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British Journal of Social Work (2011) 41, 1271–1287

doi:10.1093/bjsw/bcr013 Advance Access publication March 1, 2011

When ‘Do No Harm’ Is Not Enough: The Ethics of Research with Refugees and Other Vulnerable Groups
Richard Hugman*, Eileen Pittaway, and Linda Bartolomei
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Richard Hugman is Professor of Social Work, School of Social Sciences & International Studies, University of New South Wales, Sydney. NSW 2052 e-mail: Eileen Pittaway is Senior Lecturer in Social Work, School of Social Sciences & International Studies and Director, Centre for Refugee Research, University of New South Wales, Sydney. NSW 2052 e-mail: Linda Bartolomei is Lecturer in Social Work, School of Social Sciences & International Studies and Deputy Director, Centre for Refugee Research, University of New South Wales, Sydney. NSW 2052 e-mail: *Correspondence to Richard Hugman, School of Social Sciences and International Studies, University of New South Wales, Sydney, NSW 2052, Australia. E-mail:

Ethics in social work research increasingly recognises that the rights and interests of subjects must be primary. The principal aim is to ensure that the subjects of research are protected from harm that might result from their participation in the research. In this article, research ethics are examined in the context of refugees and other vulnerable groups. It is argued that the ancient idea of seeking to ‘do no harm’ that continues to be a key principle in the refugee field, while necessary, is insufficient to ensure ethically sound research practice. A more sophisticated approach is required in research with such groups in order to ensure that social work’s ethical responsibilities are realised. This article discusses a model of participatory research as a vehicle for developing research ethics in social work. Keywords: Ethics, research, refugees, service users, social work

Accepted: February 2011

In recent years, there has been a sustained increase in the number of refugees and other forced migrants worldwide (UNHCR, 2010, p. 1). This

# The Author 2011. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of The British Association of Social Workers. All rights reserved.

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increase in numbers has had many consequences, including disrupted communities and social networks, contests over limited resources, multiple complex health risks and heightened instances of human rights abuses including sexual and gender-based violence (Pittaway and Bartolomei, 2003; Limbu, 2009). For these reasons, there has been a considerable growth in research about and with these populations, which is inevitably undertaken in very complex, and sometimes difficult and dangerous, situations. These factors, together with the vulnerability and marginalisation of refugee communities, highlight the need for research and simultaneously place these communities at great risk of exploitative and harmful research practices, however unintended such outcomes might be (Allotey and Manderson, 2003; Ellis et al., 2007). While the baseline of ‘do no harm’ is recognised as an important starting point, there is a growing sense that research into human suffering ought only to be justifiable if it contributes to the ending of that suffering (Jacobsen and Landau, 2003, p. 186). Such matters are of concern to social work researchers and practitioners as much as they are to others involved in this field (Christie, 2003; Nash et al., 2006; Briskman and Goddard, 2007). In research undertaken through the Centre for Refugee Research at the University of New South Wales (UNSW), Australia, examples of ethically poor practice have been both directly observed as well as reported by refugees themselves (Pittaway and Bartolomei, 2003, 2004, 2005; Pittaway et al., 2007). Drawing on insights from participatory action research with refugees living in camps or in urban areas of countries of first settlement in Asia and Africa, this article looks at these important ethical challenges in research with refugees and suggests ways of rethinking such practice so that good intentions are translated into action that lives up to the profession’s own ethical statements.

