On Power and Relationships: Making Kin with Research Ethics

Even though academic work can often feel isolating, a closer look reveals that it is teeming with relationships. We develop relationships with graduate students, faculty members, staff, administrators, and a huge assortment of interlocutors outside of our institutions who play important roles in our research projects and academic lives. Our responsibilities and ethical obligations to these people are varied, often ambiguous and commonly complicated, especially given how prominently hierarchies figure into academia. This chapter focuses on power in the pursuit of research ethics and how our relationships develop as we spend more and more time in academia. What orients our thinking here is the idea of ‘making kin’ with research ethics. That is, how can we approach research ethics as a site where our relationships to various actors collapse or converge and from which our responsibilities and accountabilities stem? We are inspired by Donna Haraway’s (2016) work, which helps us envision networks of humans and non-humans recognizing and responding to their co-constituted lifeworlds. Haraway argues that “making kin […] troubles important matters, like to whom one is actually responsible” (2016, p. 2). While focusing on human relationships, we look back at over a decade of decisions related to research ethics to retrospectively illuminate our kin networks, interrogate our actions, and explore how power dynamics shift over time. Network membership is frequently re-negotiated and differs depending on the particular research project. Here we consider the gamut of REB relationships, with a particular focus on how relative privilege and vulnerability shape these interactions. We delve into ethical considerations that arise when we collaborate with others on research projects, whether they inhabit the role of supervisor, colleague, participant, or administrator. Many of the stories in this chapter include Research Ethics Boards or REBs (also known as Institutional Review Boards, IRBs) as crucial members, as nodal points, in our networks. Ultimately, we explore how our own identities and confidence as scholars have intersected with how we understand the function of REBs, their presumed authority, and the operation of power within these relationships. We exploit the concept of ‘dating’ REBs as a way to openly frame the dirty notions of power and intimacy enmeshed within these relationships that govern delicate details of our projects. As we become more practiced as scholars, we collapse our initial categorizations of ‘researcher’ and ‘REB,’ finding ways to disrupt the totalizing structures of formal ethics reviews, reverse the communication flow by encouraging ethics boards to think about what they are not thinking about, and become members of REBs ourselves. 

Will you feel guilty during this project? Yes / No

We all have at least one old acquaintance, the kind we haven’t seen in a decade or two, who we might — if given the opportunity — choose to avoid. Perhaps if we see them approaching in the distance, we might duck into a store and peruse the merchandise for a few minutes until it seems safe to step back out onto the sidewalk. Realizing our success at dodging them, a pang of guilt might settle into the pit of our stomachs.

Guilt is part of academia and, frankly, deserves a book of its own. The familiar pangs of guilt triggered by our research projects happen when we fall behind on our timeline, postpone transcribing completed interviews, and wonder what to do about low recruitment numbers. We are dealing with dirt in these moments, hoping to ‘clean’ up our projects so that we might, as Mary Douglas (2002) writes, “conform to an idea” (p. 2). In this case, conforming might mean keeping information to ourselves, hoping to produce a viable project (and, perhaps, a performance of a productive researcher) that does not raise too many eyebrows. Research ethics are also subject to feelings of guilt, but we must deal with these feelings in a radically different way. By making kin with research ethics we are obliged to identify and tend to all of the relationships that are linked to our projects, regardless of how inconvenient they may become or how minor they appear. There is no pure ethical relationship to strive for, but rather ethical questions that will sometimes feel like dangerous pollutants to our projects. Even when we have little practice in recognizing and evaluating ethical issues as an early career researcher, we can never hide from our commitment to ethical accountability. Instead, we might find ourselves dodging the institutional systems that, for better or worse, regulate ethical procedures and operate as gatekeepers and authority figures, until eventually we become part of the systems ourselves.

