Home > 19 (4), 17

Research Ethics and Moral Dilemmas of Social Research in Post-Socialist Europe and Beyond

by Ulrike Ziemer and Anton Popov
University of Winchester; Aston University

Sociological Research Online, 19 (4), 17
DOI: 10.5153/sro.3545

Received: 10 Nov 2014 | Accepted: 28 Nov 2014 | Published: 30 Nov 2014


1.1 The first two papers of this special section set the beginning of a series of workshops dedicated to exploring ethical challenges in the context of qualitative fieldwork conducted in Central and Eastern Europe and beyond hosted by the Centre for East European Language Based Areas (CEELBAS 2009-2011). The idea behind the first workshop in September 2009 was to give scholars and postgraduate students an opportunity to exchange their fieldwork experience relating to research ethics and practice within the Central and East European regional context. During this workshop, we realised that in addition to the need for knowledge exchange about these fieldwork experiences, it is essential to critically engage with the seemingly universal notion of research ethics. In particular, we concentrated on the specific question of ethical dilemmas which researchers face as either 'insiders' or 'outsiders' to the researched communities. Thus the issue of the researcher's social positionality and reflexivity represent the core theme for discussion in the essays presented in this special section.

1.2 In their article Guillemin and Gilliam (2004) argued that one of the main criteria for 'good' qualitative research is reflexivity. They maintained that it is necessary for researchers to be self-reflexive and detached when examining their own commitments, relevant experience and social position. For them, the professional codes of ethical conduct, or 'procedural ethics', constituted a continuum with the microethics of research practice. Thus the ethical dimension of the research is defined by the researcher's ability to comply with ethical principles, defined at the procedural level, by reflecting on the concrete and specific microethical issues they encounter in their research practice (ibid: 269).

1.3 Feminist researchers were the first to call for a need for reflexivity about one's own position as a researcher in the field (cf. Denzin and Lincoln 2000, Roberts 1981). Engaging in reflexivity is no longer an exclusively feminist strategy: there is a growing number of 'non-feminist' publications dedicated to issues of reflexivity (cf. Back 1996, Blackman 2007, Murphy 1999). A few scholars conducting qualitative research in post-socialist societies have already engaged in reflections on the research process (Garifzianova 2010, Ledeneva 2011, Popov 2009, Roberts 2012, Ziemer 2011). They have illustrated the use of reflexively examining the different subject positions they inhabited during their research and the impact of these positions on the research process.

1.4 In the social sciences, generally speaking, reflexivity is understood as a deconstructive exercise for locating the intersections of author, other, text, and world, and for penetrating the representational exercise itself (MacBeth 2001: 35). This collection of papers follows England's understanding of reflexivity as a process involving 'self-critical sympathetic introspection and the self-conscious analytical scrutiny of the self as researcher' (England 1994: 2). Thereby, we place special emphasis on 'intersubjectivity' where there is 'reciprocal sharing of knowledge and experience between researcher and the researched' and an understanding that the researcher is themselves part of the production of knowledge (Shields & Dervin 1993: 67). Although practices of reflexivity have been highly praised by qualitative researchers, sometimes they have helped to show the limits of qualitative research, especially with regards to ethical practice. For example, Bosworth et al. (2011) and Possick (2009) highlight the challenges of their qualitative research projects by deconstructing questions of gaining trust from gatekeepers and access to victims of sexual exploitation as well as deconstructing the research process in a politically fragile region like the West Bank. In the post-socialist context, Ziemer (2010) and Roberts (2013) have discussed challenges originating from their class and gender positions during their fieldwork in Russia.

1.5 Ethics and reflexivity are closely entwined at every stage of qualitative research. Ethical dilemmas are part and parcel of most qualitative studies, as the many discussion papers published to date demonstrate (cf. Eglington 2013, Etherington 2007, Guillemin and Gilliam 2004, Pinney 2005, Ratha 2013). Ethical research practice is understood as a continuum between the two extremes; those rejecting ethical principles and those fully adhering to ethical principles. We should understand research ethics in the context of the particular cultural, social and economic environment in which the research is conducted. Research has to be ethically guided and we have to reflect on those moral challenges and dilemmas of fieldwork that do not have a simple solution.

