Researching forced migration: critical reflections on research ethics during fieldwork
How do we carry out research with refugees? This paper provides reflections on some of the key ethical questions surrounding fieldwork on forced migration. The aim is to bring together multi-disciplinary debates on research ethics; in lieu of stating presumably neutral, objective and universally applicable answers, the paper critically discusses guiding principles and practical issues, and proposes ways forward in order to spark further discussions. For that, a paired view on research ethics is used, as a code of conduct for scholars as well as a framework for normative scrutiny of research in a broader sense. Subjects in this paper include harm in and due to fieldwork with a proposed Do No Harm analysis to minimise risks; relations and responsibilities of researchers to participants and among research teams with reflections on participatory approaches; transfer of results with scholars and humanitarian agencies but also with participants; and benefits of interdisciplinary platforms for exchange to openly address difficulties and opportunities in ‘the field’.
Research ethics is central to any fieldwork endeavour that includes human subjects. This is all the more the case for research on forced migration and with refugees1 , as they might have fled war, experienced traumatic events, and live under precarious conditions in exile. Such hardships often constitute the focus of the research. Thus, our responsibility as researchers conducting fieldwork goes beyond methodological rigour in gathering data, and ethical questions must be at the centre of this process. This paper provides reflections on some of the key ethical questions surrounding fieldwork on forced migration.
Field research in the context of forced migration and refugee studies serves the disciplined2 collection of primary data in specific settings outside of sterile laboratories, to explore the experiences and practices of displaced people as well as cultural, social, political, economic, and natural environments over a longer period. Researchers therefore enter sites to gather authentic insights with qualitative and quantitative methods in diverse regions worldwide. However, my interest mainly lies in ‘western’ scholars carrying out fieldwork in the ‘global south’ working with social science methods, particularly qualitative methods.
Research ethics in fieldwork I understand through a paired view as a code of conduct for scholars as well as a framework for normative scrutiny of research in a broader sense. First, as a code of conduct, research ethics lay out fundamental principles for scholars’ approach to participants and contexts, and to prevent harm. Among others, the Refugee Studies Centre in Oxford provides such a code with its Ethical Guidelines for Good Research Practices (2007). Whereas principles are certainly important to guide fieldwork, they constitute ideals and state what scholars should or should not do in ‘the field’. This not only bears the risk of neglecting how scholars can adhere to them and essentially practice what is preached, but also creates the impression of ‘the one appropriate way forward’ which I argue does not exist. As research ethics are applied in diverse settings with various groups, they have to be subject to reasoning and interpretation. The second understanding as a framework for normative scrutiny offers a stage for precisely this: a means to discuss and deliberate questions through normative and moral lenses as well as social, political, cultural, or economic perspectives. This can include power structures, issues of representation, and obligations of scholars towards truth and/or participants. These two approaches are not mutually exclusive but rather mutually dependent as issues arising can inform principles. A paired view on ethics therefore helps to enter deeper ethical foundations and consider possible trade-offs or competing standpoints, interests and practices which influence research processes.
This paper draws on the growing body of literature3 and my own fieldwork experience with a critical reflection on the research ethics underlying these projects. Over the past years, I have carried out fieldwork mainly with South Sudanese and Congolese refugees in Uganda to study sexual and gender-based violence in camps, self-protection of refugees, mechanisms to link humanitarian refugee aid with development, and more generally the conflict-displacement nexus, changing gender relations, and the local impact of the global refugee regime on refugees.4 With such topics, it was not only important to collect relevant data but – perhaps even more – to reflect on how I can do this as rigorously, carefully and fairly as possible. To create space for critical exchange5 , I have engaged in peer group discussions which have been very helpful but sometimes limited in time and perspectives. These discussions furthermore shed light on the fact that research ethics are positioned in disciplinary perspectives. While much can be learned through multi- or interdisciplinary exchange with colleagues, such undertakings have also revealed to me how the level of attention and depth of ethical debates vary among different disciplines. Scholars are unlikely to share similar or mutual ideas about ethics in fieldwork although they might work on overlapping research areas.
In this paper, I aim to bring together multi-disciplinary debates on ethics in field research, and reflect critically on guiding principles. As such, I want to raise questions about approaches, procedures and practical issues as well as propose ways to put ideals into practice in order to spark further discussions. To this end, I cover diverse subjects and fieldwork periods. First, harm in and due to fieldwork is explored, and a Do No Harm analysis proposed to minimise risks. This is followed by discussions about relations and responsibilities of researchers towards participants, benefits and challenges in the composition of research teams, as well as ways to work with refugees to alleviate top-down power dynamics. Then ethical considerations after fieldwork are elaborated and an extended concept of the dual imperative is suggested by sharing findings not only with scholars and humanitarian agencies but also with participants. Finally, before summarizing the paper and questioning the ‘boom’ in fieldwork, a brief excursus is undertaken by looking into institutionalised ethics reviews and the need for interdisciplinary platforms for exchange to openly address questions, difficulties and opportunities.