SFU psychology associate professor Tanya Broesch is co-leading an international team of social scientists that is studying the unique scientific and ethical challenges of cross-cultural research.

FASS News, Faculty, Research

Recommendations for navigating ethical challenges in cross-cultural research

September 30, 2020


Increasingly, social scientists are asked to expand their data collection beyond WEIRD (Western, educated, industrialized, rich and democratic) populations.

That has prompted an international team of social scientists, led by SFU psychology associate professor Tanya Broesch and co-lead Alyssa Crittenden, a University of Nevada researcher, to study the unique scientific and ethical challenges of cross-cultural research.

“There has been a recent shift in the social sciences—a push to sample populations that are more representative of the world’s population,” says Broesch. “However, with that shift also came so-called ‘helicopter’ or ‘extractive’ research. This refers to the fast process of visiting an unfamiliar culture and conducting a study with little regard for the impact on the participating communities.”

Currently, the researchers say 90 per cent of research in the social sciences features a narrow and unrepresentative sample of the world’s population. However, much of the cross-cultural research has historically been rooted in racist, capitalist ideas and motivations.

In their newly published paper, Broesch, Crittenden and their co-authors argue that researchers must seriously consider the historical, political, sociological and cultural forces acting on the communities and individuals being studied to avoid making inaccurate and possibly harmful inferences.

The authors draw on years of cross-cultural work in anthropology and psychology to deliver suggestions to address logistical and ethical quandaries. These include study site selection, research engagement with communities, and the significance of culturally appropriate research methods and reporting practices—both in publications and in media representations.

The authors also suggest the researchers’ general approach—from project development through to publication and data management—is what matters, and that establishing and maintaining communication with participants is a priority.

“There is no one-size-fits-all approach, yet a productive baseline may be for researchers to consider community inclusion as part of their project design from the start,” the authors write. “Ideally, the community is not only central to the planned research, but is leading it.”

The research team argues that despite the long history of exploitation and colonialism inherent in much ethnographic discourse, comparative research in the 21st century can be successfully and ethically conducted in a wide range of communities (including small-scale societies) across a variety of academic disciplines. The key, they say, is to take a community-centered approach.

The researchers add that all scientists need to reflect on these issues and be accountable to their participants and colleagues for their research practices.

They suggest researchers new to cross-cultural studies collaborate with seasoned field researchers who can offer guidance on locally appropriate ethical and practical guidelines, local contacts and locally relevant materials.

Their paper, published in the journal, Proceedings of the Royal Society B., adds to the growing dialogue on best practices when working with populations or cultural groups in low- to middle-income regions.