Research ethics: Implementing international guidelines in complex local realities

globe on book

Image courtesy of digitalart /

Many of us who engage in research with children, especially in diverse contexts of the world, often struggle with ethical concerns. In response to this, a group of international researchers has been developing an international set of guidelines and considerations for ethical research with children. The document “Ethical Research Involving Children: International Charter and Guidelines” is being authored by Anne Graham, Nicola Taylor, and Mary Ann Powell, who engaged in a wide consultative process in which many international researchers were able to contribute and give feedback. The document along with an accompanying website will be published in the coming months by UNICEF Innocenti Research Centre and Childwatch International Research Network. However, it is a complicated and evolving process to try to implement ‘international’ research ethics guidelines in complex local realities.

I was asked to contribute an ethics case study for this document and website. With their permission, I am reproducing the case study here for my readers. [UPDATE Oct. 30, 2013: The charter has now been published and can be found with additional resources at this website: Ethical Research Involving Children.]

In today’s post I will post the background context and the ethical challenge. In my next post I will share the choices made and further considerations for reflection and discussion.

Background Context:

In many cultures around the world, hospitality is a strong value. This is the case in Pakistan. The ethic of hospitality means that guests are treated with great respect and honour, and hosts will go out of their way to give their time and help to visitors. Guests are given tea, snacks, and sometimes even a full meal, to honour their visit. The cultural expectation of the guest is to accept this hospitality graciously, often after an initial cursory refusal.

Through my work with different organizations in Pakistan, I have had the opportunity to visit homes, schools, and communities in different parts of the country with other research team members. When our research teams visit homes and schools in Pakistan, we are welcomed with this strong sense of hospitality. Families and school representatives prepare or make arrangements for refreshments for research team members who visit them.

The Ethical Challenge:

This value of hospitality is strong in Pakistani communities – even from, and perhaps especially from, families and schools that are struggling financially. Arrangements for refreshments can be a financial strain on families and schools that are already struggling to make ends meet. At schools, the arrangements often involve pulling female teachers and female students out of classroom activities to prepare and serve refreshments to visitors.

However, to refuse families’ and communities’ hospitality – even if it is done in a gracious and respectful way – risks being perceived negatively. The refusal may be perceived at best as cursory (cultural etiquette where you first say no but then accept), and at worst as disrespectful. It could negatively affect the relationship with communities, limiting the willingness and openness of potential research participants to share their time and perspectives in the research process. Also, the offering and accepting of tea and refreshments provides a culturally familiar space and time in which informal conversation and interaction can happen, easing some of the formality around the research process for both the prospective research participants and the research team.

My research colleagues and I struggled – and continue to struggle – with these ethical contradictions. How could we maintain the ethic of respecting cultural values and norms, while at the same time  maintain the research ethic of ‘do no harm’?

We had the following choices. We could accept families’ and schools’ hospitality graciously, acknowledging the strain it places on them. We also considered accepting the hospitality but offering compensation for their inconvenience (e.g., giving money to cover the costs of the tea or refreshments) – but were told by community members that this could be viewed as insulting. Alternately, we could refuse families’ and schools’ hospitality altogether, risking being perceived as ungracious and disrespectful.

What would you do? Please share your thoughts and ideas.

In my next post, I will share with you the (imperfect) choices we made and further considerations for reflection and discussion.

Sadaf Shallwani

See related post:

4 thoughts on “Research ethics: Implementing international guidelines in complex local realities

  1. This is a very interesting observation and thanks for bringing it up.

    I have been engaged in research and M&E work in the rural communites of Kenya for close to 10 years now and I very much identify with what you are discussing. Of course it is a huge dilemna. I would ahve advised you to compensate but as you put it, according to that community in Pakistan it is perceived as insulting. I would find tactful ways of compensating so that I do not appear like I am paying back.I would not compensate immediately since if I do that they would associate it with the hospitality that they have shown.

    In every community there are a few people (even in areas where the level of education may be low) that you can talk to before yyou talk to the whole community. For example as you go you discuss with him/her and let them know you have just had snacks so they should not bother. You should be open with the leaders and let them know that you are not being unkind to attend meetings after snacking. Of course you risk being perceived as “”too rich to share in our meals/refreshments” but I believe if you approached opinion leaders first and have them understand what your behaviour it may help to some extent

  2. Hi Dan,

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts and suggestions.

    As you may have already seen in my more recent post (, we tried something like what you suggest – tactful ‘compensation’.

    I agree that speaking with community representatives is an important component of building a long-term research relationship.

    I find that once a particular school or a community gets used to research visits, they don’t seem to insist as strongly on the refreshments. So perhaps as the relationship is established or the research process becomes more familiar, the initial emphasis on hospitality reduces somewhat.

    Thanks again for your thoughts.


  3. Thanks Dan and Sadaf. I find your concerns here quite interesting since as much as I’ve been involved in research in Kenyan context for a short while, being a Kenyan who grew up in rural context, I identify with those who offer some food to the “guests”. It is purely a cultural issue such as other cultural issues in research…for example, dressing code, edited language (for example ensuring that your questionnaire indicates “gender” instead of “sex” when seeking to understand personal background of your interviewees since if you used the term “sex” on the questionnaire, it will be offensive to the community. Ideally you will write the term “gender” knowing very well that this is not what you are looking for but it is what will make you be “acceptable” to your respondents for the sake of your research). The hosts that give food look at it from the perspective of “welcoming their guests”, and it is not burdensome to them, though as a researcher from a different context, you may look at it as “burdensome” and also unethical.

    This also differs from one community to another with some showing “more hospitality” than others. An example I have is a case where I was part of the team supporting Boston college (from US) to conduct research in some rural community in Kenya. To my surprise, they did not only offer us drinks in terms of bottles of sodas, but they also bought gifts to each researcher, which they presented in an abruptly organized ceremony. Reading the mood of the students, teachers and community leaders then, it became difficult to refuse, but then, the team from Boston College went back and came again later with pens and t-shirts which they gave so many of the members of the school. I think this is the “compensation” element being referred to here.

    With time, some of these practices will be less and less, but for now, if you find yourself in Sadaf’s situation, just try explaining in advance that you will arrive when already “full”/satisfied and should they still offer you some food stuff, do not insist not to taking the meals since it may severe your relationship with the respondents in your research, hence negatively affect it. You’ll make more friends taking the meals, and get more information that you need than refusing.

    • Dear Salome,

      Thank you very much for your thoughtful comments. The example you describe with an American college team going to Kenya is similar to experiences my colleagues and I have had. Your suggested actions also make sense to me, for the same reasons you explain.

      In a later post I wrote about how consent is also blurry in cultures with strong traditions of hospitality. (

      “Hospitality not only places a strain on the hosting families and communities, but it also often makes it difficult for families and communities to ‘refuse consent’ when guests have entered their home or community. If welcoming and helping a guest is culturally expected – even required, then how can you know if consent is truly voluntary? This applies even more strongly in the case of children. Children are raised with these same values, to welcome and help guests, and in addition, to respect their elders. In this context, can a child truly refuse to participate in an interview or other research activity? And if they cannot refuse, then is their consent or assent really voluntary? How can we know?”

      What are your thoughts on this matter of consent?

      Thanks again!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s