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Ethics, refugee research and social work: the background
Jacobsen and Landau (2003) identify the refugee field as one in which there are many complex ethical challenges that stem from a combination of the precarious situation of refugees themselves combined with a risk that, for some researchers, the ends may justify the means, leading to ethical lapses (Jacobsen and Landau, 2003, pp. 187, 192 – 3). Indeed, although Jacobsen and Landau illustrate their point with examples of ethically very poor practice, even positively seeking to ‘do no harm’ can become a well-meant but empty aspiration if refugees are put at further risk by the very process of the research. Social workers, along with other health and human services professionals, are involved in many ways in the provision of services for refugees. Areas of practice include advocacy, aid programmes, health services, trauma counselling, rehabilitation and settlement support, social and recreational programmes, community development and educational programmes (Cox

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and Pawar, 2006, pp. 292– 4). These services are provided for children, women, families and community groups, and they may be focused in different ways on strengthening networks, developing capacities and promoting income generation, family reunification and the promotion of human rights (Cox and Pawar, 2006, pp. 294 – 5). Research to understand the range of issues faced by refugees is vital in order to comprehend the lives, the experience and the needs of these groups and so develop more appropriate and effective responses. Questions about the lives and needs of refugees and the research that underpins such knowledge are of concern, particularly for social workers, for a number of reasons. First, because social workers are involved in the provision of a wide range of direct services for refugees as individuals, families, groups and communities, the importance of good research to underpin such services matters both to individual social workers and to the profession as a whole. Social workers in this field are users as well as producers of research for direct practice, such as in the development of therapeutic techniques, group-work methods or approaches to community development that are relevant for refugees and the services provided to them. Second, social workers are also involved in advocacy and policy development concerning refugees along with other professions. Knowledge that is of high quality, in that it can be widely accepted as having been produced out of methodologically sound research, is vital in these areas of practice. Third, social workers make contributions to debates in the refugee and forced migration field more widely in national contexts. As individuals and through professional bodies, social workers have been part of publicly contesting the responses of government and other social and political institutions to the plight of refugees and asylum seekers (see, e.g. Briskman and Goddard, 2007). Fourth, social work plays a role in international debates about refugee situations, such as through the International Federation of Social Workers (IFSW), the International Association of Schools of Social Work (IASSW) and the International Consortium for Social Development (ICSD). These international bodies form vehicles for the exchange of ideas and for international action in various areas. For example, social work organisations such as IFSW, IASSW and ICSD have reporting status to various parts of the United Nations (UN), including the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR). Through these organisations, colleagues from many countries have played roles in lobbying and in informing the UN processes and closely influencing UN policy. An example of this is the work of Janice Wood Wetzel on behalf of the IASSW in advocating for global responses to gender-related violence as part of the Beijing Platform for Action (Reichert, 1996). Other instances include the work of Pittaway and Bartolomei, who were influential in the drafting and introduction of a new UNHCR Conclusion (soft law) on the protection of refugee women and girls at risk (UNHCR, 2006).

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Fifth, in other areas, social workers have developed more reflective approaches to their professional roles, seeking to support service users to achieve their own voice in knowledge about their needs and the best ways to provide services (see, e.g. Beresford, 2000, 2003; Cowden and Singh, 2007). Practice with refugees shares many common features of these other areas. For all of these reasons, therefore, social workers ought to be concerned about research in the refugee field. Social workers share responsibilities with other health and human services professionals to ensure that research is ‘good’ in both senses of the word. This means that research must be methodologically sound and, at the same time, it must be conducted in ways that are ethically appropriate. Yet, there appears to be negligible attention in the social work literature to research ethics in this field, notwithstanding some focus on the ethics of social work practice with refugees (e.g. Duvall and Jordan, 2001; Christie, 2003; Briskman, 2006). In response to this gap, this article first examines ethics in research and social work and then considers research practices before drawing some conclusions more widely for social work and research with vulnerable groups.

