The Southern Africa Students’ Psychology conference has grown into a fixed feature and part of regular routine in the lives and work of Psychology students in Southern Africa. This year marked the fifth edition, at which students, academics, and practitioners came together under the theme: “Psychologies in dialogue: Strengthening our African connections”. The meeting was meant to encourage purposeful, direct, deliberate and conscious dialogues and a shift in epistemological views and applications of psychological knowledge generation and practice. The event brought together students from the sub-Sahara Africa region.
In addition to the dynamic and inclusive programme content and structure, there were plenty of opportunities for capacity development, especially in the form of pre-conference workshops and round-table discussions. Our deep concern for the contextual conceptualisation, application and interpretation of research ethics in psychological research led us to conduct a workshop on “Research ethics: Practicalities and logistics”. This workshop was facilitated by Professor Tumi Khumalo, Stephanie Nowack and Ayoushe Natha from the North-West University (VTC) and was attended by 15 delegates. In this three-hour interactive workshop, the content covered ranged from practical, ethical and logistical issues to Research Ethics Committee expectations and their contractions as well as the realities of fieldwork and data ownership. The workshop content was also concerned with community engagement and collaborative-learning and respect as ethical principles in research.
In many university courses, a proposal is often written where research design and ethics are core components of the research process. In this workshop, we addressed the question: “Why should we care?”. As researchers we have an obligation to comply with the requirements of the Institutional Review Boards (IRB), Research Ethics Committees (REC), or Research Ethics Boards (REB) who enforce the rules and regulations that prevent harm to participants. This is further embedded in a statement made by the International Union of Psychological Science in their preamble (IUP, 2008, p. 1) that “psychologists… recognise that adherence to ethical principals in the context of their work contributes to a stable society that enhances the quality of life for all human beings”. We need to ensure methodological rigour and the scientific integrity of findings and ensure responsible and scientifically sound knowledge generation. However, RECs can be very rigid and enjoy an artificial power differential created between themselves and the applicant researchers.
Based on previous human experimental atrocities, a number of ethical documents have emerged which safeguard human participants. Stemming from the experiences of the Second World War (WWII), the Nuremburg code was created to protect human participants in medical research (Applebaum, Lidz, & Meisel, 1987; Shustter, 1997). The World Medical Association (WMA) developed the Declaration of Helsinki, also adopted by the WHO, which further reiterated that research must conform to acceptable scientific principles and that participants should be well-informed volunteers (WHO, 2001). Within the South African context, the South African Department of Health has adopted and legislated the principles/ codes, and also express them as norms and standards of: beneficence, distributive justice and respect for persons (dignity and autonomy) (South African Department of Health, 2014, 2015). All of these efforts, we argued are implemented by the motivation to merely adhere to procedural ethics.
Our experience has taught us to prioritise relational ethics over procedure (see Hall, 2014). During the course of our research in promoting communal thriving we have worked interactively with different communities. The aim of our engagement is to build a relationship in which trust and good communication is emphasised. The participant communities are considered to be active collaborators in knowledge generation. They are therefore included as co-researchers. Researchers from universities should also become acutely aware of the lived experiences of those whom they are collaborating with in order to reduce the power differential between themselves and community-based knowers. According to Hall (2014, p. 332), “this is not the kind of ethics that can be controlled and monitored by a committee…it is based on relationships and its focus is collective knowledge sharing and creation that actively works as a decolonizing and transformative process for all participants, including the researcher”. The researcher is to uphold the norms and standards of co-learning when engaging in community settings and respect the shaping process that the research may be based on.
The message driven home was one of adapting an attitude of and conscious intention for intrinsically being ethical. This relational/situational research ethics stance, often embedded in Community-Based Participatory Research (CBPR), is contrasted with the often demanded and imposed procedural ethics of the many RECs whose responsibility is often restricted to evaluating applications (Hall, 2004; Fisher & Ragsdale, 2006). The workshop provided a platform for the delegates to raise important ethical questions in different contexts and to generate solutions through working with experts as well as peers.
Applebaum, P., Lidz, C., & Meisel, A. (1987). Informed consent: Legal theory and clinical practice. New York: Oxford University Press.
Fisher, C. B., & Ragsdale, K. (2006). Goodness-of-fit ethics for multicultural research. In J. E. Trimble and C. B. Fisher (Eds.), Handbook of Ethical Research with Ethnocultural Populations and Communities (pp.3-26), Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Hall, L. (2014). Developing an ethics of relational responsibility: Locating the researcher within the research and allowing connection, encounter and collective concern to shape the intercultural research space. Ethics and Education, 9(3), 329-339, DOI: 10.1080/17449642.2014.946378
International Union of Psychological Science [IUP] (2008). Universal declaration of ethical principles for psychologists. Berlin.
Shustter, E. (1997). Fifty years later: The significance of the Nuremberg code. The New England Journal of Medicine, 337(20), 1436-1440. doi: 10.1056/NEJM199711133372006
South African Department of Health [DOH]. (2014, September 19). Regulations relating to research with human participants. Government Gazette No. R. 719.
South African Department of Health [DOH]. (2015). Ethics in health research: Principles, structures and processes. Retrieved from http://www.nhrec.org.za/docs/Documents/EthicsHealthResearchFinalAused.pdfSouth African Government. (2003). National Health Act 61 of 2003.
World Health Organisation [WHO] (2001). World medical association declaration of Helsinki: Ethical principles for medical research involving human subjects. Bulletin of the World Health Organisation, 79(4), 373-374.