Research Article: Ethical Considerations and Dilemmas Before, during and after Fieldwork in Less-Democratic Contexts: some Reflections from Post-Uprising Egypt

Date Published: August 19, 2017

Publisher: Springer US

Author(s): Arne F. Wackenhut.


How do we conduct ethically sound social research in less- or non-democratic settings? Here, the ‘ethical guidelines,’ or ‘codes of conduct’ outlined by our professional organizations provide some, albeit only insufficient guidance. In such contexts, issues like informed consent or the avoidance of harm to research participants have to be – based on a careful analysis of the situation on the ground – operationalized. What are, considering the particular social and political context in the field, the potential risks for interviewees and the researcher, and what can be done to eliminate or at least mitigate these risks? Reflecting on extensive fieldwork on the role of the prodemocracy movement during the Egyptian Uprising of 2011 in the wake of the so-called ‘Arab Spring,’ this study illustrates how rather abstract ethical considerations can be handled practically in an environment that is characterized by increasing levels of political repression and decreasing civil liberties. It is in such contexts that a failure to carefully consider such ethical questions entails a very real risk of endangering the livelihoods and even lives of research participants. Furthermore, it is shown that these and similar issues are not only of critical importance when designing a research project, but that they might have to be revisited and renegotiated at later stages of the research process – even after the conclusion of the data collection phase. Here, questions of data protection, anonymity of informants, and the associated ‘do no harm’ principle are particularly pertinent.

Partial Text

How can we translate the – useful but rather general – ethical guidelines of our professional organizations into practice when research is being conducted in less- or non-democratic settings? Reflecting on my fieldwork on prodemocracy activism during the Egyptian Uprising of 2011 in ‘post-Arab Spring’ Egypt, this study emphasizes the importance of operationalizing and critically reflecting on the notions of ‘informed consent’, and ‘do no harm’ before, during and after the collection of empirical data.

My research has to be understood in the context of the popular uprisings that spread across the Middle East and North Africa region in the wake of Mohamed Bouazizi’s self-immolation in Tunisia on December 18, 2010. At that point few scholars expected that this act of despair, which followed a public humiliation by local officials, would represent the spark setting off a transnational protest wave, which resulted in the toppling of long-time authoritarian rulers in countries like Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya.1 In the Egyptian case, protesters succeeded in ousting President Hosni Mubarak in a matter of eighteen days (cf. Lynch 2012). This protest episode paved the way for the first free and democratic elections in the country’s modern history. Considering that elements within the Egyptian prodemocracy movement (El-Mahdi 2009) had unsuccessfully tried to mobilize for significant socio-political change in the country for the better part of a decade (cf. Abdelrahman 2015), I embarked on a project trying to understand the mobilization process leading up to and the diffusion of collective contentious behavior during the so-called January 25 Uprising. Building upon and seeking to contribute to the broader contentious politics framework (cf. McAdam et al. 2001; Tilly and Tarrow 2007), I sought to better understand the diffusion of protest during this uprising, which came to involve a broad cross-section of the Egyptian society. At the same time, I hoped to improve upon the conceptualization of causal mechanisms in the contentious politics framework, which was criticized rather heavily by, for example, Ruud Koopmans (2003) on the grounds of insufficient specification and theorization.

Ever since the June 30 protests in 2013 and the following soft coup, which resulted in the ouster of President Mohamed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party, the conditions for activists within the Cairo-based political opposition deteriorated markedly. In the terminology of Goldstone and Tilly (2001), one might argue that the situation in the country was increasingly characterized by diminishing opportunities for collective contentious claim-making, whilst both the current and repressive threat increased substantially.2

Every scholar whose research involves humans as research subjects will have to contemplate and carefully consider the ethical implications of a planned project. In most, but not all, contexts the approval of an Institutional Review Board5 marks a necessary albeit insufficient hurdle in the process of designing sound ethical foundations for such an endeavor.

