A UK researcher in Aotearoa New Zealand: ethical practice

by Rosalind Edwards

I spent the UK winter-spring/ANZ summer-autumn of 2014 on a Leverhulme Trust International Academic Fellowship at the University of Otago, with the aims of learning about kaupapa Māori research and carrying out a small project on fathers’ experiences of bringing up ‘mixed’ race children.  This research was not about Māori fathers of mixed children per se, but this is a common situation in Aotearoa New Zealand.  I applied for ethical approval for the project from the ethics committee at my home university, the University of Southampton.  No problems were raised with my application and it was approved as ethical research practice.

Once in Aotearoa New Zealand, having read more deeply and had discussions with Māori and other colleagues about kaupapa Māori research approaches, the ethics of my research became subject to question.  I wondered about my University judging my research practice as ethical when – to my knowledge – none of my thoughtful reviewer colleagues know much about the ANZ context.  I was faced with a strong response from some Māori researchers I met that my project was not ethical; indeed some saw it as replicating colonialising practices.  I am not out of sympathy with this viewpoint: I arrive from the UK, impose a model of (ethical) governance, grab resources (data) that belong to someone else (see later), use them for my own benefit, and then disappear off again.

There are several disjunctures raised in posing my research as colonising and questioning my practice as ethical, including between the nature of knowledge and notions of and bases for ethical practice.

Along with other institutions, my University operates with an assumption that a person’s knowledge and experiences are theirs – that they assess the pros and cons of disclosure and consent (or not) to participate in research as individuals (unless deemed ‘vulnerable’).  This is an individualistic notion of the nature of knowledge.  In contrast, as I understand it, a broad Māori understanding of the nature of knowledge is that it belongs to the collective – the wider family/sub-tribe/tribe.  A researcher does not (just) get consent from the individual to participate in their research because their knowledge about Māori life and experiences is not their individual possession.

I have not seen a UK University ethics form that asks whether or not the applicant for ethical approval has consulted with the population to be studied about carrying out the research and whether or not it is considered by them to be a useful piece of work.  But as I understand it, that is a standard sort of question on ANZ ethics application forms.  So on that governance count alone, while my research had been judged ethical in the UK, it may not be ethical from a governance point of view in ANZ, and it is unethical from a kaupapa Māori sympathetic perspective.

Accountability is a strong element of ethical research practice. As it has been explained to me, the fact that Māori will introduce themselves by elaborating their ancestry and land connections locates them in a web of interconnected relationships and responsibilities.  This makes them accountable to their research subjects in a very different way.  If they act in a way that harms the community, then it is not just their reputation that will suffer, but the whole of their extended family will be involved in that currently and into the future. In contrast, in ‘Western’ models of ethical practice, primary accountability is to professional and institutional codes of practice.  If a researcher acts badly then their University and professional association will see that as a breach of academic/disciplinary regulations, but it is the researcher as an individual who bears the damaged reputation.  The researcher’s accountability to research subjects is limited to the relevant legislation about ownership and use of data. The ‘message’ of the research is not bad behaviour in itself.

So, I am not accountable in a Māori sense.  While I may be held accountable institutionally and professionally, my ‘personal’ connections are not involved.  Thus I may behave ethically according to UK practice, but that does not mean I am behaving ethically in the kaupapa Māori sense.