First, some context to remind us of the important reasons why ethics is part of our research process. In the decades following World War II, the development of principles of research ethics and the ethical treatment of persons were codified in national and international policies and documents, such as the Nuremberg Code (1948), the Declaration of Helsinki (1964), the Belmont Report (1979), and the UN Declaration of Human Rights (1948). These policies and documents were formulated in response to experiments performed on human test subjects illegally and without their knowledge or informed consent, and they sought to define the ethical and legal terms of research involving human subjects (Weindling, 2001).

A now famous example of this highlights the role of race and poverty in determining which groups were most at risk of receiving unethical treatment. In the early 1950s, a Black woman named Henrietta Lacks was diagnosed with cervical cancer and tissue samples were taken without her consent for research that went on to become a vital tool for biological research (Faden & Powers, 2011). Mrs. Lacks’ cells continued to grow, which surprised and then excited scientists. They went on to use her cell line for research all over the world to develop vaccines and therapies, including the HPV vaccine which may have otherwise been helpful in protecting Mrs. Lacks from the very cancer that took her life (Faden & Powers, 2011). While Mrs. Lacks was never aware of what was done with her ‘HeLa’ cells, her family finally learned about it two decades later. Mrs. Lacks and her family were also “profoundly poor,” despite the “great deal of money” that HeLa cells made and continue to make for those in the biomedical industry (Faden & Powers, 2011).

In response, a bio-medical utilitarian model of research ethics has become a dominant academic standard institutionalized in REBs. This standard is based on a positivist paradigm of “methodological conservatism” (Lincoln, 2005, p. 165), assuming neutral and impartial researchers, in a process of distanced, disembodied knowledge production. The model furthermore centres cost-benefit analysis, which has seeped into ethical decision making as part of the neoliberalization of the University and its broader institutional audit culture, its concerns with reputation management, and its shielding of liability claims (Verhallen, 2016). Boards are gatekeepers to research, and in their push for efficiency their operating procedures have become increasingly standardized and inflexible (Cannella, 2004). This process seems to be at growing odds with feminist research ideals based on caring, committed and engaged researchers seeking to foster trusting and anti-oppressive relationships with research participants and communities.

Have you read and understood this (brief) history lesson? Yes / No

Devised to respond to harms such as this endured particularly by marginalized populations, ‘human research ethics’ comprises the norms and values that frame ethical considerations, such as ‘good’ behaviours, protocols, and practices for research involving human subjects. In the context of academic research in particular, REB’s and research ethics policy documents and standardized checklists and templates identify ethical issues in the research design, coordination, data-gathering, management and dissemination of research. As they have institutionalized over time, REB’s signal practical and ethical considerations, commonly aimed to minimize risk with the aim of minimizing the liability of the institution. These regulatory enterprises that create an illusion of ethical practice are emblematic of a predatory ethics of the imperial university, standing at odds with dialogic, caring, and power-sensitive ethics (Cannella & Lincoln, 2007).

With the regulatory frameworks in place, research ethics thus causes us to pause and struggle. Dirty methods invite us to speak out loud what those struggles are, how we handled them, whether we could push back against unsound advice, whether we think mistakes were made, and the impact on the relationships and kin networks we continue to develop as researchers. Recognizing ethical quandaries and responding to them are imperfect practices, whether we are trying to manage them on our own or via an institutional mediator. We should expect to feel confusion and uncertainty, particularly because instititutionalized formalized ethics commonly differs from or may even run counter to our feminist ethics of care or other anti-oppressive research ideals. We should anticipate that mistakes may be made and that we will need to confront our mistakes honestly and openly, as accountable members of our kin networks. Surely all academics can attest that, upon reflection, we would not always make the same choices we made previously. Dirty means crossing the academic norm that suggests we keep these notations scribbled down and filed away in our desk drawers, not typing them into our documents and submitting them to the sacred spaces of academic journals. So, while we may be familiar with the intimate feelings that arise when we consider avoiding an old acquaintance on the street, we need to also recognize and engage with our feelings about research ethics and do it out in the open.