At the very foundation of our work as sociologists lays what Bryman (2008) called the ‘do no harm’ principle. In the ethical guidelines of the American Sociological Association ( 1999), this principle can be found under item 2 (d), which urges sociologists to refrain fromundertaking an activity when their personal circumstances may interfere with their professional work or lead to harm for a student, supervisee, human subject, client, colleague, or other person to whom they have a scientific, teaching, consulting, or other professional obligation (ASA 1999, italics my own).At first sight, these guidelines appear to provide clear guidance for researchers. However, Bryman (2012) rightfully asks what exactly harm is. Drawing on the work of Diener and Crandall (1978), he notes that it might ‘entail a number of facets: physical harm; harm to participants’ development; loss of self-esteem; stress’ and other aspects.

Therefore, with few exceptions, informed consent ought to represent another cornerstone for the conduct of social research. Discussing informed consent, Bryman (2012) advocates that ‘prospective research participants should be given as much information as might be needed to make an informed decision whether or not they wish to participate in a study.’ At first sight, this requirement appears rather unambiguous, but several scholars have problematized a number of aspects relating to questions of when informed consent actually represents informed consent. For instance, feminist scholars warned about the impact of hidden power relations between researcher and subject, and how they might unwittingly coerce participation (Ribbens and Edwards 1998; Miller and Bell 2012). Others have urged for a cautious approach when dealing with ‘special populations’ including, for example, the ‘mentally impaired’ whose capacity to fully grasp the purpose of a study and their role in it might be somewhat limited (Warren and Karner 1990).

Having carefully studied the recommendations of the ASA, BSA and similar bodies, informed consent was made to be one of the cornerstones guiding the data collection phase of my inquiry into the role of the prodemocracy movement during the Egyptian Uprising of 2011. Considering, however, the ways in which the political situation in Egypt had developed in the aftermath of the June 30, 2013 coupvolution, I decided that a written consent form – as suggested by Bryman (2008) – would be infeasible in the context of the rising repressive threat for many members of civil society and prodemocracy social movement organizations. To minimize the likelihood of unintentionally harming my interviewees by requiring them to fill in such forms, I decided to ensure their informed consent verbally without leaving a potentially compromising paper trail. A two-pronged approach was designed and implemented to make sure that every potential interviewee could make an informed decision whether or not to participate in this project.

While it would be a misrepresentation to characterize the political situation in the country, especially for actors in the prodemocracy movement and human rights NGO sector, prior to and during the field work in 2014 and 2015 as open and unproblematic, it could be argued that the situation deteriorated markedly after the conclusion of the data collection phase in December 2015. This deteriorating situation, which could at least partly be interpreted as a successful repression of this type of activism (cf. Tarrow 2011), found its expression in a number of different ways. For instance, in early 2016 the Italian doctoral student Giulio Regeni, who was writing his Ph.D. thesis on the role of the unofficial labor movement and unionization attempts in post-revolutionary Egypt, was abducted, tortured and killed shortly after the fifth anniversary of the January 25 Uprising. While, at the time of writing, the official investigation is still ongoing, a number of leads point towards the role of the Egyptian security apparatus in Regeni’s death (BBC 2016).

In conclusion, it could be argued that the established ethical guidelines of our professional associations provide useful but not necessarily sufficient guidance to ensure that research in less- or non-democratic settings upholds crucial ethical standards. Just like we have to operationalize our theoretical concepts – transforming them into variables that can be measured and observed in the empirical world – it is necessary to carefully reflect on the broader ethical implications of our research endeavors. Simply being aware of ethical guideposts like ‘informed consent,’ or ‘do no harm’ is not enough. This holds true for social research generally, but it is of critical importance when our work is conducted on sensitive topics, or in ‘democratically restricted environments’ (cf. Smeltzer 2012) where the stakes are – generally speaking – much higher. Thus, it is of paramount importance to operationalize such general guidelines and recommendations for the specific environments. This process requires careful attention to the social and political context within which potential research participants operate. It is this context that ultimately dictates the protocols and procedures we use to ensure – and record – informants’ informed consent, as well as to collect, store and present data in a way that eliminates or at least minimizes risks to participants and ourselves. At the same time, we should try to be mindful of the potentially extractive nature of fieldwork and do our best to reciprocate.




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