Research, vulnerability and anxiety

I have always been interested in the relations of power that exist in the researcher – researched relationship.  Who is more powerful and what is the basis of that power?  How is that power manifested?  What can be done to reduce levels of inequality in the relations of power?  Recently I have had reason to think about this relationship of relative power and the anxieties that this can provoke for both researchers and researched within the art museum.  This in turn has prompted me to explore why that anxiety might exist.

The fact that research is necessarily bound by ethical codes is one indication that the potential exists for the researcher to abuse their position of power and that protection must be given to the researched.  The Nuremberg Code of research ethics that was developed after the second World War enshrined the principle of  ‘informed consent’ to ensure that no one can be forced to take part in any research against their wishes.  Whilst vast amounts of time and intellectual energy have been spent constructing and embedding ethical principles and establishing procedures to safeguard research subjects’ privacy and confidentiality, to prohibit deception and uphold the highest standards in research.  In theory then there should be no reason for anyone who is being researched to feel vulnerable, since they are most likely to have given their consent to being part of any research and will be covered by clear ethical codes of conduct. Yet in my experience the anxiety remains.

Perhaps this is not surprising.  In an article on ethics and politics in qualitative research Clifford Christians lists some of the deeply unethical research that has taken place since the Nuremberg Code was introduced, including the deceptive research that took place in the 1960s and 70s that was highly criticised for psychologically abusing research subjects.  More broadly, Christians criticises the absolutist ‘neutral’ position assumed within ethical protocols that fails to take account of the complexities of power relations associated with race, gender, class and sexual orientation.  He points out that it is not enough to write a set of research ethics and assume that a good moral researcher will cause no harm to the researched.  In his view ethical research comes through a levelling out of the power imbalances inherent in the researcher – researched entanglement.

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In a previous blog I have referenced the work of Michel Foucault. His analysis of power and knowledge is helpful in understanding how dominant discourses define and legitimise certain knowledge whilst excluding other forms of knowing.  In research terms the action-researcher Peter Reason makes the connection between research, knowledge and power. He observes that; ‘one of the key questions about research is the political one; who owns the knowledge, and thus who can define the reality?’  For me Peter Reason’s statement sheds light on one of the fundamental causes of anxiety amongst research subjects, which is that in the majority of cases it is the researcher who owns the knowledge gained through a research process.  The researcher is the one who defines the reality and the research subject has to trust that this reality will not misrepresent or injure them.  And the greater the disparity in power between the researcher and research subject, the more profound that level of trust has to be and the greater the scope for anxiety.

But what if the relationship between researcher and research is radically reordered? Indigenous researchers including Linda Tuhiwai Smith whose work I have mentioned previously have long argued for ethical research practices that are based on principles of mutuality, care and respect.  Such practices acknowledge multiple knowledges, are highly reflexive and seek to bring about positive change.  They recognise the limitations of the positivist position that makes clear differentiation between the ‘expert’ researcher and the ‘nonexpert’ research participant.

There is much in these formulations of research that I see as useful and relevant to the art museum of today.  Adopting these as best we can would seem a productive way of reducing the anxiety felt by individuals within cultural institutions whilst opening up our practices to much needed and valuable scrutiny.

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