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Ethics in research and social work
Developments in ethics specifically concerned with social research tend to be dated from the middle of the twentieth century (Barnes, 1979). The particular reason for this lies in the atrocities committed in the name of research under Nazism, often by bio-medical researchers, but other professions including social work were also implicated (Johnstone, 1994). Although there were some defences made that many of those who had perpetrated these atrocities were acting on the basis of duty and not selfinterest (see Arendt, 1964), the international war crimes tribunal decided otherwise and noted that there were also many people who did not participate in such acts. Moreover, this reading of the ethics of duty was seen as a serious error and one that also completely ignored the ancient medical oath of Hippocrates that ‘above all else [we should] seek to do no harm’. As a result, a code of practice was set out by the tribunal (Nuremberg Code, 1949) and this was further developed in the Declaration of Helsinki (WMA, 1964). The consensus was that no research should use human subjects against their will, either by force or deception, and that, even when subjects provide informed consent, research should not expose them to undue risk of harm. These ideas have continued to inform debates in research ethics for the last half-century and remain the consensus view (Ellis et al., 2007). Social work has not been silent about the implications of such developments (Hugman, 2010). For example, the Code of Ethics of the Australian Association of Social Workers (AASW) contains a specific section

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addressing research ethics (AASW, 2002, paragraph 4.5.2). In summary, it contains statements based on the types of ethical approaches that often inform professional ethics more widely (Hugman, 2005). There are statements based on the concepts of duty, a concern with consequences and also the inherent character of the ‘good’ social work researcher. The first of these is embodied, for example, in terms of a duty of respect owed to human research subjects expressed in the protection of privacy, dignity, anonymity and confidentiality or in ensuring that the informed consent of participants is given without coercion or duress. Second, placing participants’ interests ahead of researchers’ interests, the minimisation of any potential harm and an obligation to use relevant findings to promote social justice are all instances of consequential ethics. Third, for the AASW Code (2002), the ‘good’ researcher should demonstrate ethical awareness, competence in the methods being used and adherence to standards of accountability (demonstrated in submitting research proposals and findings to appropriate bodies such as ethics committees and other forms of peer review). The Australian code of ethics for social work thus reflects the highest international ethical standards. Indeed, in many other countries, the same principles can be seen to operate in ethical statements about research (e.g. NASW, 1999; BASW, 2002). Butler (2002) has argued that the ethics of social work research should go beyond this standard, in the sense that as well as demonstrating common principles, our thinking also ought to take account of the ‘scope’ of practice. That is, we must recognise that each of us has to take responsibility for making sense of these principles and the balance between them as they apply in every situation that we encounter. The example Butler gives is that of ‘empowerment’ (Butler, 2002, p. 243) in which respect for people’s moral agency and beneficence is combined. Drawing on Husband’s (1995) notion of the ‘morally active practitioner’, Butler argues that the need to relate core principles to each situation requires the critical engagement of each social worker: it can never be a matter of routine or the application of a formula (also see Barsky, 2010). The section concerning research in the British Association of Social Workers (BASW) Code of Ethics (BASW, 2002, paragraph 4.4.4) is closely based on Butler’s work. The BASW code extends these ideas to make a definite statement that research should directly involve actual or potential service users as human participants in research projects and, by implication, to all social work research, as appropriate to the topic under inquiry and the methods used. This includes, for example, people who have needs associated with mental health issues, physical or mental disability, old age, physical ill-health, problems in family or community relationships, addictions to alcohol or prescribed drugs and children in care, as well as refugees, asylum seekers and other forced migrants. The key statements in the BASW Code of Ethics are that social work researchers ought to: predicate their work on the perspectives and lived

