Ethical Issues in International Educational Research
During a research project studying factors that contribute to the professional identity of primary school teachers in West Africa, the supervisor of a number of teachers from one school requires that all of the teachers consent to participate in the research. What should the researcher do in this situation?
Dr. Sheridan has been examining factors that contribute to the professional identity of primary school teachers in West Africa. In developing her study, she has worked with many non-governmental and governmental agencies, including the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) to gain access to her target population as well as to gather preliminary data based on programs that have included school-based teacher training. Based on her experiences with the agencies, the schools, and the Ghana Teacher Education Division over the last three years, Dr. Sheridan has selected ten schools in each region in Ghana for interviews and observations of primary school teachers, their students, and their communities.
Dr. Sheridan has selected her sample from a pool of schools that have collaborated in the past with at least one of the aforementioned agencies where school-based teacher training had been administered. Teachers in these schools have worked with researchers as well as school-based in-service trainers, but this study will be conducted and administered by Dr. Sheridan and her research assistants. Dr. Sheridan will observe the teachers and will conduct interviews and focus groups to examine their individual and collaborative concepts of teaching as a profession. She will also conduct interviews with students and community members and participate in community meetings at the start of her project. Dr. Sheridan has already received approval from her home institution’s IRB for the study, and as part of the approved protocol, she must obtain informed consent from all of the study participants.
Kwaku Konadu is a head teacher at one of the primary schools in Kumasi. Head teachers tend to hold higher status and also wield significant power over the other teachers at the primary school level. When Dr. Sheridan visits the school to provide the study information materials to the teachers, Mr. Konadu has all of the teachers together in the school block to listen to the presentation and receive the materials. Following Dr. Sheridan’s presentation in which she stresses that this is an independent project that is not being funded by any external agency, Mr. Konadu tells all of the teachers they must sign the informed consent form because of Dr. Sheridan’s connections to the USAID. He reminds the teachers that they would not have the teaching and learning materials they have without funding from USAID, and they must sign the forms so they can continue to receive funding.
Dr. Sheridan tries to interject, but she is quickly silenced by Mr. Konadu. Knowing the traditional gender roles in the community, Dr. Sheridan does not contradict Mr. Konadu in front of the teachers. She knows that speaking out publicly in front of him would indicate a loss of face for Mr. Kondau and could upset the balance at the school. In their private conversation, Dr. Sheridan brings up the issue of teacher participation, and she tells Mr. Konadu that the teachers have a choice in whether or not they participate. Mr. Konadu lets her know that all of the teachers will be participating no matter what since the Kumasi District Director of Education has already informed all of the head teachers in the district that they are required to participate in Dr. Sheridan’s study and comply with any of her requests.
- How could Dr. Sheridan have prevented the coercion for consent implied by Mr.Konadu? How did the inequality of power impact voluntary consent?
- What, if anything, could Dr. Sheridan do to render the consent voluntary?
- Should Dr. Sheridan proceed with her study at this school? Should Dr. Sheridan proceed with her study in this district?
- If Dr. Sheridan does proceed with the study, should she contact her home institution’s IRB before proceeding with the study or after data collection? Why? Will the data collected be reliable and/or valid? Why?
- What are Dr. Sheridan’s ethical responsibilities to the teachers at the schools? What are Dr. Sheridan’s ethical responsibilities to her home institution’s IRB?
This case, while seemingly straightforward, raises profound and puzzling ethical issues not only about research undertaken in international contexts but also about social science research more generally. The most immediate issue in the case concerns the researcher’s efforts to obtain informed consent through an explanation of the research project to its intended participants and a request for consent to their participation by means of a signed consent form. This means of documenting informed consent has become a standard expectation of Institutional Review Boards and a standard practice of researchers on human subjects. However, the actions of the head teacher, Mr. Konadu, in this case have disrupted this standard practice. In part, Mr. Konadu’s actions apparently arise from cultural differences according to which the head teacher exercises more direct authority over Ghanaian classroom teachers than is usual for school principals in the United States. As well, these actions in part also seem to arise from the dependence of schools in Ghana on international governmental and non-governmental aid, as is frequently the case elsewhere throughout the developing world.
These particular circumstances undermine the assumed autonomy of adult research subjects upon which the usual practice of informed consent is based. No matter what the intentions of the researcher may be, the classroom teachers in this case do not apparently have the freedom of choice which would allow their signatures on the consent form to document their voluntary participation in the research project. The structure of authority within which Ghanaian schools operate seems to defy the assumptions that are built into the standard practice of informed consent. Furthermore, although Mr. Konadu’s actions in this case make the nature of the relationships explicit, the authority structure would still be real even if those actions had not taken place and so, too, would the resulting involuntary nature of the teachers’ participation. After all, the existence of social authority and not just the emergence of particular actions in which that authority is expressed is what makes teachers’ participation less than fully voluntary. From this perspective about social authority, however, much social research faces a similar problem. Social research frequently involves participants involved in a wide variety of social institutions, and that research involves the nature of those individuals’ activities within the institutions. Since an institution is, from one perspective, an arrangement for the deployment of social authority, one is led to have doubts about whether the participation in research of any of an institution’s members can be fully voluntary.
