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Research article - Peer-reviewed, 2023

Ethical Principles, Social Harm and the Economic Relations of Research: Negotiating Ethics Committee Requirements and Community Expectations in Ethnographic Research in Rural Malawi

Ansell, Nicola; Mwathunga, Evance; Hajdu, Flora; Robson, Elsbeth; Hlabana, Thandie; van Blerk, Lorraine; Hemsteede, Roeland


Conventional research ethics focus on avoidance of harm to individual participants through measures to ensure informed consent. In long-term ethnographic research projects involving multiple actors, however, a wider concept of harm is needed. We apply the criminological concept of social harm, which focuses on harm produced through and affecting wider social relations, to a research project that we undertook in Malawi. Through this, we show how structural economic inequalities shape the consequences of research for the differently positioned parties involved. Specifically, we focus on dilemmas around transferring resources within three social fields: our relations with a Malawian ethics committee; our interventions in a rural community; and our efforts to engage the policy community. Each of these involved multiple and differently placed individuals within broader, multi-scalar structural relations and reveals the inadequacies of conventional codes of ethics.


research ethics; ethnography; methodologies; social harm; economic inequalities; Malawi

Published in

Qualitative Inquiry
2023, Volume: 29, number: 6, pages: 725-736

    Sustainable Development Goals

    SDG10 Reduced inequalities

    UKÄ Subject classification

    Social Sciences Interdisciplinary

    Publication identifier


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