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experience of the research subject except where this is not appropriate; seek to ensure that the research in which they are engaged contributes to empowering service users, to promoting their welfare and to improving their access to economic and social resources; seek to work together with disempowered groups, individuals and communities to devise, articulate and achieve research agendas that respect fundamental human rights and aim towards social justice (BASW, 2002, paragraph 4.4.4.b). This subsection then goes on to make statements concerning the prevention of harm, attending to the implications of all aspects of research for service users, avoiding the compromise of service users’ legitimate interests and strict limitations on the use of ‘concealment’ in research methodologies. The British code can be seen as heavily influenced by the ‘service user movement’ in the UK and its relationship to research (Beresford, 2000, 2003; Ramon, 2003; Faulkener, 2004). The central argument is that all research is undertaken from a ‘standpoint’ (Humphries, 2007). In so far as social work research (like other aspects of practice and policy) might have tended to be done without the participation of service users in all stages, this means that such research inevitably embodies the standpoint(s) of others, such as social workers, agency managers, academics, governments and so on. For this reason, it can be questioned whether such research meets the principles that form the basis of the profession’s codes of ethics. The alternative is that research concerning service users ought to involve service users as active participants or co-researchers and not simply construct them as sources of information. Some critics, such as Beresford (2000, 2003), go further and argue that research that does not have service users as active participants is harmful. Not only are service users’ perspectives marginalised, with implications for reinforcing the dependency status of service users generally, but there are times at which specific service users can be exposed to risk because of a lack of accountability by professionals or academics (similar arguments are made by health researchers in Canada; see Maiter et al., 2008). Ultimately, there are power differentials in the relationship that place significant responsibilities on the part of professionals and academics. This problem has been identified in refugee research (Allotey and Manderson, 2003; Jacobsen and Landau, 2003; Ellis et al., 2007; Mackenzie et al., 2007). In this field, good research is vital for the development of better policies and practices by governments and service providers, including international and national non-government organisations working in various locations as well as government agencies in countries of settlement. So, it is important that attention to the ethics of such research is tied also to questions about methodological rigour. To examine the ethical issues in refugee research in more depth, this discussion will now consider some concrete examples, before going on to consider ways in which such research can be improved.

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The reality: tales from the field
Research work conducted in Africa and Asia in recent years, by staff and associates of the UNSW Centre for Refugee Research, has identified many instances of ethically inappropriate practice (Pittaway and Bartolomei, 2003, 2005; Pittaway et al., 2007). In particular, refugees report that they have provided information in good faith, seeing this as part of a relationship with researchers that might benefit their condition, only to find that their information is treated like a commodity. This is illustrated by the words of one refugee:
We are really fed up with people just coming and stealing our stories, taking our photos and we never get anything back, not even a copy of the report. Nothing ever changes (Pittaway and Bartolomei, 2003, p. 36).
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There is a sense that they have been used by researchers from other countries, for purposes that are unclear but that do not demonstrate obviously how they are related to the refugees’ own well-being. In other instances, the consequences are actually harmful:
I gave a long interview and never heard anything, until a year later someone brought me an international magazine and there was my story and my photo with my name. It put me in even more danger (Pittaway and Bartolomei, 2003, p. 2).

The risks faced by refugees in such situations include those of intimidation and discrimination within camps and also threats to physical safety, from security forces, camp managements and even from other refugees. Women experience heightened levels of risk (Pittaway et al., 2007). These are illustrative quotes, from extensive interviews conducted in four locations over a three-year period; the same types of statements were made by many different participants in each place. What is revealed here is that, although the refugee in each instance provides information willingly, such willingness appears to be based on a misapprehension of the research process. These views indicate that the purposes of research, possible outcomes, the steps that will be taken by researchers to protect participants and, indeed, the longer-term moral relationship between researchers and researched have all been seriously misunderstood. This raises important questions, which bring together ethical and methodological concerns about such research. First, this evidence has implications for the confidence with which it may be concluded that researchers have understood the participants’ view of the process. This, in turn, raises critical problems for the findings of such work altogether. If the meanings of the research process for participants have not been grasped, doubts ought to follow about the other aspects of a study. Second, these types of statements indicate problems with the way in which the researcher has communicated her or his own view of the

