Sunday, February 08, 2009

Dispute on Collaborative Ethics for Research With Indigenous Peoples within Indigenous Peoples Specialty Group

The concerns raised regarding the Bowman Expedition project(s) have led to a wider debate on ethics in research. One IPSG poster comments "What disturbs me the most is the fact that so many members of the academic community are ready to believe very serious allegations made against their colleagues without a second thought. Don’t we routinely teach our students to be critical of information found on the web, especially when it comes from an unknown source?

They further comment: "On the subject of ethics, I would like to point out that the AAG 'Statement on Professional Ethics' states that members should refuse to 'spread unfounded accusations and rumors about colleagues' (2005, p. 1). The wide circulation of the accusations through AAG outlets without any effort to corroborate them or contact the people involved has given them some degree of credibility. The reputations of fellow geographers have been badly and to some degree irreversibly damaged, something that will likely affect their careers (and potentially those of their graduate students) for many years. The institutions involved have been tarnished. The discipline as a whole may even suffer. If good research can be so easily discredited, academic freedom is also in the balance. If we assume that all indigenous leaders are inherently noble and do not have the ability to construct discourses that manipulate the truth to advance their ambitions, then we are all vulnerable. This is another form of essentialism."

And further: "Receiving funding from military sources for research in geography, political science, psychology or any other branch of the social sciences is clearly controversial and merits debate. But we should keep in mind that the field of cultural geography has benefited significantly from the Office of Naval Research program that funded the field research of Carl Sauer and many other prominent geographers from the late 1940s to the late 1960s (see Herlihy et al., 2008 in the Geographical Review, volume 98, issue 3). As far as I know their research did not contribute to military operations or cause the loss of life. A careful analysis might indeed show that it had the opposite effect. Through the México Indígena project I learned first-hand that there are decent people employed in the military, people who are distressed by mistakes of the past and who want to make a positive difference from within by giving us “university types” a chance to show them what we can do and how we do it. But if funding from military offices is deemed immoral, perhaps we should consider the United States government as a whole. Many of the conflicts that have occurred around the world were initiated by people in elected offices, not by people in the military. Does that mean we should refuse funding from the Fullbright program, which is sponsored by the State Department? I don’t think so, but maybe others do."

I agree with this last comment: "These issues need to be debated, but should be debated respectfully without vilifying people who have views that differ from our own views." Interestingly, the debate also includes concerns regarding the editorial and review policy of geography journals. From my position, I am still bemused by geography's inherent dysfunction and can't help but think it is a function of the fields sheer diversity. I also can't help but think this is a good thing...

For those who know me, you will be aware that I have held personal concerns over what i considered substandard ethical practices on two collaborative projects involving Maori horticulturalists (at the Bioprotection Research Centre, Lincoln University) and kai tiaki of customary fisheries (at the Te Tiaki Mahinga Kai project at the Centre for Study of Food, Agriculture and the Environment, Otago University). In both cases, regardless of the validity of otherwise of the concerns I and others held, I was sacked from the first and sidelined from the second, so I know firsthand how these things can unfold, i.e., badly for the whistleblower! Oh, I would be the first to admit that my little one-man protest action at the BRC's international symposium probably prompted the actions of my so-called 'supervision' team...



...Luckily I have an excellent research job now, but the risks to a young researcher trying to develop a career in a hostile environment is one that is often discussed amongst postgraduates. Unfortunately, there seems to be little prospect of change, especially given the ever greater demands on 'results', publications, and proposals.

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Simon Lambert

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