1.6 The economic, political and social transformations which have taken place across Central and Eastern Europe since 1989 are often discussed in terms of 'uncertain transition' (Burawoy & Verdery 1999). This approach is critical towards the concept of 'transition' which assumes the directed trajectory of changes from the supposedly faulty conditions of a planned economy under state socialism to a capitalist market economy and democratic political system. Such naïve vision of the transformations had been defeated by the reality of very uneven and unpredictable changes in the post-socialist societies which for many people in the region led to the tremendous deterioration of their everyday life conditions bringing them poverty, insecurity and growth of inequality. Furthermore, the introduction of neo-liberal policies based on the principles of market competition made redundant not only state-regulated economy of socialism but also undermined the established perceptions of what was moral and ethical in terms of practices and strategies of everyday life (Mandel & Humphrey 2002). As Verdery (1996) maintains, the collapse of Communist regimes in Eastern Europe has been experienced by many ordinary people in terms of confusion and loss, as if their entire 'meaningful world' had been turned upside down.

1.7 For social researchers working in the region and/or with groups originating from this region, the realisation of moral and ethical dimensions of the 'transition' opens new perspectives in studying the complex social processes which characterised social, cultural, economic and political transformations of post-socialism. In this respect, the concept of 'moral economy' developed in social anthropology has been fruitfully applied in furthering a critique of market fetishism and neo-liberal approaches in theories of post-socialist economic transformations (Hann 2006). Anthropologists and sociologists have studied motivations, morality and social networks of reciprocity in relation to informal economic practices in the post-socialist context (cf. Humphrey 2002, Lonkila 1997). In this special section, however, the focus is on the ethical dilemmas which social researchers face when working in conditions characterized by shifting moralities, revisions of social norms and values, as well as perceptions of what is fair and ethical. We believe that careful reflections on the ethical issues we encounter in the field are important not only for maintaining high quality ethical standards for social research but also are essential for better and more nuanced understandings of the nature of the social, cultural, and political processes we study. After all, the practices which we observe are often morally justified by the social agents themselves.

1.8 The debates on ethical research in social sciences which emerged in the 1960s are deeply rooted in the Western (Euro-American) philosophical tradition. In addition they reflect those transformations which Western social sciences underwent; becoming 'public' disciplines in response to the rapidly changing world after the Second World War. Caplan (2003) maintains that the Cold War, Civil Rights Movement, dissolution of Europe's colonies, in addition to globalization were amongst the factors which influenced the developing understanding of the place and role of research ethics in the Anglo-American tradition of socio-cultural anthropology. Arguably, in the Central and Eastern European context the attention to research ethics is a much more recent development which at least has been partly instigated by a growing knowledge exchange and research collaboration across Europe, and indeed globally, in the past twenty years. Still, there are only a few publications containing serious reflections on ethical challenges encountered by social researchers during the research process.

1.9 One of the first publications dedicated to the discussion of ethical challenges in Russia and Eastern Europe appeared in the Forum of Anthropology in 2007. Sociologists, anthropologists and folklorists from Russia, Ukraine, India, the USA and the UK working in post-Soviet societies contributed to this 'open forum' with short articles reflecting on their experiences and commenting of why 'fieldwork ethics' is rather neglected in the region. In his essay the Russian anthropologist, Sergey Abashin (2007: 18-19), points out 'a very weak sense of corporate identity', where the 'vertical ties' are much stronger than the 'horizontal' ones, as one of the reasons preventing the introduction of ethical codes. But more fundamentally, he does not see either 'any public interest or any social institutions that might generate' a meaningful dialogue between ethnographers and 'civil society' on this matter (ibid.). His observation highlights the fact that the development of research ethics within a particular national tradition needs to be discussed in a broader historical and social perspective.

1.10 This, however, raises important question about a meaningful cross-cultural transmission of research ethics in the case of ethnographic research conducted in the post-socialist context by Western researchers. If morality is historically and culturally contingent, how then can we apply ethical practices based on particular moral principles developed in concrete historical and cultural moments (mainly in the West and the late twentieth century) to conditions in the post-socialist East European context? This might lead to, on the one hand, a reduction in our ability to understand societies which are different, and, on the other hand, make us (as researchers) part of the power inequalities which privilege the Western-centred/styled interpretations of social reality in the process of knowledge production.

