COVID-19

Ethical Uncertainties in Times of Socially-Distanced Social Research By Alexa Dietrich and Joyce Rivera-Gonzalez

The Covid-19 pandemic continues to make its way to every corner of the world, into contexts rife with social inequity, wealth disparity, conflict, and human rights violations. As social researchers, we recognize there is much to be learned about the human experience in times of social isolation, viral anxieties, and—oftentimes racialized—biophysical violences. But in the rush to produce knowledge for what may seem like urgent reasons, it is important to pause and reflect on our own motivations, practices, and impacts. How can we ethically research “the social” in times of necessary social distancing? What are our obligations for self-monitoring and awareness, as health regulations are likely inadequate, and as already-marginalized communities bear such a disproportionate burden of illness and death? To what degree should resumption of a “normal” professional life even be a goal for social researchers?

As we consider conducting, or continuing, research during these times, a collective of disaster and medical anthropologists came together to grapple with  these questions, and to share our thoughts (Marino et al. 2020). In our recently published article, we argue that ethical quandaries that arise frequently in these two research specialties are similar to the ones that all anthropologists and social scientists must confront while researching during this historical moment. During a pandemic that, far from being a “great equalizer”, takes shape along the axes of race, class, gender, and citizenship, the distinctions between illness and healing, disaster and recovery, are not easily demarcated. Research planning and process, therefore, should not only be theoretical and methodological, but ethical as well, in ways that far extend beyond the standard Institutional Review Board (IRB) review process. This reflective, ethical pause needs to be an essential component of any research endeavor, regardless of the particular topic addressed by the project. 

Understanding how this pandemic is a continuation of marginalized communities’ already-precarious existences is critical to our practice, and remains an ethical imperative for all anthropologists. Similarly, many previous crises, whether in the form of disasters, hazard exposure, or epidemics, have unearthed the structures of inequality through which some groups are both made and then deemed more vulnerable than others to processes of acute stress. Researchers should understand the weight of these continuities while making decisions pertinent to our work. This necessitates, as some of our colleagues have posited before us, an honest reckoning with the social justice consequences of our work. Knowledge for knowledge’s sake alone cannot be a sufficient argument for research among communities who are suffering, nor is it a sufficient argument for simply documenting those who are actively and successfully challenging adversity.  

Health is inherently social, and our research needs to be, too. The Covid-19 pandemic has amplified the urgency to move beyond discussion towards the creation of new norms of ethical practice. One of the arguments we highlight in our upcoming article (Marino et al., forthcoming) is that risk calculations cannot accurately or ethically be an individual matter, but a collaborative exercise to be initiated and led by the people and communities with whom we work. Although we argue that we must utilize our knowledge and methods to understand the present moment, we also need to engage these methods and knowledges as a contribution to affected and at-risk communities, and allow them to determine whether we can or cannot co-produce knowledge alongside them—leaving it to them to determine whether we should be there at all. This means rejecting what we call “the complacency of bureaucratic approval,” embodied in the IRB process, recognizing that even the most seemingly-benign rules provided by research and funding institutions can drive our decision-making in ways that can overlook the needs of our subject communities or research partners. 

In this complicated research landscape, when institutions are limiting travel to only that which is deemed ‘essential’, are we the ones who should ultimately make this determination? We might also ask, ‘essential’ to whom? To our collaborators? To our institutions? To our careers? The difficulty here lies in grappling with the honest answers to these questions as we continue to face the (often disproportionate) neoliberal pressure to produce scholarly work and institutional reports—pressures that have plagued the academic and engaged social sciences since before the pandemic, and which have disproportionately affected female scholars of color. 

The pressure to conduct research has many sources, but we cannot ignore the stark inequalities within our own institutions that contribute to potentially unethical and unhealthy behavior, and that increase risk for researchers as well as communities of study. The pandemic has already shown itself to be an amplifier of inequality in hiring, publishing, departmental support, and every other potential area. Rather than fall prey to the pressure to participate in the system that is likely to continue to reward the most privileged among us, as colleagues it is imperative to demand better of our own institutions, and to leverage what privilege we have to support those whose choices are far more limited and surveilled. It means grappling ethically with normative notions of anthropological fieldwork, and how the current moment both troubles and renders these notions obsolete.

Since the time of writing the initial piece, a number of events have brought the concerns of our writing into even sharper relief. Nation- and worldwide protests sparked by George Floyd’s horrific murder have amplified calls for the dismantling of systemic racism, resonating throughout every industry, nation, and academic institutions. The academic world came to a grinding halt on June 10th, as Black scholars called for white and non-Black scholars of color to Shut Down Academia—avoid conducting meetings, classes, publishing, and any research activities—and instead reflect on how non-Black scholars have professionally benefited from these oppressive structures, and continue to do so. Moreover, this movement urges non-Black scholars to move beyond reflection, and actively work to develop initiatives of change.

As anthropologists, we belong to a discipline that has deep, colonial roots, which fostered and fueled erroneous ideas of culture, racial difference, cultural psyche, and ethnicity for decades. We must deal with the colonial underpinnings of our discipline that, as Archie Mafeje remarked in his 1997 paper “Who Are the Makers and Objects of Anthropology?”, oftentimes rendered ‘pioneering’ anthropologists and colonial administrations indistinguishable from each other. We need to reflect on how, until this very day, our discipline (especially in tenured and highly-competitive positions) continues to be overwhelmingly male and white across sub-fields: faculty and graduate students of color (primarily female scholars) are disproportionately over-burdened with institutional responsibilities of lower prestige and reward. 

In this day and age, being an ethical researcher necessitates actively working towards a discipline that is not only aware of inequities but that actively fights against them. Awareness is not enough. We are asking ourselves, and challenge our colleagues to do the same: what are the real social implications of the work we do at each step along the way? How do we grapple with these implications, both in the field and in our departments and institutions, and what can we do differently? The answers to these questions might be uncomfortable, but we encourage our colleagues to ‘sit’ with the discomfort—reflect on it, and engage critically with it. Only after we place these concerns front and center can we aspire to an anthropological practice that is truly engaged, ethical, and ultimately, transformative. 

Reference Cited:

Elizabeth Marino, Joyce Rivera-Gonzalez, Mara Benadusi, Alexa Dietrich, Mo Hamza, Alessandra Jerolleman, Adam Koons; COVID-19 and All the Things That Kill Us: Research Ethics in the Time of Pandemic. Practicing Anthropology 1 September 2020; 42 (4): 36–40. doi: https://doi.org/10.17730/0888-4552.42.4.36

About the authors:

Alexa S. Dietrich (alexa.dietrich@wagner.edu) is Program Director at the Social Science Research Council and Associate Professor of Anthropology at Wagner College.

Joyce Rivera-Gonzalez (joyce.n.rivera-gonzalez.1@nd.edu) is a graduate student and Kinesis-Fernandez Fellow at the University of Notre Dame. Her work explores how historically-marginalized communities in San Juan, Puerto Rico, navigate vulnerable ecologies after Hurricane María.

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