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process and of the relationship that she or he has with the participants. Either this shows that a researcher is not sufficiently aware of her or his own role in the process of informed consent or it shows a lack of attention to related ethical aspects, such as the maintenance of privacy, confidentiality or anonymity. Especially in qualitative research, informed consent may more usefully be seen as a process rather than an event in that participants may need to be reminded of the relationship at many stages (Redwood and Todres, 2006; Mackenzie et al., 2007; Maiter et al., 2008). For matters in which this cannot happen, perhaps because the researcher has now ‘left the field’, a default position of ‘consent withheld’ might operate. Participants also need to have risks explained clearly and simply. To reach this conclusion is not to be patronising, as, although some participants may be able to grasp research issues quickly and easily, others may have little or no experience to draw on or may be influenced by unrealistic expectations about the benefits of providing information. Where researchers in these situations actively deceive participants concerning the information on which consent is based, such practice explicitly stands outside the terms of all codes of ethics and should be regarded as reprehensible. Third, there is a problem when researchers see the research relationship only within the context of direct contact. In other words, while it is clear that participants regard themselves as continuing to be part of the research, for some researchers, it would appear that once they leave ‘the field’, participants are effectively reduced to being sources of data as opposed to remaining people with whom there is an ongoing relationship. The potential impact of the use of data, whether qualitative or quantitative, has long been recognised. Barnes (an anthropologist) notes that there is a level of responsibility on the part of researchers for the way in which research exposes vulnerable people to scrutiny, which cannot be expected of participants themselves (Barnes, 1979, pp. 155– 6). Simply following a formal protocol of asking a person in such circumstances to give their consent is insufficient. When entering difficult camp situations as white/ Western researchers, we have observed that people are so desperate for any form of assistance that they appear to agree to requests for participation in the hope that we might be able to assist them in some tangible way. This is not to suggest that people from non-Western backgrounds do not understand the principle of giving or withholding consent; rather, it reflects the quite tangible and stark power differentials between them and those who want to involve them in the research process and also the implications of the context in which consent is being sought. This makes asking for permission to interview people in such vulnerable situations or take photographs highly problematic, to say the least. Indeed, as one researcher asked, ‘what does “informed consent” mean in an isolated . . . camp with security problems and no proper interpreters?’ (Pittaway and Bartolomei, 2003, p. 37), to which the answer has to be that it may mean

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very little, unless researchers attend to their considerable responsibilities to respect the humanity of participants, to pursue beneficence and nonmaleficence and to seek justice. An important aspect of this point is that it applies not only to those who may use or abuse research outcomes, such as governments and other forces that drive people from their homes, ‘the usual suspects’ or ‘those people over there’, but also to those who undertake research in the first place: that is, to ‘ourselves’ as Western ‘outsiders’.

Rethinking research, rethinking ethics
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So, if we are to take these criticisms seriously, how may we respond? To answer this question, we want to sketch out the approach to ethics that underpins a model for participatory research that is being developed through the UNSW Centre for Refugee Research (Pittaway et al., 2004). This model, which has been termed ‘reciprocal research’, is based on the notion of exchange. It operates through establishing a more reciprocal relationship between researchers and participants than might be seen in many forms of research, in that it seeks to create relationships between researchers and participants in which there is a more equal exchange of ideas and of the benefits to be gained by being involved in the research project. It is research in which the costs of involvement, including potential risks, are balanced by the potential for gains that are valued by the participants (Mackenzie et al., 2007, p. 311). That is, the research participants are actively involved in all stages and it is they who determine what is to count as a ‘gain’. In that sense, it draws on but adds to the growing field of participatory action research (compare with Maiter et al., 2008). The model arose from a request to undertake research in a refugee camp arising out of advocacy work around the abuse of women refugees by military and government personnel. Initially, the women refugees involved refused to take part in ‘research’ because of their bad experiences with previous research projects. However, because the researcher (Pittaway) was already known to them, they felt able to express and discuss their reservations. What emerged over a period of several months was a process in which the women agreed to take part in an action research project that would enable a study to be undertaken, out of which the women themselves would receive training in human rights documentation and in advocacy (Pittaway et al., 2004). This then enabled the women to undertake interviews themselves within their own communities and use their own material for selfadvocacy: it became participatory action research. This process has then been repeated in other locations (Pittaway and Bartolomei, 2005). The women from the camp in Thailand have since produced books and tabled these at various United Nations fora (KWO, 2004, 2007; WLB, 2004; Mackenzie et al., 2007, p. 314). This process contributed to the passing of