While conducting this research are you willing to let the REB have access to your private thoughts? Yes / No

We have all encountered academics who position research ethics as something to avoid, as something dirty, polluting our project and our productivity (Douglas, 1966). Often this attitude stems from frustrating encounters with university REBs that can admittedly slow down the research process and function through a risk-averse lens. A professor might help an undergraduate student find ways to declare their project to be minimal risk to avoid the more onerous versions of REB processes. This might mean altering the conceived project to fall in line with minimal risk assessments, or it could mean deception via word choices or omissions. Perhaps the professor may be correct in believing that the project could not otherwise be completed given the semester-based time constraints that undergraduates must contend with. Another professor might be facing repeated demands to alter their research design from their REB based on particular methodological choices. The REB’s responses might demonstrate a lack of nuance by the board members, or indeed a lack of training in field-specific debates about research ethics, and, too often, a prioritization of the university’s liability over the careful planning of a research project. This professor might begin to question how to move through the REB process more strategically to elicit less friction. Yet the impetus to manage an REB could erode this relationship.

The norms and values of ‘human research ethics’ upheld by REBs are strained by complex interactions between individuals, networks, and technical systems in digital research contexts. In social media research, any conventional understanding of ‘informed consent’ is circumvented by third-party disclaimers in platform policies and renders refusal of participation defunct (Zeffiro, 2019). Research involving Twitter posts, TikTok videos or Subreddits — really, any information posted ‘publicly’ online — has too often been deemed outside of an REB’s jurisdiction. People are not directly involved, they say. Posting something online is akin to revoking your privacy rights, they imply. In turn, ethical standards are left to interpretation. For some, this may counteract concerns about ‘ethics creep’ and the continued bureaucratization of research (Haggerty, 2004). But at the same time, short of clear guidelines, certain forms of social media research are required to undergo REB review while others are not, which is not to say that all social media research should be exempt from REB review, but rather that such inconsistencies could very well denote exempted research as ethical simply by virtue of exemption (Zeffiro, 2019). The membership and policies of REBs are continually in flux, yet more engagement with, and membership of, researchers in the field would be advantageous, such as those representing the Association of Internet Researchers who have been putting together very helpful guidelines (franzke et al., 2020).

We have intervened enough times in conversations with professors (often on the topic of their graduate students’ research) to know that REB decisions can have a downstream effect on a researcher’s own ethical compass. Using publicly available information suddenly equates, in their minds, to no REB process, which signals faster access to data. This can also mean less time for ethical reflection and relationship-building. Additionally, a lack of guidance could encourage researchers to abide by a social media platform’s terms of service as ‘rules’ for research, yet these terms do not clarify the conditions for ethical research, but instead govern how a researcher is permitted to access and use the data (Zeffiro, 2019). It seems that the consent practices of very unconsentful media and communication platforms are increasingly becoming the institutional force determining research practices, with the local REB but an intermediary in these complex relationships.

All of these examples point to the potential for an institution’s REB process to foster fatigue and avoidance. In universities across the world REBs are responsible for reviewing research involving human participants and ensuring their safety and well-being. However, REBs in and of themselves are not perfect mechanisms to gauge ethical research. The long-standing model of evaluating all research through criteria designed for positivistic, biomedical modes of inquiry is deficient (Dingwall, 2008). “When research design and conduct is guided directly by regulatory bodies,” reflects Annette Markham (2006), “issues of ethics can be obscured; ethics is more like directives than dilemmas or quandaries” (p. 39). In turn, REBs function at times more like gatekeepers to the advancement of knowledge, rather than as institutional bodies dialoguing with and thereby assisting researchers to navigate ethical dilemmas (Stark, 2011).

