How to create a code of conduct for moral fieldwork in research? Any researcher who has just returned from the field is likely to share an ethical challenge they encountered there. They’ll probably claim that their level of preparation fell short. Let’s learn some insights on how to have a code of conduct for moral fieldwork in research.
Regardless of the academic subject, problems arise when researchers are out of their workstations and engaging with individuals in different positions and require immediate, values-based judgments to be made. Uneven power relations may develop between researchers and communities or partners, equal in the physical sciences when research is not centered on human participation. This calls for knowledge on how to handle these ethical imbalances while adapting to various circumstances.
How to create a code of conduct for moral fieldwork in research?
Institutions fall short of providing appropriate support for morally sound field research. So, in order to assist researchers in achieving excellence, ethics, and well-being while doing fieldwork, we set out to create a code of conduct. What was initially a straightforward assignment that grew into a massive operation that went beyond the confines of our university? This demonstrated how crucial and necessary the code is.
Here, we discuss how we created the code, what worked, and the lessons we picked up along the road.
Acting after activism
The code of conduct was inspired by anti-racism action at Oxford University’s School of Geography and the Environment. A group of graduate students, including co-author Laura Picot, suggested to the department a “template for change” to eradicate systematic racism in the wake of George Floyd’s murder and the emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement. A flurry of activity was sparked by this, including the commissioning and funding of this code of conduct.
In order to combat racism when conducting fieldwork for geography study, we set out to create a code of conduct. We had no idea where we would go.
Using participation in the process to draw on the experience
Beginning with peer-reviewed literature and more than 60 fieldwork guidelines from international organizations, including universities, research institutions, funding agencies, and NGOs, we conducted a gap analysis. With a few exceptional exceptions, such as the San Code of Research Ethics, we discovered that the experiences of ethical difficulties described in the peer-reviewed literature were quite varied and had been inadequately translated into recommendations. We realized the breadth of our code needed to extend beyond anti-racism and our department after noticing a significant gap in the guidelines.
We first created the code using a more comprehensive cross-disciplinary and ethical framework, and then we asked field researchers from both Global North and Global South nations to participate in focus groups to amend the code at various career levels.
We sent out invitations to participate in these talks through our professional networks, and the response was overwhelmingly positive. With the writers of other fieldwork ethics guidelines, we conducted video consultations. We learned how to improve and hone the language to make it more useful across fields and cultures from the range and depth of expertise given.
We sought the department research committee for approval after we had a strong draft, believing that our work was finished. We had no idea the splash the code would cause.
Increasing and putting into practice
We began to consider how to scale up and use the code. In September 2021, Laura presented it at the Royal Geographic Society (RGS) conference, where it won praise from fieldwork specialists throughout the world. Momentum then increased rapidly.
The research and ethical committees at the university exhibited interest at all levels, from departments to the pro vice chancellor for research. Following 18 months of work, the code was authorized as a university-level guideline after 12 further rounds of revision based on input from prominent university scholars.
The code, which has now been formally introduced, was produced by the University of Oxford and is available online at RGS as model advice for moral fieldwork. We offer ad hoc training in other fieldwork-intensive departments and require it for master’s and first-year Ph.D. students in our department, utilizing the code as the primary reference. The code is being implemented for usage in all university departments, and academics from universities throughout the world are adopting it.
Code of conduct for moral fieldwork in research: takeaways
1. From activism to practical action: There is sometimes a lot of talk about advancing ideals but little action. Although there is a lot of bureaucracy, it is possible!
2. Using existing knowledge: The focus groups we held with a variety of specialists were quite helpful.
3. To get the word out, we used a variety of avenues, such as speaking at events, offering training, engaging with groups like the RGS, and collaborating with the university’s media staff.
4. Be prepared for the duration and expense of the project by creating a realistic timeframe and budget for developing the guidelines, from beginning to end, taking all necessary activities into consideration.
5. Building on solid work: It was crucial for us to analyze current regulations and develop connections with those who had created effective frameworks. No need to reinvent the wheel existed for us.
6. Get supporters on board by identifying champions who will promote your work to people in decision-making positions and who are supportive of your efforts inside your organization.
7. Have a defined impact-assessment method for measuring the impact of your work. Our paper has a DOI, making it citable, and we receive feedback from our training seminars.
8. Make sure the team is the right size by clearly defining each member’s responsibilities and time commitments, as well as their respective roles and expectations.
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