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Mosenodi, Volume 15, Number 1 & 2, 2007

Responsible Research Ethics in African Contexts

Chilisa Bagele
University of Botswana

Abstract: Chi/isa presents the debate on the application of Euro- Western

based research methodologies across cultures and the implication of this
debate for an ethical research process. She argues that techniques of
collecting data in former colonized countries are not always ethical and
that the theories and subsequent volumes of literature are not favorable
to these societies. Current ethical principles of informed consent are
centered on Euro-western values of individualism that do not always apply
in communities where collective decision making and community
participation in decision making are valued. Within this context, questions
arise, such as: What does it mean to be a responsible researcher in African
contexts? Ethical issues arise in researching sacred indigenous knowledge
using the Mazenge cult as an example. Is it ethical to gather information
on a respondent through a third person where the cultural practices
sanction the researcher against communicating directly with the key
informant such as in the Mazenge cult?

Most research books acknowledge the diversity of research methodologies
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and strengths and weaknesses of each methodology (Mertens 2007; Neuman

1997). Scholars writing from the vantage of former colonized societies,
historically oppressed groups, women and those with disabilities argue that the
debate on the methodologies is framed within narrowly defined male Euro-
Western epistemologies (Mertens 2007, 2005, Scheurich 1997, Smith 1999).
Their argument is that an urgent need exists to debate the blind application of
these methodologies across cultures and more specifically in former colonized,
historically oppressed and enslaved groups, women and people with disabilities.
Lamenting on the appropriateness of the universalation of these methodologies
(Scheurich] 997:] 41) notes that:

" ... our current range of research epistemologies-

positivism to postmodernisms, post structuralisms-arise out
of the social history and culture of the dominant race,
.... these epistemologies reflect and reinforce that social
history and that social group and this has negative results
for the people of color in general and scholars of color
in particular. "

Augmenting this view, Foucault (1977:151) notes that:
IIResearchers are knowledge brokers, people who have
the power to construct legitimating arguments for or
against ideas, theories or practices. They are collectors
of information and producers of meaning which can be
used for, or against indigenous interests" (University of
Victoria, 2003 cited in Cram 2()()4).

That means that ethics for postcolonial indigenous people go beyond Euro-
Western research issues of power that mainly focus on 'I' the researcher and
'you' the researched. An African-centered research approach sees researchers
as healers with ethical responsibility for transforming/healing the community
and realigning people to the natural order of the universe (cited in Ramsey
2(06). An Mrican centered approach emphasizes truth, justice, righteousness/
propriety, harmony, order, balance and reciprocity as the code of conduct and
standards for ethical moral behavior (Ramsey 20(6). These ethical
responsibilities of researchers in post colonial societies raise many chalJenges
to how ethics should be conceptualized and ethical principles applied in the
research process. Elsewhere (Chitisa, forthcoming), I propose that research
ethics on post colonial societies should involve an on going back and forth
review and analysis of the events, practices, and interactions between
researchers, informants and the communities they research from the time of
the initial planning of the research. These back and forth on going appraisals,
reviews and analyses of the process and the outcomes of the research should
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be guided by "self reflection and self questioning" on their responsibilities. I

propose the following issues that researchers need to interrogate:

1. Researcher as colonizer, researched as colonized.

2. Researcher as knower/teacher and researched as object/subject/
3. Researcher as redeemer, researched as the problem.
4. Ethical responsibilities of researchers in the application of theoretical
frameworks and literature review to inform the research process.
5. Ethical principles of consent and confidentiality as legalistic contractual
agreements centered on the Euro-Western values of individ ualism that
ignore collective and participatory decision making

I look at how each of these conceptualizations is manifest in the research

process and the questions that researchers need to ask themselves.