Are you willing to let the REB become part of your ethical process? Yes / No

With so much attention focused on the REB process, academics can end up equating ethics with the process itself. Yet ‘ethics’ cannot be measured by box ticking, REB form-filling, or literature reviews at the outset of research. Rather, research ethics are about what we do throughout the life-cycle of research, how we learn from our errors, and our continued accountability to the network of relationships involved in our projects. We must approach ethics as an ongoing process of accountability that engages with institutional processes but never begins and ends with an ethics board as the only member of our kin network. REB review is one step of the research process but it can never be the only forum through which ethical questions and accountability are considered. Simply because a project meets one’s institutional requirements does not mean it is invested in questions of ethics. As well, if emerging forms of research demand new ways of understanding the production of knowledge, then institutional mechanisms for reviewing research need to do the same. This is not to suggest that emerging forms of research be exempt from REB review, but rather that REB review procedure is not interchangeable with ‘ethics’.

Where have you been and what have you learned? [Enter text here]

We now turn to a closer look at the role of dirt and affect in our journey as academics. When did we clean up the dirt by sanitizing our research output to conform to academic norms? When have we rejected these norms by making room for disorder, allowing what is otherwise deemed out of place to have a place? How have we cared for the relationships that cycle in and through our research projects and research ethics processes? Throughout these four stories we emphasize the forks in the road as they presented themselves to us, along with the ethical choices that were made, and the ongoing reflexivity and accountability that we strive to bring to the entire research process. We begin with two stories that offer an internal look at our relationships to REBs as we have gained more experience, moving from graduate school to eventually becoming professors. Here the concept of ‘dating’ is used to draw out the perceived power imbalances that can interfere in these relationships as we begin passing on intimate details about our research projects. The first story reflects on the process of applying for clearance, while the second story offers an internal reflection on the paradoxical experiences of setting up an REB. The next story offers an inside look into a research project involving international partners. The graduate student at the centre of this story moves from excitement to shock, seeing no choice but to try to change the mind of a more experienced supervisor. Our final story concerns the mutability of our ethical compass over time. We think about the relationships once built during graduate fieldwork and what happens when the lifetime of a research project is extended well after graduation. In this story, focusing on a book publication as a possible ticket to job security sets the stage for the neglect of prior relationships. 

The REB Dating Scene

Rena Bivens

I have had several relationships with REBs. I’ll admit it: I jumped from one REB to the next. It began with ‘dates’ that never meant much during my PhD and moved on to a tumultuous but brief relationship with a different REB. In the end, predictably, I eventually settled down with just one REB.

When I was younger and just starting out on the REB dating scene, I was so naïve. I looked up to my first REB in a way that both structured and confirmed my utter lack of agency versus my REB’s ultimate authority and sole access to ethical knowledge. I dutifully answered questions asked of me and did not question the REB’s authority and knowledge nor my presumed lack of it. I did not expect to engage in any sort of conversation, I just did what I was told thinking that my REB knew best. It was like a dinner and movie so wrapped up in red tape that we only really sorted out the logistics for the evening, never actually had a bite to eat, discovered any shared interests, or had any time to gaze longingly into each other’s eyes.

Perhaps my ideas about REB courtship had been poisoned from the start. I had already overheard many conversations about REBs in the university hallways and over beers at the pub with fellow grad students. They usually went something like this, punctuated by groans and twisted faces:

‘Ugh. I have to get on it and just fill out that stupid form.’

‘Yeah, I avoided it for ages.’

‘It’s annoying but it doesn’t take too long to fill out.’

‘I’m so glad I’m not interviewing anyone – no ethics for the win!!’

So, I knew from the beginning it was going to be a boring and overly formal relationship. And I also knew that my first REB was not overly committed to me. I could fill out that form, give the ‘correct’ answers, and never look back.

Yes, I’ll store my cassette tapes in a locked cabinet in my office.

(I did not have a locked cabinet in my office.)

Yes, I’ll erase them within 3 years.

Yes, I’ll have all interviewees sign consent forms.

My relationship — or whatever you want to call it — ended there… we never became ‘Facebook official.’ As a white, able-bodied woman researching a topic for my PhD that touched very little on issues related to identity, and certainly was not putting me at risk, I began by deferring to the perceived authority figure without questioning my impulse to do so. I’d please my REB; my REB knows best. This was easy; it was uncomplicated. Dating my first REB during my PhD research now seems like such a distant fling — and it truly was very fleeting, based only on one single ethics application at a very early stage of my research project.