These reflections suggest that much research conducted about and in social institutions, foreign and domestic, is likely to violate the ethics of informed consent. As such, they should remind researchers to be especially cautious in conducting such research since it is likely to involve a degree of social coercion even when the standard practices of informed consent have been followed. Now, this caution need not take the form of a refusal to conduct such research on ethical grounds, although sometimes that may be in order. As the Belmont Report (1979) reminds us, the principle upon which informed consent is primarily based is respect for persons, which is in turn based upon two ethical considerations — first, that subjects are to be treated as autonomous agents and, second, that, if subjects are diminished in their autonomy, they are entitled to protection. This second consideration has been thought primarily to apply to children and to disabled adults. However, as we have seen, many subjects in social research are not fully autonomous even though they are functioning adults, and in these cases informed consent is not an entirely ethically satisfactory way for the researcher to demonstrate respect for persons. Thus, we must turn to the consideration of protection in order to demonstrate that respect.
The authoritarian context in which some adults operate can be so oppressive that the only way to protect them is to refuse to conduct research in which they are direct participants. However, that is not clearly true in this case. What is more, to avoid research on people within authoritarian contexts can in many cases be to condone silently the authoritarian arrangements that may exploit them. Yet to pursue the research as if the consent given is entirely voluntary from the start — that is, to pay no attention to the coercive nature of the social research context itself — seems inappropriate. One possible response in such cases is to design or to modify the research project itself in such a way that it invites and enables the participants to express their autonomy. If, for example, the research involves interviews, the participants themselves might be invited to take part in the development of the interview protocols so that issues that are centrally important to them become a focus in part of the research and so that issues that the participants regard as excessively risky are avoided or at least reconceptualized so as to be less threatening. Of course, the researcher has hypotheses or theories that generate a need for inquiry, but these can be explained and negotiated in the process of collaborative design of the methods of the research themselves.
This protective adaptation of the research is something that the researcher has to do on the fly by being thoughtfully sensitive to the interests of the prospective participants. As a result, there is probably no algorithm that can be followed in cases such as this. The researcher needs to be on the lookout for undue authoritarian structures in the research situation and to work conscientiously to develop ways simultaneously to protect participants in those situations and yet to allow important knowledge to emerge.
This case raises a number of issues concerning the challenges of conducting research in an international setting where cultural factors have the potential to interfere with the requirements of ethical research as desired and required from the home country. I will comment on the issues of informed voluntary consent and respect for persons.
Informed voluntary consent is critical to conducting ethical research, and this case compromised informed voluntary consent due to inequality of power. The head teacher exercises considerable power over the teachers, and his insistence that the teachers participate interferes with their right to volunteer for the study or not. While there are three elements of consent, information, comprehension, and voluntary, the head teacher would like to bypass all three of these elements. When Dr. Sheridan attempts to share information that would provide teachers with information about the study, the head teacher lets her know this is not necessary at all since the all the teachers will be participating. The head teacher interferes with the teachers’ rights to volunteer and also interferes with their right to comprehension. By not allowing a discussion of participation and just stating that they will all participate, Mr. Konadu hinders their ability to ask questions about the study so that they would be able to offer informed consent for participation. Mr. Konadu’s actions also violate the element of voluntary participation, which means free of coercion and undue influence, by insisting they all participate.
In examining respect for persons, it is important to examine the nature of relationships in the research process. Due to the power and authority in the relationships in this case, respect for persons is challenged on multiple levels. While it is important to avoid coercion, the researcher is in an ethical quandary. The support offered by both the district director of education and the head teacher is essential to the study, but this support stands to coerce participation in the study and compromise the study. Participants have the right to agree to participate or not agree to participate, and the strong armed support by administrators seeks to take this right to choose away from the participants. The power dynamic at work is a boss-employee relationship for the head teacher and the district director of education as well as for Mr. Konadu and the teachers. This not so subtle pressure from the district director of education has led to outright pressure by the head teacher to force the teachers to participate in the project.
Respect for persons clearly means that you cannot coerce participation. It also means that participants should not be unduly influenced by other people. This is the difficult part of this case. Although Dr. Sheridan is not coercing the participants, they have indeed been coerced into participating in the study. This is a challenge for Dr. Sheridan. Should she proceed with the study knowing that the participants were coerced into participating? What if the participants would have participated anyway?
Since the coercion seems to come from two levels, Dr. Sheridan may have to address these issues at the school level and at the district level. Due to cultural norms, it would not be appropriate for Dr. Sheridan to disagree with Mr. Konadu in front of the teachers. Since she is female, and he is male, she is expected to defer to him. It is at this point that she must excuse herself and have this conversation with Mr. Konadu in a delicate manner so that he can save face, and she can let him know of her institutional and ethical responsibilities. Perhaps in this smaller setting, she can assure him of her appreciation and willingness to have all of his teachers participate, but she can share the institutional paperwork which requires voluntary participation.
If Dr. Sheridan is unable to convince Mr. Konadu to allow the teachers to choose to participate, what should she do? She could leave the site and go to a different district where she also has permission to complete the study. What if she had no other areas to conduct the study? If she went ahead and completed the study at this site, she could speak with the teachers individually to gain consent, but it would be possible that some of the teachers would still be influenced by Mr. Konadu’s insistence that they participate. Perhaps, she could continue the study, but she would need to document this coercion.
Dr. Sheridan would also need to meet with the district director of education to discuss his role in coercion of teachers to participate. She will need to meet with the district director of education and convey her appreciation for his support of her work in the district while also describing the requirements for her study as outlined by her institution. During this discussion, Dr. Sheridan must explain the concepts of informed consent and voluntary participation as well as her ethical responsibility to these principles in her study. If the district director of education does not agree to inform the head teachers that the teachers do have a right to participate or not to participate, Dr. Sheridan’s entire study will be compromised, and she will have to decide whether or not she should proceed with the study in this district.