Researcher as colonizer, researched as colonized

Postcolonial/indigenous researchers who embrace ethical responsibilities of
healers, seeking to bring about transformation in their societies, strive to expose,

the modern discursive practices, pervasive and nearly invisible strategies that
facilitate the marginalization, oppression and disregard of human rights of
postcolonial/indigenous communities. The colonizer/colonized, researcher/
researched relationships can be a starting point to begin to review events and
practices in the research process so that the ethical responsibility of a healer
engaged in a transformative journey is not compromised. Researchers as
producers of knowledge make assumption~ about the power relations between
themselves and the researched and are consciously or unconsciously guided
by these assumptions. These assumptions inform the researchers' interactions
with the researched, the kind of knowledge that can be produced and how it
can be produced. The colonizer/colonized relationship interrogates power
relations related to researchers as privileged elites researching and operating
with Western models of thought. The concern is on Euro-centrism as a science
that privileges Western ways of knowing and perceiving reality. In this
framework, the indigenous/postcolonial researchers can assume many identities.
They can operate at the level of colonizer co-opted by the dominant western
discourse on methodology that uses Euro-western standards as universal truths
against which the 'other' former colonized societies, marginalized by
globalization, are researched and written about. At another level they can operate
as healers, challenging and resisting the blind Euro-Western application of
methodologies across all cultures. At this level, they are members of the former
colonized, marginalized written about and writing about themselves. These
multiple positions require knowledge production approaches that are multiple,
interconnected, sensitive and engaging for the researcher with ethical issues
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that position the researcher as healer. The researcher needs to ask the following

1. Whose side am Jon?

2. Do] challenge and resist dominant discourses that marginalize those
who suffer oppression?
3. Who am I writing about? Self or 'Other' or both?

Researcher as knower/teacher and researched as object/subject/known/

At another level, the power relations operate within spaces of researched as
subject/object and researcher as knower. Researchers act as know]edge
imperialists and colonizers when they claim authenticity of description,
interpretation and dissemination of results under the guise of scholarship and
authority in the area of study. The researched become objects and passive
onlookers. In this objectification and "thingification of people" (Loomba 2001),
researchers do not ask the researched if they agree in the way their lives are
described and interpreted. bell hooks (1990) notes that in such instances, the

researcher becomes the authorative author who is not sensitive to the voices
of the researched but is more interested in his/her standing as an authority in
the subject he/she writes in which the researched cannot participate. Capturing
this unethical and immoral stance of the researchers in their own voices, she
portrays them as saying to the researched:

"No need to hear your voice when I can talk about you
better than you can speak about yourself No need to
hear your voice. Only tell me about your pain. I want to
know your story. And then I will tell it hack to you in a
new way that it has become mine, my own. Rewriting you,
I write myself anew, I am still author, authority, I am the
colonizer, the speaking subject, and you are now the centre
of my talk. (Bell Hooks 1990: 152).

In a similar vein, Nyamojoh (2001:3) laments the objectification of the

marginalized, researched people in Africa and observes that:

Most villagers and slams in Africa are unaware of the


fact that the photograph which an apparently friendly

anthropologist has asked to take is going to serve as slides
in public lectures, dessert at anthropological meals or the
cover picture of a book in a strange, distant country where
they might never go ",
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Nyamojoh (2001 :6) goes on to ask the following questions:

"Were the villagers as informed about the world as their

anthropological researchers, would they have allowed their
photographs taken, knowing they can serve as a laughing
stock in the land of the so called civilized? Is it because one is
seen to be unsophisticated and uninformed, that one should he
exploited? In other words, is it because one has not seen a
camera before that one should pay the expensive price of
appearing naked in public lectures and dinner tables or on
book covers and inside pages without informed consent?"