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Conclusion 105 on the Protection of Refugee Women and Girls at Risk at the UNHCR Executive Committee (UNHCR, 2006). So, in summary, the way that this research began was through establishing relationships that demonstrate actual benefits for the participants (in this case, prior provision of a valued service). It then progressed through the direct involvement of participants in all stages of the research, including establishing the agenda and the questions to be asked. Then, following initial stages, the participants continue to be involved in taking action, review and further questioning. So far, this model has been quite consciously built on an action research framework (see, e.g. Wadsworth, 1997). Action research does not, of itself, require the degree of participatory involvement that is suggested here, but it is readily adaptable in this way. Within such a framework, many specific methodologies can be used, including quantitative, qualitative and mixed methods. It is also the case that the cyclical, developmental characteristics of action research are not a necessity: what is important is that the relationship between (external) researchers and participants is based on a process and not seen as a single event. It must involve dialogue with refugee community groups themselves in all aspects of the research, including the questions to be asked, techniques to be used, the interpretation of data and decisions about publication. One of the strong claims made out of this body of work is that the standard approach to research ethics is insufficient in work with refugees (and, by implication, with other comparably vulnerable populations). The principle of ‘informed consent’, in itself, is ethically sound, but the evidence from work with refugee groups is that it does not go far enough because of the assumptions on which it depends about how individuals are able actually to achieve moral autonomy. Mackenzie et al. (2007, p. 309) propose that, instead of the individualistic, liberal notion of autonomy that informs research ethics, we should consider autonomy as relational. It is not that the experience of seeking refuge and associated traumas necessarily takes away people’s capacities to understand and to exercise their own good judgement: it may or it may not. The point is that the context of giving consent does have an impact on understanding, choice and so on. Autonomy is a capacity that is socially acquired and can be enhanced or undermined in many different ways. A relational approach to the question of autonomy enables researchers to think in more subtle ways about their obligations. In so far as that traditional injunction to ‘do no harm’ can be seen to be insufficient, which this research suggests is the case in such situations, this argument does not mean that it should be abandoned, but rather seen as a beginning point from which other moral values might be enacted. What this means in practice is that consent is given through a process that involves groups meeting and discussing all the implications of the research and, should they agree to participate, continuing to think about their involvement in such a way that either individuals may withdraw or even a whole group can decide to end their involvement.

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Mackenzie et al. (2007, p. 310) argue that there are both negative and positive aspects to the ways in which the idea of relational autonomy might impact on research with refugees. First, negatively, it introduces an obligation for researchers to attend to the ways in which research might compromise people’s capacities to exercise moral agency and to take all possible steps to ensure that this does not happen. When informed consent becomes an iterative process, this obligation is facilitated through the way in which participants can gain shared control over what is happening. Second, the positive aspect is seen in the ways in which this model can assist refugees to strengthen their autonomy as well as identifying their plight and providing a means by which it can be addressed. The action of refugee women in the camps of Thailand in using participatory research to highlight the problem of the perpetration of rape in war and civil conflict to the international arenas of the UN (Conclusion 105, noted above) is a clear example of this. Such an understanding of relational autonomy has a great deal in common with the ethics of care, in the form in which it is integrated with values of (human) rights and (social) justice (Tronto, 1993; Sevenhuijsen, 1998; Hugman, 2005). Tronto (1993, pp. 103 – 8) argues that ‘care’ has four dimensions: ‘care about’ (active commitment to the good of others); ‘taking care of’ (action to meet formal obligations to promote the good of others); ‘care-giving’ (undertaking specific acts to promote the good of specific people); and ‘care-receiving’ (engaging in reciprocal relationships of care with known others). Tronto’s argument is that the first two dimensions tend to be enacted in the public arena and they may be instrumentally delivered, while the latter two dimensions are more (inter)personal and they tend to have an affective content. The normative content of the ethics of care must include all four components. Within these terms, ‘justice’ is the equitable balancing of social power and resources that promote the capacities of all people to integrate these dimensions of care in their actions (Hugman, 2005, p. 70). Thus, for example, justice concerns not only the objective fact, the ‘truth’, about violence towards women in refugee situations being heard at the UN, but also the ‘truthfulness’, that is, the moral meaning for participants, of the relationship between the researchers and the women concerned (compare with Hugman, 2005, p. 128). This powerful dynamic led to their stories being told by the women themselves.

