[How Do We “know” the World Series] Reciprocity as Research Ethics

by Christopher Millora

As a novice researcher, I once found solace in Robert Stake’s simple framing of qualitative researchers as “guests in the private spaces in the world”[i]. Back when I was an aspiring ethnographer, my quest to ‘knowing the world’ depended, quite significantly, on my participants having allowed me to enter their lifeworlds where they hold context-specific expertise. Thinking of my fieldwork this way fuelled my curiosity in capturing these understandings which, I found, could be facilitated by a collaborative research relationship.

Yet, apart from the ‘pure’ and general pursuit of expanding academic knowledge, there seems to be an imbalance in what both parties gain from the research. I will potentially earn a doctorate degree and benefit professionally from their stories. How about the participants? In what ways do they benefit, if at all, from our research partnership? In institutional research ethics guidelines and examples, the most common answer I came across was that, hopefully, participants would ‘enjoy’ talking to me about their thoughts and feelings.

My research looks at the learning and volunteering practices within a youth-driven NGO on HIV/AIDS awareness and an informal settlers’ association fighting for land tenure. When I was preparing for my 11-month fieldwork with ‘vulnerable’ youth and adult volunteers in the Philippines, red flags around the ethics of reciprocity surfaced: How do I go beyond what is expected to fulfil research ethics requirements in my institution? How can I counter the imbalance of benefit? What strategies can I employ to decrease the tendency of my research to be exploitative of an already ‘vulnerable’ community?

To prepare, I explored literature on research ethics across various areas such as decolonising methodologies, research with the ‘poor’ and ‘vulnerable’, participatory research methods and ethical challenges in ethnographic research. I also drew from my experience as an adult learning facilitator and development worker in the Philippines and reflected on how we approached collaboration and co-production. In the field, my strategies for reciprocity – two of which I will share in this blogpost – were constantly (re)negotiated with the participants and based on the context-specific circumstances I find myself in.

First, I employed strategies aimed at the democratisation of knowledge production. I drew inspiration from Sharlene Swartz[ii] who argued that taking participants’ perspectives is one of the way to ensure that they “are not misrepresented through shallow, mon­ocled gazes”. I did this through action-orientated methods and ‘reporting back’ early analyses so participants could critique, contest and/or confirm them using their own lenses. Being in the field for an extended period, I had the opportunity to do these sessions formally and informally across different moments. I am also ‘writing-up’ in a way that may be useful for the organisations with whom I worked, for instance, in the form of action-orientated recommendations.

The second strand of strategies I employed was around material and practical benefits. I volunteered (and not only researched) in the organisations. I fulfilled various tasks such as proposal writing, drafting of letters and by-laws and co-facilitating workshops. In informal spaces, I was a confidante, an adviser and a friend, more related to communal practices as I became part of the community rather than explicit strategies for reciprocity. While I agree with David Bridges[iii] that reciprocity should not only be considered as an exchange of ‘goods’, I had to take into consideration what Nosisana Nama and Leslie Swartz[iv] described as ‘local ethics of immediate need’. Observing first-hand the various ‘vulnerabilities’ the volunteers experienced, I was sensitive with transportation and food costs that the volunteers might incur in participating in the research. I have included these line items in my research budget. I would sometimes contribute out-of-pocket, which I attribute more to person-to-person helping activities being part of one community rather than a research strategy.

I successfully secured £400 for funding two projects of the organisations’ choice. The volunteers were free to decide how to use the funds with very little restrictions and expectations. In doing this, the funding was not only framed as a material benefit (i.e. a token) – which, under certain circumstances, may be patronising – but also a tool for participation as the volunteers were given the freedom to use the resources on their own terms. The HIV/AIDS group used the money to organise a workshop on mental health for the youth volunteers. Unlike other topic-specific training conducted by NGOs and government agencies, this workshop followed no pre-defined module. Youth volunteers and staff designed the day. Following a community meeting, the informal settlers’ association decided to use their budget in two ways. They installed two mechanical water pumps that eased water access following their house demolitions and the rest of the budget was used for a leadership training and teambuilding activity.

Having attended several development studies and international education conferences, I often hear of fascinating long-term research in global South communities (often by researchers in global North institutions) yet I hear few conversations around strategies to make research also beneficial to the people in the field communities[v]. Martyn Hammersley and Paul Atkinson noted the tendency that “researchers investigate those who are less powerful than themselves, and for this reason are able to establish a research bargain that advantages them and disadvantages those they study.[vi]” Therefore, the issue is also about positionality and power. I became aware that my strategies for reciprocity might enhance and/or flatten power inequalities embedded in field research. As Sharlene Swartz[vii] stressed, representation and reciprocity are the main ethical outcomes favoured by postcolonial research. While it is important not to overestimate how my research can ‘change’ the situations in these communities, I tried to focus in addressing the micro-politics of everyday interactions where power inequalities also pervade.

Christopher Millora is a Filipino PhD fellow at the UNESCO Chair in Adult Literacy and Learning for Social Transformation based at the School of Education and Lifelong Learning at the University of East Anglia. His research is an ethnographic exploration of the learning dimension of volunteer work by ‘vulnerable’ youths and adults in the Philippines. You may contact him on Twitter (@chrismillora) or via c.millora@uea.ac.uk.


[i] This was lifted from Robert Stakes’ “The Art of Case Study Research” (1998).

[ii] Sharlene Swartz has written an illuminating article discussing reciprocity in research with vulnerable youths using concepts from Emancipatory and Feminist methodologies as lenses: “‘Going deep’ and ‘giving back’: strategies for exceeding ethical expectations when researching amongst vulnerable youth” in Qualitative Research (2011), vol. 11(1) 47–68

[iii] David Bridge’s article also offers an insightful discussion on criticisms around the limits of outsider research and the ethical dilemmas that entails. See “The Ethics of Outsider Research” in the Journal of Philosophy of Education, Vol. 35, No. 3, 2001.

[iv] Nama and Swartz discuss this concept further in the article “Ethical and Social Dilemmas in Community-based Controlled Trials in Situations of Poverty: A View from a South African Project” published in the Journal of Community & Applied Social Psychology 12: 286–297 (2002)

[v] Of course, there are also research studies I have come across that are more explicit about their reciprocity strategies. Participatory action research projects, for example, embed improvement of practices and strategies within their research design that may directly benefit the community they are researching.

[vi] See Hammersley and Atkinson’s chapter on Ethics in their book Ethnography: Principles in Practice (2007).

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