Bell Hooks (1990), and Nyamojoh (2001,2006), question the assumption that
when researchers pass their research proposal through ethics review boards,
the research will be conducted in an ethical way that is sensitive to human
rights and is respectful of the integrity and dignity of the researched. They
also question the consent agreement made by the researched. What is the
researched for instance giving consent to? Do the researched always understand
that by giving consent to be participants in a research, they are giving consent
to speak on the behaU of the researched communities to which the findings of
the researched could be generalized? In communities where collective decision
making and community participation is valued, would these researchers for
instance give consent to participate knowing that their voices will be taken as
the voices of the majority? A healer/transformative researcher needs to
interrogate these questions in order to open spaces for other ethics research
protocols that are sensitive to the cultures of the researched and open spaces
for healing past abuses of the researched, affirm the researched's values that
are meaningful and help to improve their way of life. Within this context an
African researcher operating as a healer in a transformative journey needs to
address the following questions:

1. Do the researched own a description of themselves?

2. Have the voices of the researched been captured in a way that the
researched recognize themselves, know themselves and would like
others to know themselves?
3. Do the researchers and the researched have a common understanding
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of the meaning of consent, confidentiality and anonymity?

Researcher as redeemer, researched as the problem

Researchers are also implicated in the imperialist agenda when they participate
in the olhering of researchers through deficit discourses, theories or literature
that construct the researched as the problem. Elsewhere (Chilisa 2(05), I
problematise my position as a researcher co-opted into the dominant western
deficit discourse on the historically colonized, resisting this discourse and failing
because of the ovelWhelming literature that has normalized and constructed
as facts and 'common sense' a deficit discourse about the 'Other'. Common
among these deficit discourses is the normalized thinking to blame the
devastating epidemic of HIV and AIDS on a 'permissive female sexuality', a
thinking perpetuated by a colonial discourse on sexuality that equated African
women with animals (Collins 1998, Chilisa 2006). These deficit thinking and
constructions about the African should propel researchers to review, critique,
and think afresh the steps in carrying out research.
The golden rule for novice researchers is that they should always read the
literature in order to assist the researcher to choose a researchable topic,

focus the research questions, provide theoretical basis for analysing findings,
legitimise the researcher's own assumption, and give credit and
acknowledgement to the strength of previous findings. One major limitation of
this approach is that the concepts, the theories and the research studies
conducted and the literature in general have been written on us former colonised
societies by missionaries, travellers, navigators, historians, anthropologists and
so on who in most cases looked upon the researched as objects with no voice
to add to the way they wanted to be written about.. This literature and body of
knowledge continues to inform OUf research practices. The theories and
literature have not been favourable to historically oppressed and formerly
colonised societies. Noting these assaults by the literature and the theories,
Smith (1999: 38) observes:

('Indigenous people have been in many ways oppressed

by theory. Any considerations of the ways our origins have
been examined, our histories recounted, our arts analyzed,
our cultures dissected measured, torn apart and distorted
hack to us will suggest that theories have not looked
ethically at us."

As Western educated scholars researching former colonised societies, we

need to ask ourselves the following questions:

1. What psychological harm, humiliation, embarrassment and other losses, if

any, have these theories and body of knowledge caused to the researched?
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2. What is the body of indigenous knowledge of the former coJonized societies

that we can utilize to counter theories and the body of knowledge that may
cause humiliation and embarrassment to the researched?

These questions make it increasingly important for researchers to familiarize

themselves with colonial epistemologies and their social construction of formerly
c010nized and historically oppressed groups in order to understand the theoretical
landscape and literature within which we are encouraged and coerced to
operate. Healer/transformative researchers should debate these theories and
literature to expose the possible psychological harm and loss of whatever kind
that has occurred over the years because of these theories. Postcolonial theories
provide an important framework through which western educated researchers
can explore the possible biases in the literature we read, identify the knowledge
gaps that have been created because of the uni-directional borrowing of Euro-
Western literature, and bring to a halt the continuing marginalization of other
knowledge systems that occurs because of the dominant Euro-western research
paradigms and their discourses on what can be researched and how it can be