1.11 The authors of the essays included in this special section explore some of these questions by reflecting on the development and interactions of different national traditions across the region (and beyond) and/or throughout history: What are the differences in understanding ethical research among researchers and research participants coming from different national traditions? What are the ethical issues which derive from a social positioning of researchers as either 'insider' or 'outsider' to the group they research? Who defines the boundaries of privacy and confidentiality in the course of intercultural research? Is intersubjective research possible without shifting and/or crossing some of these boundaries? What are the implications of this for our understandings of research ethics? Is it possible to speak about specific ethical concerns which are commonly encountered by researchers working in the region? Who defines what is ethical/moral?

1.12 In our opinion, the only possible way to address these challenging questions is by embracing a critical approach to the politics of research and knowledge production. This collection of papers concentrates on the criteria of reflexivity in relation to ethical principles and practices as part of the politics of knowledge production. The authors of the essays presented in this special section approach research ethics as part of a process of power relationships between the researcher and the researched which to some extent reflects those inequalities existing in the societies in question. This understanding of ethical research as actively and critically engaging with the politics of fieldwork has been advocated by feminist social researchers. Thus at the core of the feminist approach to ethics is understanding the importance and inevitability of the research interventions in the researched society. The objectives of feminist research interventions may range from raising awareness of exploitation and injustice to taking actions to oppose the violence and discriminative practices (Wolf 1996). This position opposes both objectivist stances of earlier positivistic traditions in social research as well as interpretivist stances linked to ethnography and ethical relativism. Ethical relativism implies that what is ethical and unethical is morally justifiable depending on the cultural context. Such argument might be especially seductive for ethnographers working within the tradition of social (cultural) anthropology (Zavisca 2007: 141). The effective critique of such relativistic understanding of research ethics has been done from within the discipline by Fluehr-Lobban (1995) who maintains that such a line of arguing might lead one into the very dubious position of defending social inequalities, violence and injustices on the bases that they are acceptable in the 'cultures' in question. As part of the same critical debate, Scheper-Hughes (1995) argues for a 'universalism of human rights' as a moral position which underpins anthropological 'witnessing', allowing for ethnographers 'taking sides' when they encounter discrimination and inequality in their fieldwork. Maintaining the neutrality of 'participant observer' makes one complicit in practices which violate principles of human rights in a very broad sense.

1.13 A humanistic approach to ethnography emphasises the ethnographer's responsibility in representing 'the other'- the researched (Atkinson 1990, Rabinow 1986). This brings together the essential principle of 'non-maleficence' that is to avoid harming research participants (Murphy and Dingwall 2001: 339) and researcher's reflexivity as a way to ensure a high quality of social research. After all, as advocates of reflexivity in ethnographic research, we stress that ethnographic knowledge is produced in the course of relationships with 'the other' in the field and afterwards (Joseph 1996: 119). Hammersley and Atkinson (1995: 92), for example, maintain that personal features or positionalities of the ethnographer such as gender, ethnic identification, and/or class amongst others can seriously affect interactions with the fieldwork participants. This observation is particularly important because ethnographers' fieldwork experience constitutes perspectives from which social processes are interpreted (Gray 2003: 22). Therefore, not only identities of the ethnographic 'other' have to be taken into consideration but also the identity of the ethnographer (Marcus 1995: 112). This corresponds with Hall's argument that identity is constructed in and through dialogue with the Other (Hall 1996: 344), suggesting that in fieldwork conditions, the ethnographers' subjectivity is reshaped in their relations with the informants.

1.14 The contributors to this special section pay attention to their social positioning in relation to their research participants. The recurrent theme in most of these essays is the degree to which researchers can position themselves or be positioned by their interlocutors as 'insiders' to the 'culture', 'group', or 'community' they study. The question of the researcher's negotiation with their own identity is the focus here. The very possibility of being an 'insider' for ethnography is questioned in the social science literature (Back 1993, Williams 1996, Zavella 1996). Without doubt, as ethnographers we are eager to gain insights into the 'natives' way of living' in order to be able to understand and to interpret the 'others' culture to the world outside. At the same time, in order to be able to produce an ethnographic account the researcher has to maintain some analytical distance from the researched. Ethnography students are still warned sometimes by their university tutors about the risk of 'going native' (May 2001: 156). This makes the position of ethnographer towards the researched community an ambiguous and problematic one. On the one hand, we want to be accepted by and become an 'insider' to the researched community in order to gain first-hand experience of the 'other' by turning our-'selves' into the 'other'. On the other hand, we are actively involved in the process of 'othering' the researched by the very fact that we subject them to the investigation that implies cultural (and/or social) 'differences' and 'distance' between us.

