Ethics and social engagement of researchers: questioning research practices in the social sciences and humanities
Often, starting a new research project or fieldwork begins with a self-reflective survey by the researcher of their own research practices. The URMIS graduate symposium, which is held once a year at Paris Diderot University or the University of Nice, France, offers to Ph.D students, senior Ph.D candidates and post-doctoral fellows in Anthropology, Sociology, History, Geography, and Ethnic Studies, an opportunity to present their reflections on methodological and ethical questions about research practices in their own fields. For the 2018 edition, which will take place at the University of Nice, we invite submissions on researchers’ attitudes to social and political engagement (theme 1) and on the ethics of research (theme 2). The symposium will allow researchers to discuss their past or present research projects in the light of such questions, which are too often left unaddressed and remain hidden in our publications.
Theme 1 : The researchers’ attitudes towards social and political engagement
Since the 1960s, some sociologists — fuelled by positivism — have jettisoned the moral questions that were raised in their research fields (Lipset, Smelser, 1961), as they considered sociology to be a science, or a profession shaped by specific methods of investigation (Bourdieu, Passeron, 1973). Can we, however, still consider that social sciences, from their very beginning onwards, are “political sciences”, and therefore, unfold fully engaged with modernity (Karsenti, 2006 ; Callegaro, 2015)? As a matter of fact, one could say that Durkheim wanted to remedy the absence of intermediary entities between citizens and the State (corporations) — in an effort to prolong Saint-Simonian ideas of socialism. Therefore, do the neo-positivist trends and the radically anti-Durkheimian position of some well-known sociologists and anthropologists such as Latour, or Viveiros de Castro, highlight the refusal of this initial political vocation?
Propositions such as the ones expressed by Burawoy (2009), invoking the need to shape a “public sociology” which would assume the moral commitment of researchers lying at the core of their research interests, proves that political and social engagement is not a topic of the past for social sciences and humanities researchers. We know full well today that doing fieldwork does not take place in a passive space waiting to be analysed: the fieldwork atmosphere, the informants, our convictions and our own beliefs (Elias, 1993 ; Giddens, 1987) constitute a learning space in the making, molded by coproduction and engagement, which cannot be considered neutral or neutralized. If for some researchers it is even impossible to not “take position” (Becker, 1967), especially when one works in interaction with any “subordinate” group, in what ways can the research then reconcile will-to-know and will-to-act ?
Furthermore, these reflections lead us to question our personal attitudes toward our field of investigation: what pushes us to become and remain sociologists, geographers, historians, demographers, anthropologists, especially when the “career” incentives seem to impede political engagement? Maintaining a “vocation”, choosing to follow some authors, theoretical schools of thoughts and concepts, or even styles of writing (Mazzochetti 2007; 2015); using this position or another to describe the social relationships that we scrutinise through our magnifying glass: these are all positions that structure our work and that we do not often make explicit when we present our research findings, even if they make our work prominently ‘political’.
Our goal is therefore to invite young researchers to debate these burning issues. We also accept papers that present the state of conversations between a Ph.D student/candidate and their advisor.
Theme 2: Ethics of research
Over the course of these last few years, researchers in social sciences and humanities in France have witnessed the implementation of numerous transformations that were brought about by the apparition of new tools and apparatus to orient and govern research projects supported by French institutions, such as universities, the CNRS, or INSERM. These new apparatus often take the shape of ethics committees that participate in creating and conditioning the practice of research, from the choice of fieldwork or topic of investigation, to the research questions asked, or the content of interactions and interventions of researchers with their informants.
In the social sciences (sociology, anthropology, demography, geography, history, ethnic studies), these ethics committees aim to survey the proper “scientific” conduct of the research protocol — the project being judged in the light of its ‘scientificity’ — as well as to assure the physical and mental integrity of subjects that are recruited or who participate in interviews. The field of expertise of ethics committees goes well beyond that of the social sciences: historians, for example, are also confronted with these new supervisory mechanisms which evaluate the modalities of the archival work, according to the potential repercussions affecting the descendants of people mentioned in their work.
If ethics committees are already well established in other disciplines, such as the natural sciences and medical sciences, or in the social sciences and humanities in other countries such as in the United States, it is now obvious that they are new in the social sciences and humanities in France, where questions of science governance has only recently become a topic of debate. It is now necessary for junior researchers to face this situation and, as new actors in the world of science, they have to tackle the questions linked to these transformations.
Have the new institutional power relations that were introduced by ethics committees created a real change in the fieldwork and restitution practices of researchers in the social sciences? What are the junior researchers’ points of view concerning these new practices of evaluation of their work? Do researchers in the social sciences always have to put ethics at the core of their research practices? If yes, how? What are the new power issues at stake with the constitution of these ethics committees? Is the researcher’s attitude towards scientificity transformed?
Further to this, beyond the institutional dimensions these questions raise, each researcher is brought to question their own ethics in their own research practices: whether they are tied to the strategies that they adopt when going on their fieldwork or when interacting with their informants, or when rendering their research findings. Following the idea that research is embedded in power relationships, that it produces knowledge that is not neutral, how do researchers define an ethical practice of research? To what extent are the researcher's ethical choices influenced by the constraints of institutional requirements, sponsors, and informants? Another point to consider is the hierarchy of knowledge produced and the ‘traces’ left locally by the researchers after their fieldwork (after the interviews, after their residencies, after their publications, etc.). To be ethical, should research in the social sciences be intended to be “useful”? And if so, useful to whom?
This series of questions will allow doctoral students and junior researchers in the humanities and in the social sciences with a wide range of backgrounds (anthropology, sociology, history, geography, ethnic studies, etc.) to share their
experiences and reflections about supervisory mechanisms, the ethics of research and their own practices.
The scientific committee invites submissions from doctoral students and junior researchers in the humanities and in the social sciences with no restriction as to discipline (anthropology, sociology, history, geography, ethnic studies, law, demography, etc.). Those interested in presenting their research at this conference should send a 250-word abstract to firstname.lastname@example.org no later than February 1st, 2018. Authors of accepted papers will be notified by March 15, 2018 and must then send a preliminary draft of their paper by May 14, 2018.
Each presentation will be between 15 and 20 minutes. The symposium will take place at the MSHS Sud Est, in Nice, on Friday June 8, 2018.
Scientific and Organizing committee:
Iman Ben Lakhdhar, Marine Bismuth, Romane Blassel, Jean-Baptiste Dagorn, Elodie Grossi, Aurore Mottet, Aurélie Racciopi, Arihana Villamil.
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