researched and how it can be researched. I explore Blaut's theory on the
colonizer's model of the world to show how this theory can be used as an
analytical tool to expose misconceptions, prejudices, racism, and stereotypes
in the review of literature
In The Coloniser s Model of the World, Blaut (1993) reveals the role of European
diffusionism ideology in constructing dichotomies of coloniser/colonized. He defines
diffusionism as the be1iefthallhc rj~e of Europe to modernity and world dominance
is due to some unique European quality of race, environment, culture, mind or
spirit. Blaunt (1993) distinguishes two historical epochs in his theorisation of
diffusionism and the rise of Europe to dominance. The first period was marked
by an inside/outside relationship constructed on the basis of a world with a
pennanent centre from which all ideas and technology tended to originate and
a periphery that borrows from the centre for change and development to occur.
The inside/outside relationship begins with colonisation when the Westerners
propagated the 'myth of emptiness of intellectual creativity and spiritual values
and an absence of rationality to justify the displacement of natives from their
lands. The diffussionism ideology enabled the division of the world into binary
opposites of inside/outside, centre/periphery, coloniser/colonized and First World!
Third World. The colonizer/colonized binaries evolved over time and at each
historical point scripts the social license by which its ideas ((gain currency
and hegemony". Blaut captures the binary opposites on Western/European
and Non-European/Other as follows:
Characteristics of Characteristics of Non-
Western/European European/Other
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Inventiveness Imitativeness
Rationality, intelJect Irrationality, emotion, instinct
Abstract thought Concrete thought
Theoretical reasoning Empirical, practical reasoning
Mind Body matter
Discipline Spontaneity
Adulthood Childhood
Sanity Insanity
Science Sorcery
Progress Stagnation

Blaut's construction of the colonizer's model of the world can be used as an

analytical tool to interrogate the literature we read and the way we conduct
research in former colonized and historically oppressed groups. The researcher
can use these binary opposites to address the following questions:

1. What assumptions, prejudices, stereotypes informed the review of


2. How do the literature and theories reviewed portray the researched?
3. Is there any deficit thinking or theorising in the literature reviewed?

Ethics for researchers working in historically oppressed, fonner colonized

societies should involve going back and forth to retrieve marginalized and
dominant literatures to review, analyze and challenge colonizing and deficit
theorizing and interpretations, to create counter narratives that see the past
differently and envision a transfonnative agenda for the researched. It also
involves defining what literature and theorizing in the context of fanner colonized
societies is. Literature is our language, cultural artifacts, legends, stories,
practices, songs, poems, dances, tattoos, lived experiences such as our fight
against HIV/AIDS, personal stories and community stories told in weddings,
funerals, celebrations, wars, ritual songs and dance and silence. In speaking
about literature, the song Todii below (See Mtukudzi Greatest Hits: The Tuku
Years 1998-2002) always comes to my mind because in my view it captures
the realities of HTV/AIDS beyond what the academic discourse is willing to

Senzeni (What shall we do? (Mtukuzi)
Ooooh toddii?
What shall we do? Senzi njani X3
Verse 2
How painful it is to nurse death in the/your hands!
What shall we do?
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How ..... .
What shall we do .... ?
Verse 1 repeat
Verse 3
Look, it has hit at the core, where there is no survival
When you have it, the infection
Look it has hit the core where there is no survival
When you .......
Verse 1 repeat
Verse 4
How painful it is to be raped by one whom you live with
And then you have it, the infection
How painful to be raped by the one who paid lobola!
And now you have it, the infection
A nd even when he knows you now have it, the infection
And even when you now also know you have it, the infection
Verse 5
Beyond the grave there is no prayer my friends, we have come

When you have it, the....
Please give advice, I don't know what to do (I have no idea left in
While you have it, the ...
Please give advice, we are stuck

