How cross-cultural awareness and ethical pluralism affect online research and teaching in India

It would be prudent to hone our ethical judgments as researchers or educators, rather than presume that ethics and judgment are a matter of concern only for professional philosophers.

 |  7-minute read |   15-10-2020
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Research and teaching during the pandemic require considerable thought about ethics. Ethics has become even more significant at present with the ‘new normal’. Thus, the ethical question arises: in what capacity should research or teaching be possible such that it puts a minimal burden on others? 

Ethical considerations should ideally begin at the stage of the conceptualisation of the research itself. The online research methods offer scope for conducting empirical research. However, it is essential to consider the ‘affective atmospheres’ of conducting any social research in the pandemic when ordinary routines are disrupted. People are feeling uncertain and stressed or are sick or caring for ill family members or maybe also living in environments where they are subjected to harassment, violence, or surveillance by other family members. Privacy issues become essential to consider in these unprecedented times. 

Internet Research Ethics (IRE): As with the ongoing technological developments — most exclusively under the umbrella of Big Data and related technologies of data mining and collection — have conjured novel versions of familiar research ethical issues (such as informed consent). In response to innovative technological developments involving the advent of social networking sites, the ‘mobility revolution’ and the preliminary rise of Big Data, a set of guidelines were developed and published in 2012. The European and Scandinavian approaches to research ethics and privacy matters are robustly 'deontological' — that is, they highlight the dominant imperative to guard the fundamental rights to human beings as independent citizens in democratic societies. However, it leaves us with the question of compliance of ethical guidelines, and whether the conventional debate of ‘public’ versus ‘private’ still holds true.

main_big-data_reuter_101520010651.jpgAs with the ongoing technological developments — most exclusively under the umbrella of Big Data and related technologies of data mining and collection — have conjured novel versions of familiar research ethical issues, such as informed consent. (Photo: Reuters)

Cultural dimensions and ethical pluralism in Internet Research Ethics (IRE): With the inception of IRE, Internet-facilitated communication virtually always crosses manifold cultural boundaries, thereby implicating numerous indigenous cultural norms, practices, theories, and so on — both in terms of indigenous uses, approaches, and local research ethics. This leads to challenges that begin with differences in ethical values, schools, and traditions (including frameworks such as ‘utilitarianism’, ‘deontology’, ‘feminist ethics’, ‘ethics of care’, ‘virtue ethics’, and so on). They frequently further entail foundational variances such as a greater emphasis on human beings as individual persons or agents vis-à-vis more relational conceptions. Some of these alterations can be approached using ethical pluralism to conjoin shared values with diverse interpretations or applications.

Hongladarom juxtaposes the ethical assumptions and frameworks of Confucians and Buddhists. Confucians, like “Westerners”, imagine in a self as real. On the other hand, Buddhists may consider the self to be “ego delusion” — an illusion to be overcome. Nevertheless, both harmonise on a foundational ethical norm in modern-day ethics: “...an individual ought to be respected and protected when she enters the online environment”. This is a pluralistic elucidation and a rudimentary norm that is collective across radically diverse ethical frameworks. Hongladarom contends for such pluralism as conjoining the occasionally even significant differences between Western and Eastern traditions, precisely regarding informed consent in the context of Indian research.

Indian culture is more collective (in part, relying on a relational sense of selfhood as stressed in Confucian and Buddhist traditions). Indian researchers do not immediately recognise the ethical force of formerly Western requirement for individual informed consent, nor the importance of ensuring individual anonymity when needed. Hongladarom points towards an emerging global IRE constituted in part by shared norms comprehended in such a pluralistic fashion, or allowing for opposing interpretations and applications. These are diffracted through specific indigenous traditions. This requires a continued emphasis on the pluralism enunciated, beginning with recognising and respecting that a given national or cultural IRE is “... grown from the local source, meaning that the (ethical) vocabulary comes from the traditional and intellectual source of the culture in which a particular researcher is working."