My next REB relationship took place after I began my first academic job. I moved to a new country for this position and became a foreigner working for a university that was also foreign; it was a British university that had a campus in China. Even if I wanted to, there was no way of hiding the fact that I was a foreigner here. Not only had it become my public name — yelled in the local language with pointed fingers or whispered followed by stares everywhere I went and especially, it seemed, at the grocery store — but it had become another form of privilege in many ways. My whiteness typically caused excitement and interest; it was easy to find help when I needed it, even from complete strangers, I never felt unsafe, and it was not hard to be taken seriously.

When I submitted my first ethics application, I was surprised to find that my new REB was not overly communicative. My project got the green light but it was issued with a warning. They said I could carry on with my proposed new research project but I would be at risk of receiving negative attention from the government. Was this some sort of form letter that every researcher received? What did this really mean?

Years later, when I think about this moment, I can see how complicated this moment was. The political climate on this campus was confusing and the gossip that circulated made it feel as though danger was always looming. There was a delicate balance between the university administration and the local government, but the situation was often presented to faculty as though we were living and working in a British bubble that happened to exist on Chinese land. Everyone knew there were political lines we might cross and that consequences would suddenly make themselves apparent, but it wasn’t ever clear where the lines were. There were plenty of stories shared by faculty and students that offered a glimpse, and on occasion someone I knew was directly implicated in one situation or another. Sometimes I wondered if I’d get too close to a line and if I’d end up becoming a main character in one of the stories being shared this week. My emotional responses to this environment varied, but I can’t deny that there was an undercurrent of excitement and pleasure. In response to my research project, the REB was signaling a line might exist, but my inquiries offered no clarity about what I might do wrong or what sort of consequences might occur. My ethical obligations were to my research participants and my research assistant and I took those relationships very seriously. I took every precaution I could to minimize their risk, including modifying the scope of my project, my research questions, and limiting how I shared the work. My own privilege, and even my sense of entitlement, kept me from worrying much about myself. Instead, this warning became another story I added to the mix.

By the time I started getting involved with the REB I still work with today, I had finally developed a richer understanding of ethics and I was also a much more experienced academic. When I was asked questions after submitting ethics applications, I found myself in a very different position. Before this stage in my career, I had imagined that an REB was some sort of ultimate authority figure that has to be managed with care. They could shut down your project if you said the wrong thing. After realizing that one of my administrative duties in my new academic position could involve actually becoming a member of the REB, I had to confront how ridiculous my perception had been. I realized that I had specific knowledge that I could use to help the REB adjudicate not only my application but others who use similar methods. The next time that I was preparing an application to submit, I completely changed my approach. I called the Research Compliance Coordinator. I asked questions and we had interesting conversations about my project’s ethical quandaries. When the first review was complete and I received a set of questions from the REB, I was eager to engage, especially since I was able to explain how the online spaces I was studying are programmed and what risks could emerge. I was not afraid or defensive. I began to actually enjoy taking more time to go back and forth, appreciating the opportunity to pause and think about the issues raised and find ways to understand and articulate the risks more clearly. This was beneficial for me, my research participants, and for the REB members I was engaging with.

As I continued to navigate ethical issues in my next research projects I started to realize there were occasions when my own rules were more stringent than my REB’s rules. I once found myself submitting an application despite knowing that my REB would find it wholly unnecessary. By insisting on a review I was able to engage with the REB members about a project that requested consent to use publicly available social media data even when the rules and norms of the day deemed it unnecessary. When I went on to ask the groups I hoped to involve in my project if I could use their social media data, making it clear that I would make no further requests of their time or resources, one organization outright declined to be included in my study. This response bolstered my ethical standpoint on this issue.