In the song, the artist Oliver Mtukudzi resists co-option into the dominant
discourse on HIV/AIDS that insists on using a standardized science laboratory
language to describe people's experiences. The artist does not mention the
word HIV/AIDS. He sings about the realities seen from another lens and we
know it is about what has been named by the Westerners HIV/AIDS. When
HIV/AIDS is discussed in mainstream discourses, usually it is about the statistics
on infection and the number of condoms sold, a Western measure of profits
made in Western capital markets masquerading as genuine concern for the
spread of HIV/AIDS. In the song, the pain of nursing death resonates with
people's experiences. People in Africa have many labels and names that describe
their daily experiences with HIV/AIDS. These have been invariably labeled
irrelevant, ignorant, beliefs in sorcery, barbaric cultural beliefs, simplistic thinking,
uncivilized thinking, belief in witch craft and so on. The artist positions himself
as a transformative healer because he not only resists dominant discourse on
who can name HIV/AIDS, but also questions the practices in families that
contribute to pain, suffering and the spread of HIV/ AIDS. He brings on board
the issue of rape in marriage and women's rights in sexual relationships. The
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artist propels the researched in this context to revisit practices in the family
and power relations between men and women in a manner that is not

Ethics and Techniques of Gathering Data

It is also important to note that the deficit literature and theories on colonized
people were produced and legitimised through processes of measurement
defined as objective in the context of scientific colonialism. Current debates
on the role of techniques or methods in the construction of claims of truths
further bring to question the literature and the validity of the research studies
carried out in the colonial era and tho~e continuously being carried out by
scholars, the majority of them educated in Western modes of thinking.
Questioning the authenticity of these methods, Law (2004) notes:

"If research methods are allowed to claim methodological

hegemony or (even worse) monopoly, and I think there
are locations where they try to do this, then when we are
put into relation with such methods we are being placed,

however rebelliously, in a set of constraining normative
blinders. We are being told how we must see and what we
must do when we investigate. And the rules imposed on us
carry; we need to note, a set of contingent and historically
specific Euro-American assumptions. " p.5

"Methods and their rules and even more, methods

practices not only describe but also help to produce the
reality that they understand. (Law 2004:5-6)

Postcolonial indigenous researchers who take up the responsibilities as

transformative healers in Africa need to be familiar with not only these debates
on methods and techniques, but also with the evidence of how the methods
and techniques were manipulated to perpetuate the dominance of one race
over the other. The Porteus Maze used as tests of intelligence among Africans
in the 20 th century is an example of how techniques could be manipulated to
privilege the dominance of one race over another or the colonizer over the
colonised. Following is an extract on the Porteus Maze.

The Porteous Maze Tests as Tests oJlntelllgence

In these tests, the subject is presented with a printed plan o} a
maze, and he has to trace with pencil the path he would follow
in getting to the centre of the maze. If he enters blind alleys,
he fails. The mazes form a series, graded in difficulty, and
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constituting an age scale of intelligence. A European child,

when he reaches a maze beyond his mental age tends to enter
a blind alley and explore it to the end, and then to retrace his
path to the entrance of the blind alley and go on again. He
penetrates the centre of the maze quickly enough] but with
many errors. The typical procedure oj the African tested was
different. The subject would study the maze for many minutes
without making a move: then he would trace his path to the
centre without hesitation or error. The test had to be abandoned
as a test of intelligence, for even the most difficult mazes in
the series were solved in this way by too many oj the subjects.
But this experience made me wonder about the African's
alleged impulsiveness. (Oliver 1934:44)

The colonial research practice sought to reproduce the ((other from a Euro-
western eye". The questionnaires, intelViews, tests sought to create the Euro-
western white male as the norm against which the ((other" was judged. When
attributes allocated to the Eure-Western white male appeared more frequently

in the "other" judged primitive, then the instruments were judged unreliable
and lacking validity. This was methodological imperialism at its best - a strategy
to build a collection of methods, techniques and rules calculated to market only
that knowledge that promoted and profited Euro-centrism.
The questions we ask are:

1. What is our role as healers when we come across such literature on

2. How can we as healers use the Porteus Test to reconstruct the past
and heal our communities?
3. Is there not something to be learned from the procedure the Africans
used to explore the maze and solve the problem quickly?
4. Can we say social science has exhausted the dimensions of intelligence
when indicators of intelligence were abandoned in cases where the
'lesser' races could solve the problem faster than the normative white

