Workshop Dec 2019

                       December 2019 in Cambridge


How can we translate ethically sound practice in development-focused research into good teaching?

by Dr Rama Dieng and Dr Ann Wagner

In this blog post, Dr Rama Dieng and Dr Ann Wagner ask questions triggered by a workshop on “Teaching Qualitative Research Methods for Development Studies: Problems, Pedagogies and Best Practices”. The workshop was organized by Dr Georgia Cole and took place at the Margaret Anstee Centre for Global Studies/ Newnham College, University of Cambridge, on 5thand 6thDecember 2019[1].  As early-career researchers, we do not have easy answers – we would love to take this opportunity to start a discussion with fellow lecturers and teachers of Development Studies and hear from more experienced colleagues!

In recent years, concerns about research ethics have begun to figure more prominently in debates on the study of humanitarian and development issues and with vulnerable populations. Funding schemes like the Global Challenges Research Fund encourage collaborative knowledge production together with academics in developing countries. In turn, this has pushed UK-based scholars to reflect anew on power inequalities which shape relationships between “here” and “there”, the Global North and the Global South, researchers and study subjects. In addition, there seems to be greater awareness now of how responsibilities of care – assuring that our research benefits (or, at the least, does no harm to) our interlocutors – are intertwined with issues of self-care: how do we, and our students, keep ourselves safe in the field?

Perhaps unsurprisingly, much of this important thinking is done by and for early-career, female scholars and academics of colour, i.e. those who (for the foreseeable future) might not hold big grants, but bear the brunt of doing fieldwork on the ground – and teaching aspiring ethnographers in the classroom. (For example, check out The New Ethnographer, an excellent project that combines blog posts by postgraduate students with offline panel discussions and workshops.) Young academics, it seems, are not looking for one-size-fits-all solutions, but for learning from localized fieldwork scenarios that their peers have learned to navigate. However, what seems to be mostly absent from contemporary debates on research ethics is knowledge sharing about how to translate ethically sound practice in development-focused research into good teaching. This becomes particularly relevant at a time when study programmes at British universities are increasingly pressured to deliver hands-on, applied experience that will increase students’ employability.

Compared to other postgraduate programmes in Development Studies in the UK, what is special about Edinburgh’s MSc International Development and MSc Africa and International Development is the possibility of a placement-based dissertation (PBD). For their MSc dissertation, our students can opt for up to eight weeks of on-location research with a host organisation in Africa, South and South East Asia, the Middle East, Latin America or the UK. While some of our MSc students already look back on a career in the development sector or have previously studied social sciences, for others, it is the first time they hear about research ethics. While they prepare their fieldwork, we clearly emphasize that we need to stop romanticising “the field”, which is not always in a far-away exotic country. For some researchers like Rama, “the field” is also home. As teachers, we also explain to our students that fieldwork (whether through WBP or through student’s own initiative) is a privilege rather than an entitlement. On location, many students use qualitative research methods like interviews, focus groups and participant observation. Often, they draw on networks with development organisations that members of staff have built during their own work.

For those of us who teach in the MSc International Development and MSc Africa and International Development, this raises new challenges: how do we encourage students to conduct productive, safe and ethically sound fieldwork in humanitarian settings? How do we deal with students’ different levels of pre-existing research methods training? Please find below a set of themes and questions that we would like to start discussing with you.

How do we manage students’ expectations about future careers: from idealizing development to cynicism? Many students come to the University of Edinburgh highly motivated to embark on future careers in the development sector, be it with the United Nations, governments or local NGOs. During term 1 of their one-year MSc programme, they take core courses such as Politics and Theories of International Development and People First: The Anthropology of International Development. In these classes, they learn about complicated histories of development and the entanglements of aid with (neo)colonial and neoliberal projects, through a combination of foundational readings and concrete case studies. At times, the first semester of their MSc leaves students frustrated and hopeless: is development beyond saving? Does nothing work? Then, in the second semester, courses such as Interpreting Development: Institutions and Practices, Research Design and Practice, and Governance, Development and Poverty in Africa, equip them with the key methodological and practical tools that they will need to figure out by themselves what the tensions and potentialities are between “doing” and “understanding” development.