These experiences completely shifted my perception of REBs and of the research process as a whole. I came to understand that my decisions must always be made with care and reflexivity and, wherever possible, directed by those who are involved in my research. These decisions will never simply be dictated by an REB. Instead, the REB itself has a role in my project and I can work with them by being open to ongoing dialogue.

On joining REBs

Koen Leurs

During a job-talk I had in the Netherlands, after spending two years in the UK, I expressed my wonder about the non-existent REB at the host institution. I mentioned it would be my ambition to help set one up in case I would get hired. I got hired, and after several years indeed I was invited to join a group of professors from various disciplines to set up an ethics board for our faculty. Looking back, I realized it was strange, and perhaps in several ways even problematic, that I was not previously asked to obtain ethical clearance for my doctoral research, which had included fieldwork among young people as young as 12 years old in high schools, and interviews with young and adult asylum seekers. Following international protocols from fields including internet and gender studies I had devised an informed consent form and information letter, in languages understandable to my informants. I had learned about positionality, accountability, and reflexivity in discussions with seasoned feminist and anti-racist anthropologists like Gloria Wekker (2006). However, never during my PhD studies was I expected to consult about ethical procedures and norms with anyone beyond my supervisor. In the UK, where I conducted face-to-face interviews and digital ethnography with youth, I had a totally different experience. I was required to have a police background check carried out. Ethical clearance had to be obtained prior to starting the fieldwork, which involved a laborious back-and-forth exchange of checklists, documents and increasingly formalized protocols with the REB. I learned about ethics and norms from the point of view of the institution, and sought to align those with my disciplinary and personal ideals, which eventually succeeded, also because of the open and dialogic stance of the board.       

In setting up the board it was my ambition to translate these experiences into the functioning of the REB, e.g., social justice commitments combined with pragmatic guidance to prompt researchers’ ethical self-reflexivity. In the last two years I realized there are many paradoxes that shape the procedures and power relations of REBs, internally and externally. From the outset the four board members expressed their desires to maintain the board as a dialogic and open institution, set up to serve the applicants. The semantic discussions we had while writing up our guidelines and protocols were revealing of the multidirectional relationships involved in research. While I agreed and realized extra ethical considerations were required for researchers seeking to work with marginalized communities such as youth or refugees, in the workflow of the board this resulted in several tracks: applications to be considered ‘normal’ applications could be handled in the ‘short route’ of two weeks, demanding assessment by two of the board members, while particular types of research such as those involving marginalized groups would be slotted into the ‘long route’ of four weeks, demanding an evaluation from the entire board. Extra hurdles put into place for particular types of research are important since consequences and assumptions of working with vulnerable communities demands thorough reflection and scrutiny, but these hurdles could also work to deter potential applicants. Over time as the volume of submissions grew we realized that streamlining and detailed protocols alongside templates could help us manage our workload and avoid the repetitive work of having to answer a limited number of returning questions. Also we started to wonder whether it is the task of the REB to educate staff and students about ethical considerations as they were preparing to conduct a study. Alongside the establishment of the REB, a data-management and privacy policy was initiated at our university. While data-management and privacy certainly have implications for research ethics and vice versa, discussion is still open as to what extent it should be the responsibility of an REB to assess these issues as evaluative criterion, as this would further impact the open and dialogic stance of any REB.

Overall, my experiences setting up the board are revealing for the dominant one-dimensional perceptions that persist about REBs. After the board was installed and announced to the staff, we organized presentations at the relevant departments. The meetings were intended to remake kin networks. However, as we were building relationships with potential REB applicants, we were met with skepticism. Common questions revolved around the need for the REB to legitimize their research:

  • Why did we want to interfere with their projects? 
  • Why were some research orientations not represented in the fields of expertise of the board members? 
  • Why was researchers’ autonomy and accountability mistrusted?
  • Would we become another paper mill as part of the increasing university bureaucracy?
  • Would we slow down the research process and would there be ways to avoid having to take part in ethical review?