Ethical responsibilities of postcolonial indigenous researchers as healers includes

an agenda to invoke the past to question the present and a call for a debate on
the historical evidence of the manipulation of techniques as evidence of how
we can be blinded by techniques. The evidence of how research was
manipulated to perpetuate the domination of one race by another serves as a
genuine call for academic discourses to open space for the inclusion of
indigenous knowledge systems as thought processes, systems of collecting
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data, frameworks for analysing data. Such indigenous knowledge systems offer
hope for studying formerly colonized societies that have been historically
researched using Euro-Western methodologies and analytical frameworks that
sought to see only the realities they could understand. As more and more
scholars from formerly colonised societies begin to make choices on what
they research and delve into areas that colonial epistemologies dismissed as
sorcery, researchers who assume their responsibilities as healers are confronted
by the realities of the limitation of Western hegemonic ethical standards such
as the principle of infonned consent of the researched. What follows is an
account of ethical dilemmas that may arise when researchers researching
sacred knowledge. Here] visit some of the ethical issues that arose when
Tshireletso (2001) carried out research on the Mazenge cult.
Mazenge is a cult of affliction (hereditary spirits of the bush or spirits). 1t is a
cult whose membership is entirely women. In this study, Tshireletso wanted to
establish how the concepts of sacred space in Mazenge cult are constructed
and to establish the religious meanings of sacredness in the Mazenge cult. In
doing this research, he was confronted by several challenges. Talking about
Mazenge cult is a public taboo. The word Mazenge is not supposed to be

mentioned in public. Accessibility of the Mazenge spirit medium in connection
to Mazenge cult is impossible when the medium is not in a state of being
possessed. Ethical responsibilities of a healer researcher would require us to
ask ourselvcs how we can ethically research specific knowledge belonging to
a specific community like that of Mazenge. Here I revisit the Euro-Western
established practices and protocols on consent and confidentiality.
Tshirclctso observes that he could not interview the Mazenge spirit medium
because for the time that he was conducting the rescarch; the spirit was not in
possession. The imprcssion one gets is that hc would have talked to the spirit
when she was in possession. The ethical principles that arise arc:

l. Is it ethical to seek consent from one in possession?

2. If the principal informant, the Mazenge medium, cannot be talked to,
while not in possession, how can data collected about the spirit be
3. Is it ethical to write about the researched on the basis of what others
say about them?
4. What is the message behind the community sanction against
communication with Mazenge spirit mediums?
5. Is there a possibility that in researching Mazenge, Tshireletso was
violating Mazenge community copyrights to their knowledge?

Clearly mainstream practice and interpretations of informed consent and

copyright are not inclusive of the knowledge stored in rituals and practices like
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Mazenge. It is the work of transformative/healer researchers to bring to the

attention of others the limitation of the ethical principles that are currently in
operation. They must strive to push the boundaries of knowledge and practices
on ethics in order to stop further abuses of fundamental human rights of the
researched in former colonised societies such as the right to have a say on
whether thcy can be written about, a say on what can be written about them,
and how it can be written and disseminated.

The article extends the debate on the universalization of Euro-Western research
methodologies and counter arguments against the universalization of these
methodologies. The role of scientific colonialism is explored in defining the
handling and processing of data, access to information and the rcsearched,
ways of defining and knowing reality thus also defining the boundaries of what
it means to be ethical in conducting research. The conclusion drawn is that the
definition of ethics cannot be limited to interactions between the researcher
and the researched. It should include the questioning of dominant deficit thinking,
theorizing and the literature discourse that continue to construct the rescarched

in former colonised societies as a problem. There is also a need to extend the
perspectives on ethics to include generic protocols on how community copyrights
on their sacred knowledge can be protected, as well as expanding the definition
of consent to include collective or community consent as wel1 as individual

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