Why I Don’t Want to be an ‘Ethical’ Researcher

A polemical paper

by Mitchell Rolls

© all rights reserved

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 ìtheî 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.

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.

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.

If you would like to contribute to this discussion, please email ahr@anu.edu.au