Ethical pluralism and cross-cultural awareness: Cross-cultural awareness is also a prerequisite when internet research projects encompass researchers and/or subjects from varied national and cultural backgrounds. With naïve ethical or cultural relativism, ethical pluralism resolves such contrasts by way of showing. For instance, how different practices of privacy protection (as in the stark contrasts between India and the UK) may be implicit as diverse interpretations, applications, or understandings of a shared norm. How do researchers acknowledge other's autonomy and concede that they are of equal worth to ourselves and should be treated? Questions focused on intricacies around informed consent as a principal way of safeguarding the (‘deontological’) norms of autonomy and equality. The simple question of how to confirm that participants are truly informed? Along with acknowledgement that online fora and our engagements within them are intrinsically relational. There is also the rising importance of Big Data research, beginning with the umbrella question. How are data being managed, stored, and represented? Utilitarian concerns of both benefits and risks of attempting to de-identify data are raised vis-à-vis the critical requirements to protect anonymity, privacy, and confidentiality. 

While Internet Research Ethics provided grounded ethical methods to assist internet researchers with cliques of then-emerging problems, its emphasis is centred on the ethical challenges. These challenges arise across different research stages and the rising challenge of informed consent in data-intensive research protocols. As throughout the development and unfolding of Internet Research Ethics, a dominant component in these reflective, dialogical process-oriented approaches is specifically the catalysation of capacities for reflective ethical judgment. Such judgment is essential to ethical decision-making in the face of challenges faced by researchers, participants, oversight authorities, and/or superior stakeholders in India. Perhaps most significantly, such judgment is intensely relational and inter-subjective. As such, it involves continuous cross-checking, mutual critique, and/or validation and expansion, ultimately through ongoing dialogue and discussion with peers and trusted colleagues

Ethics, resilience, and New Education Policy 2020: Nationwide school closures have highlighted the horrible reality of India's social inequities. Concerns of lopsided internet and technology access, limited access to mental and physical health services, and food insecurity emphasised schools' role as a crucial pillar in encouraging communities’ resilience and reconstructing their social, emotional, cultural, economic, and physical health.

The need to inculcate ethics education as a part of building cognitive capacities in children is also evident in the New Education Policy (NEP) 2020 approved by the Cabinet, encompassing many are necessary ethical considerations in online teaching in the pandemic. It talks about internet-enabled devices in every home — when it is apparent that millions have lost their jobs or are without salaries, how will the students bear the trauma of health and economic crises?

The NEP 2020 asserts that ethics is an advantage that every society needs to progress, grow, and sustain; however, ethics in professional life must not be overlooked when market forces regulate every product or service. How will teachers incorporate a caring attitude in learners when online classes are being held without caring whether students have Information Communication Technology (ICT)-enabled tools or internet connectivity? When millions of people have migrated from cities to their smaller hometowns, have we bothered to find out how students are coping with this situation, the families whose members have been affected by the pandemic are facing physical and mental issues on the one hand and are under economic stress on the other?

Hence, education — that plays a vital role in reviving a deteriorating society — needs to be based on human ethical values more than ever now. Introducing ethics education during the Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE) in the NEP is the first step towards laying the foundation for an ethically strong nation and future. Integrating the ethical practices in technology usage, as proclaimed in the NEP 2020, aims to raise awareness about the disruptive technologies that demand informed public consent to safeguard the subject. Providing students ‘a logical framework for making ethical decisions’ is crucial to devising the ethical guidelines for Internet Research Ethics from multiple perspectives.

Finally, as ethical challenges will continue to magnify much more briskly than capabilities to develop considered guidelines, it appears clear that researchers, educators, and oversight boards are going to be thrown back on their private arbitrations increasingly and, therefore, their responsibility for those judgments. Hence, it would appear prudent to precisely nurture or hone our ethical judgments as researchers or educators, rather than presume that ethics and judgment are a matter of concern for only professional philosophers.

(Co-author: Aditi Banerji)

Also Read | Methodological dilemmas: How lockdown took a toll on conducting qualitative research

Writer

Kusha Anand Kusha Anand @kushaaanand

The writer is a Research Fellow at the UCL Institute of Education (London) and Senior Research Fellow at IRDSE based in Delhi.

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