Whose Consent?

Today as part of my LFS 350 readings, I read this article detailing the experiences of researchers, mostly students, working with Northern indigenous communities and the trials they faced balancing the needs of their work with the requirements of ethics boards. The article focuses especially on conflicts which can occur between the boards’ standards on the one hand and the customs of aboriginal communities on the other. The conclusion the article comes to is that researchers should be given more leeway, particularly in the field, in the methods of negotiating consent. Moreover, it would be far more efficient for boards to allow previous consent forms and other documents to be edited and reused, rather than starting each project from scratch. I believe that the article is quite correct on this point. Indeed, it reveals a lot about the strict and unyielding ways in which consent is conceived of in universities in general and academic research in particular.

A frequently-cited example of an obstacle was that researchers realized that written consent forms and anonymity conflicted with traditionally accepted methods of interaction in these communities. It was considered disrespectful to not cite a person who gave you certain knowledge, or to require further contract when oral consent had already been given. This begs the question – given the extreme focus on consent, should it not be rooted in the way consent works in the real world, especially given the heavy academic and even legal penalties which can result if consent is not considered to be present in research. Take this statement by a researcher who had developed close relationships in the community, saying that they had even begun to consider her a friend:

“From an empiricist standpoint, this would be coercion but from my feminist and post-modern perspective this is reality and the lived experience of conducting research . . . in a small northern community. I wondered whether anyone would refuse consent considering I was thought of as one of their co-workers?”

It seems ridiculous to consider consent to be so narrowly present that only contracts can communicate it. Indeed, in the case of practices like written contracts which can violate cultural mores, certain regulations of the ethics boards makes consent harder to obtain than it would otherwise be. While realizing the need for ethical oversight, it seems certain that reconsiderations need to be made.

A comment in the article that I found interesting was the mentioning of requiring community consent and not only individual consent, due to less distinctions in aboriginal cultures between these notions. It caused me to think, however, of situations where the former may undermine research. This is especially true if we are investigating the views of community members on the way in which things are being run, asking questions about leadership and corruption, and investigating topics which community leaders may have vested interests in keeping out of the public eye. Community consent interpreted as consent of the leaders (chiefs, elders, etc)  may in fact have drastic effects in these areas. It also fails to realize that the person within these communities does in fact have individual agency, and refusing to acknowledge this inhibits research and is quite plainly dishonest.

It’s clear that this issue is one most of us will have to face at some point, if we haven’t already. Hopefully we will be fortunate enough to be dealing with more enlightened people on the ethics boards. While keeping consent in mind, it’s essential that it not be legalized and formalized into an abstraction. The results can end up making the whole project an exercise in futility.

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