their supporters, professionally. I have no reason to doubt the integrity of the people I know and those I know through my work. When Doreen Kartinyeri proclaims the existence of secret women's business I believe her. I also find the work of those academics accepting of these claims credible.

The point is, I don't know any of the dissident women, professionally or personally. But nor do I have any reason at all to doubt their sincerity in claiming that the secret women's business is a fabrication. Certainly I'm able to explain reasons why some women might not know of these alleged elements of their heritage, but if I knew a different group of people -- that is, if I knew the dissident women -- I'd be equally as comfortable and confident explaining the nature of 'invented' traditions. Nor do I know any of the non-indigenous supporters of the dissident women. Some of them are clearly ratbags, others simply puppets for vested interests, but some of the respondents are very genuine, and their research credible. I might choose to not accept their findings, but when it boils down to it, I have to admit that I am being influenced by who I know, and by my political sensibilities. These are hardly the grounds upon which so-called 'ethical' research should be based.

It is entirely conceivable that my work would have brought me into contact with the dissident women, and come the Kumarangk debate I could have pointed out that a great many of those supporting the proponent women were also ratbags, and others were also serving as puppets for vested interests. So which research benefits the Ngarrindjeri community? That which supports the notion of secret women's business pertaining to Hindmarsh Island (which disenfranchises the views of a large section of this community) or that which opposes the claimed heritage (which also disenfranchises the views of a certain section of the Ngarrindjeri community). It is almost certain beyond doubt that the overwhelming opinion on this matter within the academy would be in support of the proponent women. So if one was to apply to research in this field and began making enquiries s/he would soon end up negotiating with the proponent women, who are recognised as representing their community. There is a politically correct line to tow on Hindmarsh Island, and if one tows this line then one's research would meet the protocols for ethical research that we are discussing here. But to take a contrary view, which would be to bring great hostility upon oneself, is certainly not unethical. Furthermore, there are certainly no reasonable grounds upon which such research should be thwarted, but you'd have scant chance of getting your proposal accepted if the authorising powers were guided by protocols such as the ones listed, and most are.

A problem just highlighted is that of having individuals that we know being the gateway to 'ethical' research, not an atypical occurrence. Remember that this is one of the recommendations of the guide to conducting 'ethical' research, a recommendation that is championed almost everywhere. If this is the case then the issue is what community do these individuals represent. We simply have to let the individual define the community s/he is a member of and accept the endorsement of the self-proclaimed community.

A flaw with this recommendation is that one can always find a pet Aborigine (and the community s/he represents) for whatever issue you want to research. You want to research into the claim that Aborigines did not migrate to Australia but are coeval with the very earth itself -- your research won't dry up because of lack of indigenous support. Perhaps you'd rather research how Aborigines arrived in Australia on a spaceship made of energy which turned into crystal when it hit the atmosphere. Then you need to speak with Reuben Kelly, an elder of the 'Thainghetti' people, 'Gurrigan' clan. You want to research how Aborigines have no need for telephones because they communicate telepathically with fellow Aborigines and people from all over the world, then it's Guboo Ted Thomas, an elder of the Yuin people from south east Australia you need to talk to. If you want to research how Aborigines don't actually die, but enjoy instead lives of robust and splendid health into their 120s, at which point most choose voluntarily to simply vanish into the ether, then you need a posthumous audience with Burnum Burnum, and there are any number of Aborigines that not only believe this is possible but who would be glad to facilitate a meeting.

Who we know, therefore, or the introductions that can be made for us, and the community our contacts represent, are not a reliable guide to 'ethical' research if one of the considerations is that research must benefit the community. It is fairly obvious that it is not in the broader indigenous community's interest to allow research to proceed that attempts to validate the assertion that Aborigines enjoy long and enviously healthy lives, living to the age of 122 or 3, even if that is a claim supported by an indigenous elder who in turn enjoyed community support. This means we find ourselves in the territory of there being good blacks and bad blacks, surely something that any researcher would want to avoid unless they had rocks in their head.

