Global Studies Quarterly
Interdisciplinary scholarly literature considers how research processes may adversely affect their participants. Building on this work, this article addresses the processes and practices of applied research in contexts in which imbalances of power exist between researchers and those being researched. We argue that research activities in international development and humanitarian work that are typically operational, such as needs assessments, baseline studies, and monitoring and evaluation, represent interventions in the lives of participants, with the potential to create value or harm, delight or distress. The ethical and methodological dilemmas of this intervention have received less attention than purely academic discussions of human subject research. How can applied researchers meaningfully reckon with the effects of the research process on both those conducting it and those participating in it throughout the research cycle? In response, we introduce an approach co-developed over seven years through engagement with applied researchers across sectors. We discuss four interrelated principles—relevance, respect, right-sizing, and rigor—intended to invite a commitment to ongoing process improvement in the conduct of applied research. We also propose a framework to guide the implementation of these principles and illustrate the tensions that may arise in the process of its application. These contributions extend conversations about research ethics and methods to the operational research realm, as well as provide concrete tools for reflecting on the processes of operational research as sites of power that ought to be considered as seriously as the findings of data collection activities.
Kendra Leith, MIT D-Lab Associate Director for Research