Chapter 4: Research Ethics Beyond the Binaries of Right and Wrong
Marie Dallam [+]
University of Oklahoma
This essay explores ethical issues scholars may confront when doing field research on religious groups. In recent decades, institutional review boards and professional associations of many fields have sought increasing amounts of control over research procedures, with a goal of protecting research subjects from harm (either intentional or unintentional). In some cases, this results in carefully thought out researchers’ plans because of the increased oversight, but in many cases, such preparations cannot anticipate the unpredictable realities of the field, and find that no viable choice feels precisely ‘right’. The author discusses a range of potential ethical situations involving fieldwork on religious communities. It specifically examines past examples from scholars who felt there were no clear ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ answers, only a range of choices with varying consequences. In some cases, scholars have been pleased with their chosen course of action, while in others they have regrets. Exploring the puzzles of these examples makes it all the more clear that sometimes we only have a vast grey area of behaviour to choose from, and calling a given decision ‘ethical’ or ‘unethical’ is a matter of political justification. Research examples include covert and overt research, researcher relationships with subjects, participation in religious ceremonies, and disclosure of sensitive material.