Educational research in fragile contexts
At a time when unprecedented numbers of people across the world are experiencing forced migration, there is an urgent and critical imperative to develop understandings that can present solutions to the challenges of displacement. Education plays a key role in holding a space of hope and opening futures in forced migration contexts. Yet, less than a quarter of the world’s refugees have access to secondary schooling and only 3 per cent of refugees participate in higher education (UNHCR, 2019). Correspondingly, there is increasing scholarly interest in examining issues related to the role played by education in fragile contexts.
‘Education plays a key role in holding a space of hope and opening futures in forced migration contexts.’
In line with this trend, it is important that researchers in this field incorporate an ethics-in-practice approach to ensure fair representation and agency of the displaced themselves. This means going beyond what Guillemin and Gillam (2004) call a ‘procedural’ approach to human research ethics, which can inadvertently deny voice and agency through paternalistic views of vulnerability. In particular, there is concern that Institutional Ethics Review Boards (IERBs) rarely – if ever – bring experience of research in forced migration contexts to the decision-making process, and so should do more to facilitate a dialogic approach that incorporates the views of the displaced communities being studied.
CERD ethical appraisal framework
The CERD ethical appraisal framework offers researchers four ethical lenses – Consequential, Ecological, Relational and Deontological – through which to identify ethical challenges, examine options and support ethical decision-making:
- the consequential lens helps the researcher to identify consequences and make good decisions
- the ecological lens helps to identify the relationships and power dynamics at play;
- the relational lens helps to examine issues related to self-determination, respect and trust between researchers, participants and other stakeholders
- the deontological lens helps to recognise the multiple obligations and duties held by researchers and participants, including the need to consider care-for-self.
The CERD framework is particularly useful for facilitating ongoing ethics-in-practice in research in fragile contexts. The four lenses help to tease out the specific complexities that fragile contexts create and/or magnify for forcibly displaced people.
‘The CERD framework is particularly useful for facilitating ongoing ethics-in-practice in research in fragile contexts. The four lenses help to tease out the specific complexities that fragile contexts create and/or magnify for forcibly displaced people.’
In our new article in the British Educational Research Journal (Fox, Baker, Charitanos, Jack, & Mercer-Moser, 2020), we apply the CERD lenses to three experiences of researching with forced migrants to examine ongoing ethics-in-practice in fragile contexts. The consequential lens requires that researchers be realistic about what benefits can be promised as a result of participating in a study. In our article, we outline how publication creates ethical dilemmas long after data collection has ended. Ecological thinking highlights the nexus of power dynamics and competing agendas between researchers, funders, stakeholders and forced migrants. In the context of research undertaken in a refugee camp context, this network includes the role played by IERBs, national government agencies and powerful aid agencies. As we discuss, assemblages of power and agendas can create significant navigational issues and, as a result, ethical dilemmas. The relational lens highlights the need to resist assumptions about the vulnerability and agency of forced migrants. This connects with the deontological lens, which presses researchers to consider the duties of all involved, particularly with regard to representation and the amplification of participants’ voices. Sometimes this might mean not publishing research findings so as not to endanger a participant. This case also illustrates the need for self-care by researchers working in forced migration contexts.
Recommendations for educational researchers working in fragile contexts
- Ethical dilemmas cannot always be forecast: this reinforces the need for an ongoing ethics-in-practice approach, which can be strengthened by using a comprehensive ethical appraisal framework, such as the CERD.
- The legitimacy and power given to IERBs and funding bodies to make decisions about research designs should be critically reviewed. They should pay greater attention to in- and post-field work, and seek the expertise of experienced field researchers to review applications for research in fragile contexts, rather than simply applying universal rules.
- There is a clear need for more ethical training and support for higher-degree-by-research students who intend to undertake their study in a fragile context.
- There is a need for meso-level oversight/support offered by researchers with research expertise in fragile contexts to researchers entering or leaving the field to fill the gap left by IERBs.
This blog is based on the article ‘Ethics-in-practice in fragile contexts: Research in education for displaced persons, refugees and asylum seekers’ by Alison Fox, Sally Baker, Koula Charitanos, Victoria Jack and Barbara Mercer-Moser, published on an open access basis in the British Educational Research Journal. It also forms part of a special virtual issue published by Wiley to mark World Refugee Day 2020.
Fox, A., Baker, S., Charitanos, K., Jack, V., & Mercer-Moser, B. (2020). Ethics-in-practice in fragile contexts: Research in education for displaced persons, refugees and asylum seekers, British Educational Research Journal. Advance online publication. https://doi.org/10.1002/berj.3618
Guillemin, M., & Gillam, L. (2004). Ethics, reflexivity, and ‘ethically important moments’ in research. Qualitative Inquiry, 10(2), 261–280. https://doi.org/10.1177/1077800403262360