Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Ethics Committees as Foucauldian Shepherds

Three Norwegian researchers using a "Foucault-inspired analysis" charge that "ethics monitoring bodies can be conceived as executing a type of paternalistic power over vulnerable and marginalized groups, a practice which is virtually identical to the exercise of power that, according to their mandate, they should be protecting these groups against."

[Truls I Juritzen, Harald Grimen, and Kristin Heggen. “Protecting Vulnerable Research Participants: A Foucault-Inspired Analysis of Ethics Committees.” Nursing Ethics 18, no. 5 (September 2011): 640–650, doi: 10.1177/0969733011403807]

They elaborate:

The ethics monitoring committees exercise not only a power targeting the party which is assumed to be powerful, i.e. the researcher, with the objective of protecting the party which is assumed to be vulnerable, i.e. the participant. In addition, they intervene to control and assess the participant’s room for decision making, and in so doing they appear as the ‘good shepherd’ who will guide the vulnerable participants safely away from any forms of offense and abuse committed in the name of science. This represents a form of exercise of power, in the service of benevolence, so to speak, which is less visible than the hazards and powerful interventions represented by the researchers.

This invalidation of large groups of persons who are deemed incompetent to provide consent entails a potential for larger transgressions than those a researcher will be able to commit. A researcher can commit offenses against individuals or even small groups of individuals. However, the exclusion of entire groups of participants (such as those who are deemed incompetent to provide consent) from research may imply that an offense has been committed against large groups whose life conditions thereby remain concealed because of lack of research. In this manner, this involves not only the vulnerable and marginalized who are excluded from being studied. In addition, this harms large groups of others, as unworthy and/or harmful practices that could have been revealed by means of research remain undetected and are thereby allowed to continue. The paradox of this situation is that the most vulnerable and exposed remain protected from research, and thereby from transparency and public scrutiny.

We claim that if we restrict ourselves to focusing on the ethics committees’ external view and in this manner regulate the obviously asymmetric relationship between the researcher and the participant, we render other essential positions and relationships of power invisible. What is rendered unclear or is not being thematized is how the administration of ethics can remain an unassailable position that conceals the power of the ethics committees and elucidates the power of other parties.

The piece is short on examples, but a good place to look for them is in reports of ethics-committee reviews of research on sexuality.

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