I need to add here that I don't have any problem at all with Aborigines believing whatever it is they want to believe -- everyone else in the world seems to have sanction to believe whatever they like so I don't see why Aborigines should be precluded from this liberty. What I'm driving at is individuals and the communities who accept and respect them as elders in their community are not necessarily an appropriate guide to what research is ultimately going to benefit the community, or for that matter, what research is ethical.

It may be that I am trying to shut the gate after the horse has bolted, but, as I said at the beginning, I'm staggered that non-revisionist, unreconstructed guidelines to ethical research continue to be pumped out and no-one seems to bat an eyelid. Worse, the ante is forever being upped, with the catalogue of constraints and compliance restrictions growing exponentially. Troublingly, in querying the protocols one runs the very real risk of being lumped with the conservatives, who have their own agenda in resisting such edicts. Where are the critiques emanating from the left? Is it beyond our intellectual capacity to take issue with such notions in a way that does not provide grist to the conservative's mill?

To look at another example. In 1989 Diane Bell, in collaboration with Topsy Nelson, wrote a paper for an international journal entitled 'Speaking About Rape is Everyone's Business.' The subject was intraracial rape. This paper would never have been unleashed from the pen if the protocols I'm critiquing had been followed. Topsy's community was outraged. The broader Aboriginal community was outraged. The non-indigenous academic sisterhood, by and large, taking the coward's chance to curry favour in a quarter where their contribution has long been found wanting, expressed their outrage too. Their black sisters had castigated them for long enough, here was an opportunity to rally behind an outraged prominent indigenous woman. And the relevant journals were weighed down with highbrow smart alec rectitude. Bell was accused of all sorts of things -- and it was suggested she had used the black woman as a prop for her own agenda. Once again, here we were stripping a black woman of her autonomy, and insinuating that she couldn't think for herself, simply on the grounds that she had collaborated in research that many found to be damaging. Research that if it had been forced to tread the long list of protocols discussed would never have got off the ground, basically because of a reluctance to air dirty linen. But surely Topsy Nelson has a right to decide with whom she wants to collaborate, and she had made the decision that the issue of intraracial rape was of such gravity that it needed to be aired.

This illustrates my earlier point about falling into the trap of there being good and bad blacks. Bell, the pundits fumed, had fallen in with the wrong crowd. How can anyone make such a judgment? Who has the right to do so? Why did people that can rabbit on till the cows come home about the need for our rigid adherence to research protocols not mind, in their rush to condemn Bell, making Topsy Nelson look, at best, stupid, a dim-witted fool who had been cynically exploited by yet another whitey? Just as a footnote, this is the same Diane Bell who wrote the widely (and deservedly so) lauded book Daughters of the Dreaming, and who has written recently a weighty tome to critical acclaim supporting secret women's business at Kumarangk. Devil one minute and saint the next, apparently.

And what of the romanticising of indigenous peoples that underpins such protocols for ethical research? Apparently, what indigenous people decide in so far as who can and cannot conduct research and what sort of research will be allowed will intuitively be ethical. This raises another point that is constantly ignored -- some latter day primitivists, those still questing for their version of the Noble Savage, do not even realise it is an issue. The research protocols concerning research in the field of indigenous affairs that I have read -- a great many -- do not ever distinguish between 'ethical' research in so far as protocols for working with indigenous peoples is concerned and 'ethical' research in the wider sense. Under such protocols indigenous people could easily sanction research -- indeed demand that it proceeds -- that the broader community would find 'unethical.' Instead of attempting to address this anomaly, let alone allow for its presence, all such protocols seem to issue from an imagined realm of pre-lapsarian ethical puritanism, where any such distinctions need not be drawn.

Given these problems, a few amongst many more that I haven't raised, I don't want to be an ethical researcher. I don't believe the self-proclaimed 'ethical' imperative that informs the protocols that guide our research today will be regarded as any more enlightened than that which guided our research in the past. Time will prove that one of the few distinctions between now and then in this regard is the extent of our smugness, our assumption that today we are right, yesterday they were wrong.

Return to Part I of "Why I don't want to be an 'ethical' researcher"

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