Research ethics in context

ScreenHunter_571 May. 17 12.00

Jan Blommaert 

I am often amazed at the naivety with which the thing called ‘research ethics’ is being addressed. This naivety, expressed in one-size-fits-all ‘ethical guidelines’ for research, overlooks the actual conditions under which so much of research is (necessarily) conducted: in sites often qualified as ‘margins’, with vulnerable, misrecognized and oppressed people whose position in society is precarious. Inequalities in the world are part and parcel of how actual research projects are undertaken, develop and evolve; this, of course, includes issues of method and methodology, but also issues of research ethics.

In 2008, I published a book called Grassroots Literacy. In the book, I analyzed handwritten texts by two authors from D.R. Congo – authors I had never met, about whom some suggested at the time that they had perished in the war raging in their area since the mid-1990s, and whose texts I had obtained, almost accidentally, through third persons. Working on these texts created acute ethical issues, which I raised and discussed in the preface. What follows is the relevant fragment from the preface to that book. The point I hope to make is that research ethics is a contextualized and situated matter, concrete features of which can and do escape the imagined simplicity (and equality) of the worldview often presupposed in ‘ethical guidelines’.

Globalization is a process that forces us to take the world as a context. This world is complex and highly diverse, and developments in the ‘centre’ of this world – the development of new telecommunication systems and media, for instance – have effects on the ‘margins’ of the world. Literacy is a case in point, and what the documents I examine here show us is that there is a growing gap between different literacy regimes in the world. Texts such as the ones I will discuss here do not quickly or easily communicate the messages they contain. Their meanings increasingly disappear in the widening gap between literacy regimes in diverse parts of the world. The problem is obviously not academic but very real, of immediate life-or-death importance to many people. Voice is a pressing concern in a globalizing context in which less and less can be taken for granted with respect to the communicative repertoires of people interacting with one another. I addressed these concerns in an earlier book called Discourse: A Critical Introduction (Cambridge University Press 2005), and in many ways the present study is a sequel to Discourse. It picks up, and develops, points embryonically made there, focusing on literacy because of the reasons specified above, and bringing literacy analysis in the same theoretical field of force as the one described in Discourse.

This purpose offers me the opportunity to write about a corpus of texts that has puzzled, intrigued and mesmerized me for more than a decade. I came across Julien’s life histories in the mid-1990s, by what I would call ‘structured accident’. The documents are rare instances of grassroots life-writing, and they offered me more theoretical and descriptive challenges than I could imagine at the time. My encounter with these documents coincided with a period in which I was deeply engaged with Johannes Fabian’s work. I had read and reviewed his History from Below, and few books ever had such a profound impact on me. Fabian has definitely been one of my maîtres à penser and the present book is, consequently, very much the upshot of a protracted dialogue with Fabian’s work.

This dialogue intensified when, again by accident, I started working on a handwritten history of the Congo written by the Congolese painter Tshibumba, about whose historical paintings Fabian had published the magnificent Remembering the Present. I received a copy of this massively intriguing document from Bogumil Jewsiwiecki, and quickly spotted the similarities between this history and Julien’s life-writing. Both displayed the constraints of sub-elite writing, and both produced a grassroots voice on history. In both, the very act of writing appeared to produce all sorts of things: texts, but also particular positions, subjectivities. The question guiding my work then became: what does this kind of grassroots literacy make possible for people such as Julien and Tshibumba?

I had, in the meantime, started realizing that the notion of constraint is central in considering this issue. Since the mid-1990s, I had frequently been requested by my national authorities to translate written statements by African refugees and Africans arrested by the police. Gradually, a corpus of texts had emerged in which I clearly saw that literacy achievements that had some value in sub-elite African contexts rather systematically failed to be seen as valuable in Belgium. The question about the possibilities of grassroots writing thus acquired a dimension of globalization: ‘grassroots’ equals local, and the local effectiveness and adequacy of communicative resources raises questions of mobility. Texts travel, and they not necessarily travel well. In the transfer from one place to another, they cross from one regime into another, and the changed orders of indexicality makes that they are understood differently. Having clearly understood that both Julien’s and Tshibumba’s texts were mobile texts – both were written for addressees in the West – I started realizing that these documents might offer exceptional possibilities for exploring and identifying the main issues of literacy in the age of globalization: issues that have to do with the locality of literacy regimes, with mobility and inequality.

This is the story of this book. There is irony in the story, because, naturally, it was hard not to reflect on my own writing practices while I was investigating those of Julien, Tshibumba and others. I saw my own literacy regime in action – writing in a globalized language that is not my own, in a particular register and genre, on a sophisticated laptop, in a solitary comfortable space surrounded by an archive and a working library, and with Google on the toolbar. All these material conditions: I don’t take them for granted anymore. There is so much inequality inscribed in the production of this book. The main inequality is in the result: voice. I can produce a globally mobile voice, they can’t; I can produce a prestige genre, they can’t; I can speak from within a recognizable position and identity, they can’t.

There are ethical issues here. I can write about Julien and Tshibumba in ways they themselves could not, for reasons that will become all too clear in the chapters of this book. And I could not consult them while writing. I never had contact with Julien, only with his patron, Mrs Arens. She informed Julien about my academic work on his texts, and she gave me, also on his behalf, permission for pursuing it. As for Tshibumba, he has disappeared from the radar screen several years ago and no one has been able to inform me about his whereabouts. Julien and Tshibumba, we should recall, live in the southern part of the Congo, in an area marked by deep poverty and marginalization, and torn by unrest and war since the second half of the 1990s. As for the refugees and police suspects whose documents I have analyzed, I hardly ever had any contact with them either, often because I did not even know their names and because my role as state-appointed translator proscribed contacts with these subjects.

I am aware of these issues, have reflected on them over and over again, and came across the bitter irony of contemporary realities. Customary ethical codes for research presuppose a particular socio-political environment in which everyone has a name, an administrative existence, a recognizable and recognised subjectivity that demands respect and distance. We can only use a pseudonym when people’s real names are known and when knowledge and possession of that name is connected to inalienable rights, to subjectivity and, consequently, to norms that separate the public from the private sphere. Underlying is the image of a fully integrated Modern society in which such elementary features are attached to everyone and recorded – officially – somewhere.

Real societies, alas, are different. There are people in our own Modern societies that do not possess such elementary features and rights. Illegal immigrants have no name and no identifiable ‘official’ existence. Their ‘lives’ and stories are, for all practical purposes, nonexistent. Their anonymity is not the result of a desire for ‘privacy’, it is the effect of erasure and silencing; not of choice but of oppression. And there are even more people elsewhere in the world to whom these conditions apply. African works of art kept in museums are only rarely attributed to an individual artist, they are attributed to an ethnic group or to a region somewhere in Africa. Millions of people there live ‘unofficial’ lives, and no one cares about their names, birth dates, addresses, or, in a wider sense, subjectivity. I write about their subjectivity, about their existence and lives – or seen from a different perspective: I invade their privacy – because I have voice and they don’t. I can invade their privacy because I have shaped a private sphere for them, and this act is an effect of global inequalities. I am not comfortable with that situation. But I believe there is great virtue in caring about their lives and in getting to know them, and if that exposes me to ethical criticisms, I will live with that. It is a lesson I have already learned about research in contemporary societies.

I have also learned that it is good to stop and reflect on such questions, and to realise (in Gunnar Myrdal’s footsteps) that existing ethical codes do not solve the moral dilemmas of social research. They merely highlight them.



Author: jmeblommaert

Taalkundig antropoloog-sociolinguist, hoogleraar Taal, Cultuur en Globalisering aan Tilburg University. Politiek publicist.

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