Research ethics: Respecting cultural values while trying to ‘do no harm’ in Pakistan


Image courtesy of zirconicusso /

I was invited to contribute an ethics case study for the “Ethical Research Involving Children: International Charter and Guidelines”. [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 my previous post I described the background context and ethical challenge. Here is a brief refresher:

When other researchers and myself have visited homes and schools in Pakistan for data collection, we are welcomed with the strong sense of hospitality that is a core part of Pakistani culture. Families and school representatives provide refreshments for research team members who visit them. 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 tea and food to visitors. However, for visitors to refuse families’ and schools’ hospitality – even if it is done in a gracious and respectful way – risked having negative effects on the relationships with the families and communities. Our research teams struggled with this. We have felt that the ethic of respecting cultural values and norms here was at odds with the research ethic of ‘do no harm’.

In today’s post I will share the choices we made and further considerations for reflection and discussion.

Choices Made:

We decided that we would try to graciously refuse food and refreshments, citing ‘organizational policy’ if needed so that research team members themselves would not be perceived personally as disrespectful of communities’ hospitality.

This was easier said than done. Despite our gentle insistence that we could not accept food and refreshments, families and school representatives would often arrange them anyway and place them in front of us. Perhaps our refusal was considered cursory, part of the cultural etiquette. At that point, when the cost and energy had already been spent in providing the refreshments, it would be considered very rude for us to refuse. Sometimes we would just accept one biscuit and leave the rest untouched – in the hopes that others, including children, might eat them later.

This issue is something with which other researchers and I continue to struggle. Our response to this issue continues to evolve as we understand and negotiate cultural expectations and relationships. We try to state right at the beginning that we cannot accept any tea or refreshments. Sometimes this works, but more often than not we are offered refreshments anyway. Either way, we make sure to give a gift of thanks at the end of the visit. We do not frame it as compensation but rather as a token of thanks. We try to ensure that the gift is something that the research participants would appreciate, and that in financial value it is equivalent to if not more than the financial expenses they would have incurred. For example, at a school, we may give a small bag of school supplies such as pencils, erasers, and crayons, which can be used by the children and teachers.

Reflexive Consideration:

It can be difficult to reconcile research ethics which are considered universal with the complex realities of the local contexts in which research is carried out. How do we manage it when cultural values and norms are at odds with a research ethic?

The case study here is an example of how research ethics can be complex in cultures which strongly value 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?

How do you integrate research ethics and the research process with cultural expectations and norms around interactions and relationships?

Is this something that could be discussed openly and honestly at a meeting with community representatives and elders? Is there a local ethics review board, or could one be established, to discuss and advise on such issues in light of local realities and cultural values and norms?

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

Sadaf Shallwani

See related post:

3 thoughts on “Research ethics: Respecting cultural values while trying to ‘do no harm’ in Pakistan

  1. This is such a great resource; thanks for posting. We just had a discussion about research ethics in one of my classes and noted that it’s very different when you’re doing work that’s even remotely ethnographic in nature because the assumptions that you’re bringing to the table re: what it means to be ethical may be in direct conflict the norms of a community. But we come up against the same issues even in the same culture when it comes to working with underserved populations who are SO grateful to have any attention and often go way too far in terms of trying to accommodate the researchers (this was an issue when I was an MA student — our lab worked with some Aboriginal Canadians). The compensation issue is also interesting, because you don’t want to imply that they “need” your help, but you want to show your appreciation by giving something and it’s not always clear how to tackle the issue properly. I don’t think that there’s any one answer, but I guess I would say that establishing dialogue with a representative of the community, explaining the principles from the researcher’s ethical perspective (and indeed, obligation) and then listening to the representative’s concerns and trying to come to an understanding is key. I think that people try to avoid these potentially awkward encounters, but they are instrumental to making sure that everyone’s integrity is maintained and respected throughout the research process.

    • Janet, you’re right, these issues come up even here in North America. It’s perhaps even more complex here given the diversity of cultural values, norms, and expectations.

      I agree that speaking to community elders / leaders / representatives could be a good starting point to working through some of these concerns.

      I don’t think as researchers we get enough guidance or give enough thought to these types of ethical concerns. I’m glad that at least in international documents / discussions, these conversations are starting to happen, but I think they need to happen more in North America as well.

      Any thoughts on the consent / assent matter? If welcoming and helping a guest is culturally expected or required, then how can we as researchers determine if consent is truly voluntary?

      Thanks again Janet – I really appreciate your comments and thoughts!

      • I don’t think we truly can, unfortunately. I think we have to approach it from integrity on our side, in terms of getting to know community leaders and members before we just “jump in” and take advantage of the fact that they will be accommodating as a matter of practice. This way, at least, you are trying to establish some trust and an actual relationship rather than just “taking” what you came for so readily and knowing that you will get it (i.e, and don’t even need to put in the effort given the cultural prescription to welcome us). In other words, we can control our behavior, at least. This idea still makes me uncomfortable, though. Just because we try to get to know a community and its needs still doesn’t mean they are interested in our research/interventions. I would love to hear more thoughts on this. J.

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