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Research Ethics and Scenes of Justice

November 9, 2012

A version of this post originally appeared at the Africa Portal.

Toward the end of my Africa Initiative field research in Kenya, I visited a woman (I’ll call her Eunice) at her home in Kibera, a large informal community in Nairobi. I had met her a week earlier when she was a participant in a focus group that brought together victims of post-election violence to discuss their views on justice, assistance and the work of the International Criminal Court.

During the focus group, I was struck by Eunice’s straightforward answers and openness in discussing the day post-election rioters burned down her home. I couldn’t help but notice the mottled pink and white scar tissue on her hands and face, the only parts of her body not covered by clothes or a headscarf. Many Kenyans continue to suffer from post-election violence, but few have it written as plainly on their bodies.

My subsequent encounters with Eunice following the focus group highlight some of the ethical questions that confront those who research social justice issues. While ethics boards at academic institutions address some of these concerns — in particular the promotion of informed consent, and the avoidance of harm and conflicts of interest — these bodies do not determine all of the principles that orient researchers’ relationships with the people, organizations, or communities they study.

Ethical principles can inform many stages of research, from choice of topic to study design. But there is another set of issues: are ethical obligations limited to what you do as a researcher? Or, if you encounter people with problems that need to be addressed, and if you have the knowledge or authority or resources to help, should you do so? This question confronts anyone who witnesses suffering or injustice but whose job does not entail the direct delivery of assistance, from journalists to development experts to social science researchers. In my experience, people doing these jobs in countries with poor social safety nets often give aid to individuals they have encountered, from paying for someone’s medical treatment to funding a child’s school fees

Questions about ethical obligations beyond one’s research are more likely to come up when one encounters people suffering from illness, deprivation, or injustice. For that reason, it is not just what one studies, but also how that research is conducted. Methodology affects how a researcher understands and empathizes with the subjects of their study. It can also make one more aware of the need or opportunity for intercession.

For my Africa Initiative project I have used small focus groups to study perspectives on conflict in Kenya and Uganda, convening men and women with different experiences of violence. These discussions didn’t focus on individual accounts of suffering. Instead, we spoke about general concerns, the work of national and international institutions, and possible assistance programs for victims in the future.

This methodological choice came with costs, however. First, although we always tried to be open and respectful, there were some topics that participants avoided in mixed group settings —the social exclusion and re-integration challenges faced by former Lord’s Resistance Army abductees, for instance, when in the presence of others in the community who had not been abducted.

Secondly, this group approach made it more difficult to get a sense of what everyday life is like for individuals who have been victimized, and the obstacles they face as a result. In the focus groups I didn’t get a clear sense of the ‘scenes of justice’ that individual participants may hold — in past research I found people often have imagined moments they feel will help address their sense of injustice, such as a confrontation with a perpetrator who asks for forgiveness or a proper burial for a loved one after retrieving their remains.

Exploring these imagined scenes can illuminate personal understanding of justice and repair, but doing so requires intimate questions that are not appropriate for group discussions.


I visited Eunice, in part, to address these gaps. But there was a second reason. Comments she made in the group discussion suggested that she was living in a particularly dire predicament. I wanted to see what her life was like and I was prepared to shift our interaction away from that of researcher and respondent. I wanted to give Eunice the opportunity to ask questions and make requests of me.

In Kibera, Eunice brought my research assistant and me to where she lived, a one-room dwelling that was slightly larger than the single bed it contained. All of Eunice’s possessions were laid out on wooden shelves above the head and foot of the bed, including a small stove and paraffin lamp, two containers of eating utensils, and pairs of second-hand shoes she hoped to sell for a small profit.

Eunice took down a photo collage and used the pictures to explain her life before the fire. She and her husband had come from the Kenyan countryside to Nairobi, where they found casual labour in the city and cheap rent in Kibera. In one picture she leaned against the white wall of their home, wearing a colourful flower-patterned dress, her arms bare, smiling. Other photos showed two young boys, with the second born just after Kenyans went to the polls in December 2007.

As many are aware, the contentious election results suggested that incumbent Mwai Kibaki would be defeated by Raila Odinga (whose riding included Kibera), yet the electoral commission eventually declared Kibaki the winner. Criminal gangs and enraged youth in some parts of the country turned on members of Kibaki’s ethnic group, the Kikuyu.

Eunice and her husband were not Kikuyu, but their landlord was. Eunice was inside her home with her sons when it was set on fire, and was badly burned before she was rescued. Her infant died in the fire and her two-year-old died several weeks later from injuries. By the time Eunice emerged from hospital weeks later, her husband had left her and she was unable to work; ever since she has been forced to do irregular tasks in Kibera to pay for food. She often goes days without eating. These days, she told me, her only pleasure is listening to prayer services on the radio.

In our focus group, Eunice discussed issues of accountability and reparations. But most of all, for herself, she wanted to earn a regular livelihood. That would restore some comfort and dignity to her life. As such I have decided to play a small role in helping Eunice improve her economic situation. I have bracketed this relationship off from my work as a researcher and don’t plan to use our ongoing communication for any of my studies.


I realize that there are debates among researchers about charitable actions. There are fears it could compromise objectivity, or create an expectation that research participation leads to financial assistance — though I believe these concerns can be mitigated.

I could also be accused of making an arbitrary decision: why help this one person and not others, or why not support a sustainable program that will help all people who face predicaments similar to Eunice? Those are fair criticisms. In a decade of work as a journalist and researcher with survivors of violence and poverty, however, I’ve developed a particular strategy. I have contributed to non-profit organizations that target issues at a general level, but where appropriate I try to reasonably assist individuals I have met.

It would be an interesting to hear from other researchers: what rules or ethical positioning do others take in relationships with people they meet during research? What role, if any, should researchers play in scenes of justice?

One Comment


  1. Research Ethics and Scenes of Justice – the anthropo.scene

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