Dealing with discomfort: how to move from theory to action in research ethics?

By Marketta Vuola and Aina Brias Guinart

How do we lift the words on a page that describe how we ought to conduct ourselves, to connect more directly with the intention of those ethical principles and practices in concrete, meaningful ways?”. Bannister (2018)

As PhD students in the early phase of our academic careers we are struggling to address this type of questions in our research projects. Seeking guidance we are reading formal codes of ethics such as the Code of Ethics of the International Society of Ethnobiology. Much has been written on this area particularly on the application of the Free, Prior and Informed Consent (e.g. Medinaceli 2018). Even so, ethical research is much more than a set of rules and codes, and it not restricted to specific practices such as consent forms (Wilmé, at al., 2016). We believe that, if we aim to do research that truly breaks the colonial power dynamics, we need to do it from the earliest steps of the research process. We should carefully consider the power structures that we are producing and reproducing in the decisions we make about our approach, research questions and methods.

In this text we want to discuss the challenges of doing this in practice in the phase of research design. Particularly, we want to highlight certain obstacles that may steer us deeper in the colonial ways of thinking and doing and that we should be extremely wary about. We will discuss these obstacles through stories from our scoping trip in Madagascar, in late 2018, of situations we ended up in for which it is hard to find advice in research guide books.

“Now, you have one question each.”

The first one of our stories brings us to our first week in Antananarivo, the capital of Madagascar. We had managed to set up a meeting with the president of a federation of rural community associations. Until then, our meetings in the capital with environmental NGOs and other organizations had followed a pretty similar pattern where we would ask questions and the Malagasy experts would explain their views to us in French. But that meeting was something different. When we entered the room, it was like stepping into a space far away from the capital: a rural, traditional Madagascar, a hut of a village king. We sat down and introduced ourselves to the president with the help of his Malagasy translator. Then he started talking. He did not want to know what we were interested in but explained the work of the federation for two hours. At the end, he gave us time for one question each. We were taken by surprise. This had not happened to us before in Madagascar or anywhere else in countries of Africa or Asia where we had worked. In such settings, we usually had led – and had been expected to lead – the discussion and ask the questions. Being able to ask only one question in an interview and not being able to ask for clarifications felt bizarre and slightly disappointing at first. However, later on, we realized that maybe that was exactly how we would feel if the power structures were turned around: we would not have the power to steer the conversation and extract information on topics that we felt were meaningful.

What may have felt confusing and slightly uncomfortable to us at first was a valuable lesson informing us in finding the right research questions. Ones that would rise in an inductive fashion from the discourses of the stakeholders of our research. Particularly the ones who have been systematically ignored. Tuhiwai Smith (2012) discusses the questions that the researched Maori community asked from the researchers: “How can research ever address our needs as indigenous peoples if our questions are never taken seriously? It was as if the community’s questions were never heard, simply passed over, silenced.”

“How many people do you need?”

Our second story happens at the edge of a National Park in Eastern Madagascar. We were visiting the area to see whether this could be a potential case study for us. We arrived, and we met the local environmental NGO, found guides and translators and packed our camping equipment to spend some days in remote villages. Before leaving, we met with our local assistants to go through our aims and approach and agreed on their tasks. We highlighted that we were not collecting data in any structured way such as a survey or a set of interviews but rather our aim was to just have the first contact: meet the chiefs and have casual conversations with the villagers. The next day, we set out for a hike to the villages. When we arrived, our guides asked us how many people we would need. We were confused until we realized they expected us to hold a focus group or do a survey where we would need a certain number of individuals. We explained, politely, that we did not need any specific number of people right now, that we had nothing prepared. However, after a short while, our guide asked us again: “How many people do you need?”. And at that point we realized that we had not succeeded in explaining our approach and even though it ended well, probably they are still wondering what our aim was.

As we know, translators and field assistants can have a strong influence on the research. It seems that previously done research in an area does not only result in potential research fatique but it also shapes the expectations of local people, including those hired as guides and translators, of what researchers do and what their relationship with local people will be. Our story illustrates one of the situations where we have to be careful not to be dragged to a conventional research practice that is embedded in the interactions between of all of us participating in research in different roles.

“Moving from a state of self-reflection and culpability to a state of action”?*

In conducting a research – especially one that involves interactions across different worldviews, needs and expectations – challenges are inevitable. And the relationships between research participants will always be influenced by the colonial baggage of our disciplines. More and more, other researchers and us are acknowledging the power structures involved in research – and yet we are finding ourselves in situations where we end up reproducing the very same structures. Despite the growing literature of the pitfalls of decolonizing research in theory, we are missing accounts of how researchers have dealt with these questions in practice. Sharing these may require researchers to deal with their own discomforts and shortcomings and by sharing ours we would like to open discussion to find different approaches.

*Armstrong and McAlvay (2019)

Marketta Voula and Aina Brias Guinart are PhD researchers at the University of Helsinki. Aina Brias Guinart focuses on Education, Impact Evaluation and Biodiversity Conservation, and Marketta Vuola on the Political Ecology of the clashes between Artisanal Mining and Conservation – both especially in protected areas in Madagascar.


Armstrong, C. G. and McAlvay A. C. (2019). Introduction to Special Section on Action Ethnobiology. Journal of Ethnobiology 39(1).

Bannister, K. (2018). From Ethical Codes to Ethics as Praxis: An Invitation. Ethnobiology Letters, 9(1), 30-43.

Medinaceli, A. (2018). Taking an Early Step in Ethnobiological Research: A Proposal for Obtaining Prior and Informed Consent from Indigenous Peoples. Ethnobiology Letters 9(1):76–85.

Tuhiwai Smith, L. (2012).  Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples. Zed Books Ltd, London & New York and University of Otago Press, Dunedin.

Wilmé, L., Waeber, P. O., Moutou, F., Gardner, C. J., Razafindratsima, O., Sparks, J., Kull, C. A., Ferguson, B., Lourenço, W. R.,  Jenkins, P. D., Ramamonjisoa, L., Burney, D. A., & Lowry, P. P. (2016). A proposal for ethical research conduct in Madagascar. Madagascar Conservation & Development, 11(1).

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