What the development, communication and process of my REB membership has reaffirmed is that research ethics “require a continued critical reflexive disposition and the willingness to include and attend to the voices and concerns of all stakeholders” (Canella, 2004, p. 236). Engagement with and taking part in research oversight from a critical, feminist and engaged angle is therefore only possible if we can commit to attending to the dirtiness and messiness of its process. Dirty methods thus entails affirmative critique of those in power – and their exclusionary protocols from the bottom-up, but also to scrutinize the steps we take when we have (partial) power of definition in policy-making, management or administration, among others.   

Ethical clashes in situ

Mélanie Millette

When I started my Master’s, in 2006, I was one of the first researchers to work on independent podcasting. My first contact with my university’s REB was weird. The professors involved asked a bunch of questions; they didn’t get what I was doing or the object I was studying, so we found ourselves going back and forth. Receiving these emails was so stressful, because I had heard about the pain it could cause to get your REB approval when you work on an online phenomenon. I wanted to analyze audio and written content — all of which was public — and also to conduct interviews with podcasters to unpack the significance of their practices. Once the REB got a real sense of what I wanted to do, I got a passive-aggressive response: as I was not dealing with ‘sensitive’ issues or working with kids, I shouldn’t have filled out a form to begin with. 

Back in those days, publicly available online content was understood as “media or journalistic content”, ready to harvest and analyze — which was quite problematic, as the scale and the nature of scrutiny one understands when posting something on an online forum is different.

A couple of years later, as a PhD student, I found myself involved in a massive international research project with my advisor. The main investigator was in a well-known lab in Europe. The research was meant to provide an international overview of smartphone use, across different countries in Europe, Asia, and North America. I was quite enthusiastic about this project. We had brains I respected, resources, and the opportunity to travel – it was a dream!  

The research protocol was developed in Europe, and then given to each co-researcher to apply and adapt in their local field. I clearly remember the shock I got when I read the document. As the research assistant here, in Canada, my job was to adapt the protocol and obtain all the needed clearances from my REB. As I was reading the document, I started to list what would cause some problems, and I devised a set of questions to ask my advisor and the principal investigator. But by the end of the protocol, I was shaken. To me, the method was intrusive to a point I was not comfortable with. In a nutshell, we would have to install a surveillance application (it wasn’t named as such, for evident reasons, but that is what it was) in the participants’ cell phones and collect their data, on-screen activities, and so on, for a week. Everything. I had many questions: How can we get informed consent from contacts who appear on a participant’s screen? How will we manage to guarantee anonymity to everyone mentioned in our dataset? And, more urgently, do we need all this data to answer our research questions? Just because we had the resources to do it this way, it didn’t mean that we should.

It was a dirty situation. I was surprised that this protocol got green-lit in many well-known and high-profile universities. Could they not see how intrusive and problematic it was? At the same time, I had to admit that parts of me were torn because many researchers in the team were people I admire and I really wanted to work with them. I also felt like an ‘imposter’: who am I to doubt the protocol of a big international research project? 

I remember calling my advisor to raise a red flag: not only are we never going to be able to get the REB on board, but my own ethical views led me to question our very participation (at least mine) in the research. My advisor listened to me, probably thought that I was overreacting, but was obviously concerned. His concern became even more evident when he read my commented version of the protocol. He got into a conversation with the principal investigator and they debated about ethics, and what was really needed to get the project done. At some point, my advisor’s opinion became aligned with mine. I felt supported and it was comforting to validate that my internal alarm ‘got it right,’ especially from someone I valued and trusted. We thus agreed to leave the research team, and my advisor did this with as much respect and care as possible.

Will you make kin with research ethics? Yes / No

Whether we are students, faculty, or REB members, we occupy many different roles in the research projects we are involved in. We will all slowly gain experience with research ethics over time, but our research areas will shift and we will collaborate in new ways and experiment with methods we are not familiar with. We should always be learning and reflecting, and be prepared to avoid the impulse to ‘clean up’ our projects and discard relationships even when we are not sure how to resolve the problems we have created.