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Beginning to reach some conclusions
This article has spelled out the significance of refugee research for social work, explored research ethics generally and specifically in social work and has examined issues raised by a participatory research model. In reaching some tentative conclusions, it is necessary to identify and counter

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potential objections concerning the practicality of this model before drawing out some wider implications for social work research. There appear to be four main areas in which objections might be raised about this participatory approach. (There may be more, and the current authors will be interested to hear any other criticisms.) The first of these relates to the logistics of research projects. This participant action research model as it has been developed so far in refugee research is perhaps more time-consuming than might be the case if more orthodox techniques are used. At the same time, it should be acknowledged that time is often a resource factor in research of many kinds, including longitudinal surveys, detailed ethnography and action research projects. But, as with those other forms of research, the benefits of using the participatory action model with vulnerable populations such as refugees can be substantial. Not only does it generate material that is more effective, for example because it is able to bring out responses from participants that can be hidden in other circumstances (Pittaway and Bartolomei, 2003), but it is also able to provide tangible outcomes for participants, for example in strengthening capacities and affirming agency. Thus, it may be said that this approach is ‘better’ in both a technical and an ethical sense. Second, there are likely to be issues faced by researchers in obtaining institutional ethics approval for projects in which a developing relationship leads to reiterations of informed consent. Unfortunately, where institutional ethics committees are narrowly focused on more traditional understandings of core principles, this may be the case (Redwood and Todres, 2006; Dominelli and Holloway, 2008). There is often a need to negotiate, even to educate, those colleagues who constitute such committees about the practical realities of conducting research well in ethical terms in this type of setting. However, the experience of the present authors is that this need not be inevitable and agreements can be reached, for example, that provide flexibility for researchers who need to make decisions quickly in situations in which they cannot go through processes of application for a change in the terms of approval. Again, this is a problem that has long been faced by qualitative researchers and the recent Australian guidelines on research ethics that include detailed advice on how to deal appropriately with such matters are a welcome development (NHMRC/ARC/AVCC, 2007). Interestingly, this document also includes a good description of qualitative research that can be used to inform committees about ways of conducting research that lie outside the more positivistic models that have tended to predominate in such bodies. Although researchers choosing to use a participatory action model may be required to do more work in obtaining institutional approval, this can be done by providing a clear strategy of how difficulties will be handled ‘in the field’ that is related to the principles that such committees are trying to uphold. Competent researchers should have some idea about how they will handle unusual or difficult situations and it is not

