Justice and Memory

The Question of Ethical Review: Between bureaucracy and innovation

“Raising Awareness About the Challenging Past in the Middle East” is grounded in the past and ongoing forms of violence experienced by the vast majority of Jordan’s population. In what follows, we briefly describe the background context of Jordan, how the project intervenes, and our reflections on the question of ethical review in conducting research.

Project Background

Before the modern founding of Jordan by the ruling family, themselves transplants from the Arabian peninsula, the city of Amman was developed by generations of displaced people. The history of modern displacement to Amman begins with late nineteenth and early twentieth century Circassians and Chechans, who fled religious and ethnic persecution in the Caucuses, to mid-twentieth century Palestinian and Iraqi refugees entering the city in successive waves.

In the past decade, the demographic makeup of Jordan was further complicated. A record number of Syrians entered due to the Syrian conflict. This is in addition to smaller but active communities of Egyptian, Ethiopian, and Sudanese migrant workers. Moreover, less recognizable but nevertheless present forms of violence were inflicted through the urbanization of the region’s farmers and indigenous Bedouin tribes.

In response, our project built a curriculum for teaching about the violent past through a diversity of indigenous history, literature, and language, adapting a pedagogical approach with a focus on individual expression. We implemented two seminars in Arabic, based on the aforementioned curriculum and pedagogy. The seminars involved 12 members each from different backgrounds who collectively and individually worked through the violent past.

Members were invited in the last week of the seminar to write in their own terms. Having begun the work of reckoning with the past, they translated their experience to life after the seminar. We specifically invited members to write in the form of a letter. The act of deliberate writing was a necessary step for each member to take responsibility for their individual reckoning and to begin thinking about impacting their communities. The letters remained in the ownership of the members themselves.

The Question of Consent

The seminar discussions themselves were not the site of ‘data collection.’ Rather, all the output produced by the project leaders (curriculum, notes on pedagogy, policy report, and academic papers) were based on our own experiences. Given the intimacy and safety of the seminars and the space within which they took place, the usage of consent forms to explain that the topic is sensitive might have been off-putting. It would bureaucratize what is otherwise a dynamic and humane set of interactions which framed the seminars.

In the stead of such bureaucratic approaches, we received verbal consent from members. All three of the researchers have taught and engaged over several years on developing the safety of the interaction with members of the seminars through verbal consent. A signed piece of paper might have the opposite effect, causing members to rethink the safety of the space or be more cautious about speaking. Through its pedagogical style, the project cultivated modes of safety and intimacy which are not dependent on the often bureaucratic structures which mediate access to “safety” and “belonging,” especially in refugee communities.

We are inspired by possibilities for cultivating human connection in the midst of difficult histories. The logic of the project is to create the conditions for participants to produce knowledge about their own experiences. We guided and mentored them as needed and ensured that they are protected and remain safe through our prior experience teaching seminars of this type. We also made clear that the content and direction of the seminar itself is co-created by the members. We took feedback from members and amended the seminars accordingly.

Rethinking the Bureaucracy of Ethical Review

This project followed a review process conducted by the Jordan Prime Minister’s Office. All approval for projects with an element of foreign funding must go through such an approval process by the government. The process is often highly bureaucratic and goes through several ministerial offices. But the process is not entirely transparent or straightforward. Outside of the major universities, Jordan does not have an independent and qualified ethical review board for such research.

We shared our navigation of the bureaucratic process with representatives from Taghyeer, the Royal Society of Science, and the Arab Council for Social Sciences, an independent organization with an active interest in building research capacity in the Arab region. Our sharing coincided with the Council’s workshop on research ethics held in Amman in the week commencing March 20th. We are now coordinating with the leadership of the Council about collaborations going forward, in order to think about innovations in the ethical review process for Jordan and to develop synergies in our future research.

The questions we are thinking about include: how do you create an ethical review board that does not fall into the trap of bureaucracy, becoming a barrier rather than an enabler of research? How do we safeguard both researchers and the communities they work with in order to guarantee that research is not exploitative or extractive? Moreover, how can Jordan develop an ethical review process even for researchers from the west who come with an ethics review completed from their respective institutions? Jordan is especially important as a site for posing and answering these questions because of how much research is conducted on vulnerable populations.

Blog written by the Jordan project team – Raising Awareness About the Challenging Past in the Middle East 

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