We shared these stories to model a practice of talking out loud about research ethics. This is one way to encourage reflexivity. How else might we discover the forks in the road that we have not yet been conditioned to notice? How can we be more vulnerable even when academic norms incentivize us to offer up only clean, orderly research? How can we prioritize making kin with research ethics by identifying and continuing to tend to all of the relationships that flow through this site in open and accountable ways? How can we better acknowledge and make space for learning and growth as we carry on in each step of our academic careers?

Wendy Chun and Sarah Friedland (2015) address vulnerability and risk by pointing out that the ‘Web 2.0’ systems we use were designed to be leaky. Systemic vulnerabilities were built into the systems we use, paving the way for online exposure and victimization (especially of women and girls). They suggest that maybe it would be useful for us to claim the right to be vulnerable. We carry this perspective into our dirty, kin-making approach to research ethics. We want to encourage vulnerability and more open, messy, dirty, and disorderly dialogues about the forks in the road so that we can reconfigure how we understand risk, relationships, and power.


Cannella, Gaina S., & Lincoln, Yvonna. S. (2007). Predatory vs. Dialogic Ethics: Constructing an Illusion or Ethical Practice as the Core of Research Methods. Qualitative Inquiry, 13(3), 315–335

Cannella, Gaina S. (2004). Regulatory Power: Can a Feminist Poststructuralist Engage in Research Oversight? Qualitative Inquiry, 10(2), 235–245. 

Chun, Wendy Hui Kyong & Friedland, Sarah. (2015). Habits of Leaking: Of Sluts and Network Cards. Differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies 26(2), 1-28.

Dingwall, Robert. (2008). The ethical case against ethical regulation in humanities and social science research. Twenty-First Century Society 3(1), 1-12.

Douglas, Mary. (1966). Purity and Danger: An analysis of the concepts of pollution and taboo. London: Routledge.

Faden, Ruth & Powers, Madison. (2011). A social justice framework for health and science policy. Cambridge Quarterly of Healthcare Ethics 20(4), 596-604.

franzke, aline shakti, Bechmann, Anja, Zimmer, Michael, Ess, Charles & the Association of Internet Researchers. (2020). Internet Research: Ethical Guidelines 3.0. Retrieved from: https://aoir.org/reports/ethics3.pdf

Haggerty, Kevin D. (2004). Ethics creep: Governing social science research in the name of ethics. Qualitative Sociology 27(4), 391-414.

Haraway, Donna. (2016). Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Lincoln, Yvonna. S. (2005). Institutional Review Boards and Methodological Conservatism: The Challenge to and from Phenomenological Paradigms. In N. K. Denzin & Y. S. Lincoln (Eds.), The Sage handbook of qualitative research (pp. 165–181). Sage Publications Lt

Markham, Anette. (2006). Ethic as method, method as ethic. Journal of Information Ethics 15(2), 37-54.

Readings, Bill. (1997). The university in ruins. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Stark, Laura. (2011). Behind closed doors: IRBs and the making of ethical research. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Verhallen, Tessa. (2016). Tuning to the dance of ethnography’: ethics during situated fieldwork in single-mother protection families. Current Anthropology, 57(4), pp. 452–473. 

Weindling, Paul. (2001). The origins of Informed Consent: The International Scientific Commission on medical war crimes and the Nuremberg Code. Bulletin of the History of Medicine 75(1), 37-71.

Wekker, Gloria. (2006). The Politics of Passion. New York, NY: Columbia University Press. 

Zeffiro, Andrea. (2019). Provocations for social media research: Toward good data ethics. In Angela Daly, Kate Devitt, and Monique Mann (eds.) Good data (pp. 216-243). Amsterdam: INC Theory on Demand Series.

Navigate Sequentially

The way the authors intended.

Navigate by Chapter

Jump from chapter to chapter.