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unreasonable for a responsible body such as an ethical review committee to ask them to provide an account of this (Hugman, 2010). Third, Mackenzie et al. (2007, pp. 315– 16) have also addressed questions of imputed ‘bias’ when researchers are drawn into advocacy or feel compelled to intervene in situations (compare with Jacobsen and Landau, 2003). From this, it may be noted that the purpose of social work research with communities in need, such as refugees, is that the knowledge produced will be used to improve practices, policies, institutions and so on. In other words, there is always an applied goal to social work research, requiring it to be undertaken effectively and, in this sense, methodological integrity is dealt with through using techniques competently. There are also situations in which the researcher is faced with another person who is in immediate need or danger, presenting considerations that override any wish to protect a project from accusations of bias or interference. Anyone who put their research project before a human being in serious immediate need would be acting unconscionably. If researchers really need a formal argument to persuade them that leaving another person to suffer tangible harm in order to protect our research interests is wrong, then perhaps that against the use of another person to achieve one’s ends will suffice. Fourth, the model presented in this article has been developed in the specific circumstances of research in refugee camps and other similar precarious situations. It may be that when refugees settle in Western countries, they have access to various civil and legal protections that make these concerns less pressing. However, although it is the case that, in refugee camps and other similar circumstances such as some non-Western countries of first settlement civil society is, at best, very weak, this objection can be overstated. The critique of barriers to service user participation more generally (Beresford, 2003; Ramon, 2003) and work specifically on the realities of refugee resettlement (Christie, 2003; Nash et al., 2006; Briskman and Goddard, 2007) together raise doubts as to whether good intentions expressed in principles such as ‘seeking to do no harm’ or formal organisational or legal research ethics processes are always sufficient even in situations of stronger civil society protections. Moreover, the groups with whom this discussion is concerned are very likely to experience other pressing structural oppressions, such as racism, sexism, poverty and so on, even when resettled in Western countries (Dominelli, 2002). Thus, these questions are interwoven with issues of anti-oppressive and anti-racist practice, cultural sensitivity and so on and have the potential to contribute to further developing positive practice in these respects (Clifford and Burke, 2009). For example, the discussion above notes ways in which groups of refugee women were enabled to give expression to their own voice at the UN as a direct outcome from this research approach. In conclusion, the participatory action research model that has been discussed here developed out of a response to white, Western researchers recognising their identity and the impact that this has on the research

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relationship (compare Fook, 1999, with Benhabib, 2002). Most importantly, this identity must be understood in the context of the imbalance of power between researchers and refugees in such situations. Questions of social power are embedded in all research relationships, which is why ethics is integral to every aspect of research (Hugman, 2010). The approach discussed in this article provides an insight into a response to this challenge that may be extrapolated to other fields of social work research (compare with Beresford, 2000, 2003). It thus offers a perspective on how anti-discriminatory and culturally sensitive practice might be developed in this aspect of social work (Dominelli, 2002; Clifford and Burke, 2009). This way of thinking about and doing research has much to offer social work research with other vulnerable communities, among whom many service users can be found. There is a risk that service users’ involvement can become tokenistic in that service user involvement becomes formulaic and does not actually give service users access to shared power over the definition of problems and ways of intervening, as has been argued recently in the UK (Cowden and Singh, 2007). Research approaches that treat service users simply as sources of information, in other words as data, can be said to fail in terms of the ethics that has been presented here. So the challenge is to find ways of ensuring that research relationships are congruent with the empowering and developmental goals of social work as a profession. The dynamic of reciprocity in relational ethics is a way of achieving this. The issues that are identified here have faced social scientists for decades (Barnes, 1979). This discussion invites social workers researching with vulnerable communities to recognise these as ethical issues. ‘Do no harm’ is a necessary but insufficient principle alone as the ethical basis for such work. It needs to be integrated with respect, beneficence and justice in a more relational approach that can be gauged in terms of what is offered back to participants in ways that are meaningful to them (Hugman, 2005, 2010). As has been noted, this may add some logistical complexity to projects in some situations, but it strengthens rather than weakens research methodologically. A participatory, relational model thus provides a basis for ‘good’ action research with participants from vulnerable communities, in both the technical and ethical senses. From this, it can become a solid basis for good practices and policies for social work.

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The authors are grateful to Leanne Dowse and Rebecca Eckert (University of New South Wales) for their contribution to associated work that has informed the thinking behind this paper, and also to Karen Postle (University of East Anglia) for advice on UK material concerning service users and research.

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