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Critical approaches to ethical practice in and with the South

A workshop of the Critical Development Studies Network

Saturday 24 March 2018

University of Melbourne

Workshop summary by Souvik Lal Chakraborty (Monash University)

The workshop titled ‘Critical Approaches to Ethical Practice in and with the South’ was held
on 24th March, 2018 at the University of Melbourne. It was organised by Critical Development
Studies Network (CDSN). This interactive workshop brought together experienced researches,
doctoral candidates and masters students onto one platform. They discussed the difficulties that
researchers face in practice and the different strategies that can be adopted in order to overcome

This workshop was planned in three sessions. The first session was a panel discussion titled
‘Experiences with Ethical Dilemmas’. In this session the key speakers were Dr. Masami Levi
(National University of Samoa), Dr. Anne Brown (RMIT University) and Dr. Luis Eslava (University
of Kent). The second session was a question and answer session mainly dealing with broad themes,
with reference to a questionnaire that was circulated among the participants before the
conference. In the closing session of the workshop, participants engaged in drafting the future
plan of actions for the network.

Panel Discussion: Experiences with Ethical Dilemmas

The central theme of the panel discussion revolved around identifying the real meaning of
ethnographic research. Dr. Luis Eslava pointed out that there are two common perspectives of
ethnographic research methodology –

a. Ethnography is doing ‘whatever’

b. Ethnography is a structured tool of research
In either mode, there are tensions between the researcher as an 'outsider' and the participants.
Luis explored some cases where class dynamics raised some profound ethical issues. There is no
prescription for overcoming these issues, but researchers must make a choice about their
ethical entanglements with research participants.

All the key note speakers mainly focussed on the idea that the observation of human behaviour
is the basis of ethnographic research. Prof. Anne Brown pointed out that, since field research
involves engaging with people, it is important to pay attention to those around us, in the field.
The power of listening and the quality of interaction makes all the difference in ethnographic
research. She also added that for any kind of field research, we need to first identify our strengths
and weaknesses so that we are able to focus on what is doable for us as researchers.

Dr. Levi shared her PhD field work experience in Samoa. She mentioned that she took the path of
ethnographic research along with participatory approach while doing her research. But according
to her she ‘failed’ with this methodological approach because she got emotionally involved with
the participant. For Masami, there is a trade-off in ethnographic research: on the one hand, a
researcher needs to maintain a certain distance from their informants while conducting the
research; on the other hand, building emotional connections can produce more engaged research.

Masami’s personal experience initiates a debate whether there is a set pattern of ethnographic
research or it totally depends upon situation. She might have ‘failed’ by strict definitions of
ethnography but her story questioned what ethnography is about. The emotional bond she
developed with her participant may look like a draw-back but perhaps that aspect made her work
more compelling by adding a new perspective.

This discussion made it clear that there is no set formula of ethnographic research. A researcher
has to develop their own approach to ‘research’ and to the issue of ‘ethics’ by understanding the
situation in which they are engaged.

The Q and A Session

The major questions in this session were as follows.

What challenges have you faced in inter-cultural research contexts, and can you identify some
key lessons learned?

Masami stressed that understanding cultural protocols is an important aspect in inter-cultural

research contexts. If needed, a researcher needs to change their profile for the research, even if
just to match the cultural setting. Sometimes a researcher may need to change their food habit
and in many cases dressing sense as well.
Luis’s answer to this question added a new dimension to the discussion. For Luis inter-cultural
context is closely related to inter-class context and they go hand in hand. In an inter-class context
a researcher has to interact with people not only from various cultural backgrounds but also from
various socio-economic backgrounds. He added that ethnographic research in inter-class
situations can be difficult at times.
What are the key institutional barriers in ethical research?
In responding to this question, participants and panellists highlighted various day-to-day
problems they face in overcoming the institutional formalities and requirements. Common
problems were insufficient funds, issues of compensation for research participants and the
predicament of research approval from research ethics committees in respective universities.
Future plan of action of CDSN
After the morning tea, we re-convened to discuss how these kinds of workshops help to set the
future path of the CDSN. Participants agreed to the fact that the network should meet more often
to discuss issues and problems related to research. This workshop ended on a positive note when
many participants agreed to broaden the presence of this network beyond the city of Melbourne.