1.15 Moreover, can we be both ethnographers and 'insiders' in the full sense of this word even in our own communities? This is a question which the authors of this special section ask themselves. Some of them do research as Western-trained ethnographers back in their home countries (Kremakova, Gololobov, Mah), others have been overseas students in the UK and do their ethnography among East European migrant communities here (Malyutina, Romocea). Researchers' over-identification with the 'culture' of the researched might make them blind towards differences which exist within a community that is never homogeneous. From the perspective of research practice, inquiries from an 'outsider' might receive more in-depth answers from our interlocutors compared to when participants take for granted an ethnographer's 'insider-ness' (Davis 1999: 71). So being positioned as 'outsider' to the group would not necessarily undermine the quality of research, just as the 'insider's' position does not automatically guarantee insightful observations and narratives.

1.16 Even if we have some common background with our participants our identity cannot be identical with theirs in all respects. Furthermore, despite possible biographical similarities and even friendship ties between the ethnographers and their participants, their interactions in the field are defined by their different social positions, one as researcher and the other as researched. These relationships are characterized by power asymmetry between the parties, although this imbalance might not always be in favour of the ethnographer (Rabinow 1977). The danger is that if we convince ourselves that we have achieved the status of an 'insider', we might become ignorant of the fact that ethnographic knowledge is a result of intersubjective interactions where the social positionings of the researcher and the researched are critically important. Hence, we have to be reflexive in our approach towards our research positonality as well. Such reflexivity has been practised by some 'native' ethnographers and others who returned to do an ethnography among their own society. Les Back, for instance, discusses the problem of 'the misuses of autobiography' by researchers, as well as deceptive perceptions of the 'sameness' between the researcher and researched from the same (as in his case) area and socio-economic background of London working class community (Back 1993).

1.17 The debate on the ethnographer as an 'insider' is closely linked with the discussion of one of the fundamental issues for ethnographic research and research ethics – the establishment of rapport with participants based on mutual trust. The longitudinal and intersubjective nature of ethnographic fieldwork means that often the relationships which we have with our research participants tend to be sustained over long periods of time: both ethnographer and informants get to know each other better, sometimes learning rather personal if not intimate aspects of each other's lives (Coffey 1999: 55). In other words, in the field we sometimes become friends with our informants and it might be very difficult to draw a clear boundary between what we learn about 'the other' as friends and as researchers. Sometimes important and insightful stories are told in conversations between friends. Do people who entrust us with intimate information remember that we are also ethnographers? Whilst trust can be slow to build, it is an important element for the production of ethnographic knowledge. In the course of development the trustworthy relationships between the researcher and researched, their perceptions of where the boundaries of privacy lie may become blurred. For Stacey (1991) this is one of the ethical dilemmas of ethnographic research amongst friends or, rather, building friendships in the field. The possible answer to this lies in accepting our responsibility towards our research subjects not (only) as being a friend but (also) as being a researcher with 'ethnographic authority' to represent 'the other' (Clifford 1983). Trust is important for research relationships but there is a lot of potential for abuse of it in these relationships (and not only by the researcher) exactly because it is culturally specific, situational and difficult to define in sustainable terms.

1.18 The essays included in this special section reflect in one way or another on the moral uncertainties of everyday life in the shifting socio-economic and political context of post-socialism. In the presented qualitative studies the macro-scale structural issues are investigated in terms of their impact at the grass-root level of social agency. For instance, in her article, Mah discusses processes of deindustrialization in terms of the ethical issues they present for the researcher exploring the impact of industrial ruination on local communities, including health issues associated with this impact. Other authors in this special section, like Kremakova, reflect on the changing meanings of 'public' and 'private' and ethical dilemmas arising in her research in Bulgaria. Schimpfoessl considers ethical and practical challenges in her research on elite groups in post-Soviet Russia. She provides important insights in the growing social and economic inequalities as a collateral result of economic reforms implemented after the collapse of communist regime. Labour migration is another 'unexpected' consequence of political and economic liberalisation in the region. Several papers in this special section draw on research conducted among East European migrants by migrant researchers from the same region. Malyutina and Romocea set the debate of research ethics in terms of challenges of conducting the research as an 'insider' to the researched culture or community. Gololobov further elaborates the discussion on ethical and practical challenges arising from an 'insider' status during his ethnographic fieldwork on the punk subculture in provincial Russia.


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