Inside the Ethics Query Process: A Case Study from the Corporate Sector

Inside the Ethics Query Process: A Case Study from the Corporate Sector 

By Jayne Howell and Lise Dobrin

As the Ethics Seats on MPAAC, we thought it would be helpful to give an example of what happens when anthropologists submit to the AAA an inquiry about an ethical issue they are grappling with.  We provide below a recent inquiry, with all identifiers removed, to illustrate the steps that occur once we receive a query.  This case also speaks to the reality that similar concerns arise whether one is conducting research in the private sector or a public university.

We recently received a query from an anthropologist (given the pseudonym Morgan here) who works for a private financial enterprise. Morgan asked, “Does the ‘Do No Harm’ ethic suggest that researchers refrain from asking ‘tough’ questions that could lead to negative responses or unintended outcomes?”  Morgan described supervising a multidisciplinary team that was charged with understanding customers’ expectations and needs from their firm using the information gathered to design and develop products and services.  In the interest of following best practices, Morgan introduced her team to the concept of research ethics, drawing on different organizations’ ethics statements to create guidelines for their research. For models they looked at statements by AAA, Society for Applied Anthropology, American Psychological Association, and the Hippocratic Oath.  No one else on the team besides Morgan had training in anthropology or another social science.

Morgan’s inquiry to concerned her team members’ response to this training, specifically with respect to the notion that researchers should “do not harm.”  Although they appreciated the importance of treating participants with respect and integrity, avoiding harm to “dignity and well-being” and mitigating risk led them to ask a set of specific questions.  Members of the MPAAC Ethics Subcommittee and the AAA Ethics Advisory Group (composed of former chairs of the AAA Ethics Committee) provided feedback in response to two questions that Morgan posed:

  1. “Does [the imperative to Do No Harm] mean we should avoid questions that might cause someone to feel anything other than happy or neutral? Our work involves talking about money, and that is often emotional and fraught.”
  2. “Does [the Do No Harm] principle mean that it is our ethical responsibility to avoid the hard questions because we cannot predict what effect thinking about these questions might have on a person’s state of mind or down-the-road behavior? Our work asks us to use sometimes difficult questions in order to uncover a person’s context, perspective, and lived experience in ways that surveys cannot.”

The AAA Ethics commenters were supportive of Morgan’s desire to define what ethical research would look like in the corporate setting.  The feedback her query elicited fell into three overlapping areas: (1) Whether it is even possible to apply anthropological ethics when conducting research in the financial sector, (2) the meaning and nuances of the AAA “do no harm” guideline, and (3) the provision of adequate information during the consent process. Here is what they said in response to these questions:

(1) Is it possible to conduct ethical research for a capitalist venture?

The nature of this type of applied research, which is ultimately profit-driven, has different objectives than much academic research.  “[Morgan] most likely … has little to no control over the ends to which [the] team’s work is put.”  Moreover, engaging in one-off interviews is “a very different scenario from much anthropological research where you build rapport through long-term open-ended involvement.”  This is at odds with many anthropologists’ “aim for something like a collaborative relationship with one’s interlocutors – [this] is so *not* a best practice elsewhere in social science that it often gets lost.”

A related point that arose is the seeming contradiction inherent in an attempt to conduct ethical surveys and interviews “when the whole point of the research enterprise is to … more efficiently extract people’s $$.” One solution a commenter suggested in light of this “ethical quagmire … is to offer the participants a reward for helping the [firm] make money.”  Nevertheless, ethical responsibilities are present even when the intent of the research is “extractive,” because all researchers “operate within the constraints of the same neoliberal/capitalist structural frameworks and constraints.” Thus, one committee member suggested, the team should be sure to “compensate participants fairly for their time and opinion.“

(2) “Do No harm”

Morgan’s core question concerned how to avoid “doing harm,” including when asking potentially “harmful” question.  There was general consensus that the IRB guidelines that shape much of our thinking about ethics are not always applicable to qualitative or market research.  As we are well aware, the reality is that “research nearly always includes some form of risk, no matter how carefully designed it is,” especially because it is not always possible to determine what constitutes “harmful” questions that “are likely to be triggers.”  Indeed, as one committee member noted, “What ‘harms’ one person may be absolutely nothing to another,” meaning that at times “no amount of preparation can be enough.”  Given this, one commenter reminded, “The [do no harm] principle asks researchers to avoid reasonably foreseeable harms, not avoid difficult questions.”  In the AAA’s response to the recent revision of the Common Rule, there was awareness that “psychological harms [are] inherently slippery and hard to regulate around.” Although asking about financial experiences and situations can be sensitive, one can try to mitigate the possibility of distress by structuring the research in such a way that each participant has control over what they reveal.

Ultimately, as one commenter put it, “This conversation shows how hard it is to untangle the various threads of anthropological ethics in practice.”  Thus, no matter how carefully we design our research to avoid doing “harm,” it is not always possible to ‘fully inform,’ much less protect” our participants.

(3) “The devil is in the detail of the consent process.”

We learned from Morgan that the team was particularly helped by suggestions about the informed consent process, which emphasized providing as much information as reasonably possible about the purpose and nature of the research.  Participants should also be advised of their right to withhold information or withdraw.  As one commenter noted, if participants are “advised who’s doing the research and why, and if they understand they can withdraw at any point—basically then I don’t think it matters whether the purpose is academic or commercial.”  Another said, “Say in plain English (not hide in a wall of text that no one will read) what is going to happen. Then you will very rarely find yourself in a situation in which you are actually putting people in a distressing situation.”

Morgan explained to us afterward that these suggestions helped her team move forward with their research by revisiting their consent guidelines:

“After reviewing the suggestions and perspectives of the committee, my team decided to focus in on our research participant consent process. Focusing on this point in the research journey will enable us to adhere to an ethical principle centered on preventing, mitigating, and transparently addressing potential harms to our participants that might arise through our work.  Without the expanded point of view gained through this request, we would have instead attempted to solely address the questionnaire design part of our work.  Doing so would have been a narrow take on how to embrace this ethic; now, we are in the position to strengthen our ethical base throughout the research journey within our organization.”

Morgan shared these thoughts about ways the subcommittee’s feedback led her to reflect more generally about what it means to be an anthropologist conducting research in the for-profit sector.  Her thoughtful response references the importance she places on retaining integrity in her research:

“The reflection wasn’t so much regarding the ethics of doing research with profit in mind as it was about asking me to look past where I would typically ‘solve’ this type of problem and expand my thinking.  While I understand that the notion of ‘for profit’ causes a lot of discussion in the Anthro community, I understand that this is a part of what comes with being a researcher in the corporate space. I’m thankful for the opportunity to do what I do and tell the stories of people so that the business can design with more awareness of the lived experience.  I also operate with a baseline ethic of not skewing my research outcomes to meet the demand of the business I am serving, but to represent our user accurately and hold up a mirror for the business to challenge themselves.”

Morgan’s inquiry was an opportunity to consider anew what the AAA ethics statement and encouragement to “do no harm” mean.  It was an important reminder that in actual practice, research is far more nuanced than either IRB guidelines and the AAA statement on ethics can convey, as it is open to interpretation by researchers and research interlocutors alike.  Since one can’t ever truly anticipate the “harm” that interview questions may cause, Morgan and her team chose to prioritize the one thing they could control by emphasizing transparency in the consent process. We hope that this example helps to illustrate the query process, while simultaneously offering suggestions for how general principles of anthropological ethics can be applied in the corporate sector.