This blog was written by Dr Marcia Vera Espinoza (Politics) and Dr Steve Connelly (Urban Studies and Planning)

Independently of the discipline, all research faces ethical challenges at different stages. What are those challenges and how do we deal with them may not only depend on the discipline, but they are also shaped by the intersection of our, and our participants’, gender, age, class and ethnic background, as well as by the stakeholders and the structures involved in our research. All these elements shape in particular ways the power dynamics intrinsic to research with refugee communities. We discussed some of these diverse challenges last June 15th at the workshop ‘Understanding the ethics of interdisciplinary research with refugee communities’. The workshop, sponsored by the University Research Ethics Committee (UREC), aimed to look at these issues within the particular context of interdisciplinarity and impact.

Five speakers helped us to frame the workshop with the discussion of the ethical challenges faced in their own research projects. We were extremely pleased to have as keynote speakers Jason Hart (University of Bath) and Lucy Mayblin (University of Warwick), as well as to our own great PhD researchers Aya Musmar (Architecture) and Sarah Linn (Urban Studies and Planning), and Lindsay Unwin, UREC research officer at Sheffield. 30 participants from different faculties across the University of Sheffield, and beyond, actively joined us in the discussions. 

At the end of a fascinating, stimulating day, filled with rich descriptions of experiences of researching on and with refugees, arguments about the ethics of working with powerful partners, and a great deal of honest reflection about how hard the whole issue is, it was left to us to try to make some sense of where we had got to.  

While we cannot make justice to all that was said, we pulled together a few themes:

Confusion.  One participant summed up much of what many of us felt by saying “I am expert in being confused”.  This is a complicated and difficult field, and the more one explores it, and experiences the reality, the more confusing it can become, in ways unpredicted in the clarity of ‘ethics training’ or an ‘ethics application’.  

One reason key reason for this is…

Complexity.   In doing interdisciplinary research with refugees we:

  • are working with multiple stakeholders, each with their own agendas, interests, understandings of what the research is for and of what its ethics are, and (crucially) levels of power and vulnerability. How can one reconcile the needs and view of refugees, UNHCR, a host-country NGO, a British academic engineer and a university ethics committee?
  • often are doing as well as researching, either because we feel its morally essential, and/or because if we didn’t offer something practical we wouldn’t (rightly?) be given access by gatekeeper organisations.  But this raises tensions – for individual researchers who need to get research results as well as do something useful, often in very limited time; between the demands of academic rigour and the engagement which comes from working with people to make things better.
  • quickly run into wider ethical issues – the questions of the ethics of the research as well as the ethics in the research.  It’s all very well making sure that people’s identities are protected and so on – the standard issues of ethics applications – but what about the morality of doing the research at all? As one of the participants said: “one of the most interesting things for me was the thought not only about the operational ethics of the research – but also the wider ethics of why one is undertaking the research in the first place.”  Should one partner with an NGO whose management of a camp is arguably part of the problem to be addressed?  With a host government which in its policies is making life harder for refugees? Would one be more effective researching –and critiquing – policies developed in London or Washington? Or joining a campaign group?

While we did not (of course!) solve or resolve any of these issues, some clear ways forward meant that we ended on a positive note.  

The importance of recognition of the different positions of all those involved is crucial, as is reflection for each individual on their position(s) and the tensions between these. This doesn’t come easily, but is our responsibility, and we need to find ways to train and support researchers in doing this work – not just doctoral students and early career researchers, but also (and maybe to a greater extent) established researchers who may find it challenging to change the way they think about their work.  Finally, the key to it all is dialogue: to explore the issues on the ground and in the classroom, to open up the nature of the different positions and to work towards finding local solutions and techniques for managing confusion and complexity. To end with another quote from a participant, “we should talk more about this”.

Organisers: Dr Marcia Vera Espinoza (Politics); Dr Steve Connelly (Urban Studies and Planning); Helen Woolley (Department of Landscape); Aldous Everard (Grantham Centre for Sustainable Futures).

More information about Ethics guidance within the University

Ethics approval process:

Ethics Policy Notes:

Resources from UREC workshop research in developing countries:

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