Questions we need to ask ourselves as lecturers are: How do we navigate students’ changing expectations and emotions about their field of study? How do we avoid damage-centred teaching, showcasing instead positive outliers, diverse practices and attempts at reforming the development sector from within? How do we enable students to engage in meaningful ways with concrete local, national or international development projects?

How can we demystify research ethics? As many of us might agree, ethical practice in the field often equates to doing, rather than talking, ethics: to providing fair pay to our interlocutors and research assistants; to recognizing and value local expertise and knowledge; to taking a step back when our research creates new vulnerabilities for the people we work, and often live, with, and so on. How do we communicate these inconspicuous best practices? Does teaching ideal-type research methods set up students for failure in real life? In other words, how do we prepare students for the messiness of fieldwork?

First, and on the most basic level, this means helping students explain the purpose of their research: “What is the point of your project?” It implies discussing with students that fieldwork is always transactional and involves navigating not simply our own, but also our interlocutors’ expectations about research outcomes. How can we encourage students to spot opportunities for “giving back”, not through grand gestures, but through mundane and practical actions that will do no harm, e.g. through providing translation, helping access aid or teaching English?

Second, we should think more carefully about where and when we teach research ethics. Do we count on students to pick up “good methods” during core courses, which, incidentally, is often when we share insights from our personal fieldwork? How can we ensure greater integration between thematic core courses and classes on research methods? One way to give students a better sense of what awaits them in the field might be through role-plays and real-life scenarios. This has been very useful in courses such as Researching International Development (OL) where other colleagues have been invited to share their experiences of “the field”.

Third, how do we sharpen students’ understanding of the importance of ethics and power – from the very inception of a research project? Especially when it comes to short-term research and to postgraduate students, ethics is often treated as a tick box exercise, a last-minute form to complete before fieldwork starts. If we would like our students to understand that ethical considerations should inform research design, when do we start talking about ethics? How do we communicate to students that ethics is an ongoing, and iterative process that happens not only in the field, but also with regard to how and with whom we choose to share and disseminate our research outputs, and whether and how we choose to “give back”? If we encourage students to enter field sites and contact interlocutors through humanitarian partner organisations, how do we stop them from taking this kind of access for granted? In other words, how do we teach them that refugees (and other vulnerable populations) are not at their service? How do we make our students understand from the very beginning that claims to knowledge are claims to power, and that they should therefore pay attention to the politics of research and methods, as well as positionality? Finally, given the pressure on students to acquire hands-on experience, how do we open up discussions on alternatives to doing fieldwork (e.g. archival research)?

Fourth, let’s emphasize another dimension that is unique about Edinburgh’s study programmes: that they create an opportunity for students to become future brokers of knowledge. Our MSc students can choose option courses from a wide range of departments within the School of Social and Political Science, and across other schools. How can we enable them to recognize different types of expertise and epistemologies? How do we decolonise ways of knowing and ways of teaching in and beyond classrooms? What can we learn from indigenous and feminist methodologies? How do we teach our students epistemic disobedience and make possible radically interdisciplinary encounters?

How do we take development out of the classroom? On a final note, the timing of the workshop that we attended could not have been better. Taking place in the second week of the UCU strike about the future of the pension scheme in December 2019, it stimulated discussions about the neoliberalisation of British universities among workshop participants – and, by extension, about how we could encourage students to put into conversation critical insights from their academic curricula with development(s) in their site of study, and homes. Teaching development goes beyond transmitting core concepts and recent debates, and getting practical experience on students’ CVs. It also means enabling students to become intellectual citizens of the international cooperation and aid community, brave and smart enough to challenge development buzzwords and identify and address power and wealth inequalities.


Figure 1 [in Header]: Participants of the workshop on “Teaching Qualitative Research Methods for Development Studies: Problems, Pedagogies and Best Practices” at the University of Cambridge, December 2019

Figure 2: Taking development outside the classroom – Dr Rama Dieng and students of the MSc Africa and International Development


[1]The workshop received funding from the Development Studies Association UK (DSA-UK). Many thanks to Dr Georgia Cole and fellow workshop participants for two days of thought-provoking discussions!