Report: Ethics in Practice

The ninth social design talk interrogated the (perhaps overlooked) ethical questions prompted by social design practice. Very crudely, social designers, unlike social scientists, are not required to apply the same rigorous analysis to the appropriateness of intervening, or making certain judgments, in the situations they confront. Why is this? And do we need to address it? Our speakers, one from social design, one from anthropology, outlined their own professional engagement with these questions.

Mary Rose Cook

Mary is founder and co-director of Uscreates, a social innovation agency whose work often involves engaging and working with ‘hard to reach’ communities. Through co-design workshops with such communities and other stakeholders, Uscreates devise design interventions which will improve and or generate radically different forms of services in the public sector.

In describing the ethical considerations and dilemmas which this user insight work prompted, it was clear that whether activities are categorised as either ‘social research’, or ‘design’, makes a difference in determining ethical responsibility.

Mary described how after working on a project in Bristol looking at teenage pregnancy, and conducting a lot of work in the field with young mums, the Uscreates team really felt they needed more guidance regarding their ethical responsibilities. However, when they looked for advice, the guidance they were given was that if their work involved making some kind of direct intervention, at any point, it was not classified as research and therefore did not require ethical sign off – only the adoption of broad brush ethical principles.

Interestingly, the guidance Uscreates received mirrors the key debates on ethics in the social sciences, where making a positive impact on participants is often the anchoring point the discussion, and the key issue assessing what constitutes ‘good ethical practice’. Thinking about ethics in the context of social design therefore raises the interesting dilemma; what does ethical practice mean when having a positive impact on participants is a given from the outset?

Reflecting on Mary’s talk, it seems that closing down the debate about whether to intervene early on fosters an approach which is much more attentive to the everyday practicalities of ethics, and also prompts a more critical assessment of the stated benefits of a (social) design brief.

Addressing the everyday practicalities, Mary outlined several ethical hotspots which Uscreates encountered. These included;

  • The ethical responsibility to the research participant/informant/user and the need to dedicate time and space to thinking about how the research might affect participants, and what steps need to be taken to manage this impact.
  • The need to extend considerations about well-being to researchers as well. What were the implications for those conducting the research, what needed to be done to ensure they were kept safe and provided with the support needed to deal with emotionally difficult issues? This seemed to be particularly important in a commercial environments where researchers are less able to manage the terms of research interactions and process themselves.
  • The importance of constructing an exit plan which fits with both the design brief, contract, and the completion of the project. Working on a Chlamydia awareness campaign Uscreates found that, as the result of significant structural changes in the organisation which commissioned the work, the volunteers who had co-designed the process were left without the support needed to continue the project. Uscreates felt that, given the time and effort the volunteers had put into to project, they could not simply stop working on it because the contract had ended, and consequently had to continue running the project until they could find someone within the new structure who would agree to take it on.

In addition to these specific ethical hotspots Mary also raised some broader questions about ethics in a social design context. Firstly she questioned whether, if co-design is truly a collaborative process, we should consider paying those volunteers who participate in co-design workshops. Mary admitted she had no clear answer to this difficult question, other than to say giving thought to how those who put energy and time into the co-design process was important. It was also pointed out that, although perhaps volunteers should be paid, or rewarded in some way, this can jar with the client demands which are often underpinned by the government discourse on the big society and volunteerism.

Mary also emphasised that even though Uscreates were dedicating time to thinking about ethics they weren’t looking for strict guidelines, or procedure, as offered by organisations like the BSA (British Sociological Association) or AAA (American Anthropological Association). They felt the kind of tick box mentality these guidelines can engender might restrict innovation in the research process, and distract from the important issues – these concerns were echoed by Adam Drazin later on.

In drawing her talk to a close Mary described how the process of talking about ethics has led Uscreates to respond to the briefs they receive differently. Now briefs were placed under more scrutiny, and refined in negotiation with the client to be more realistic and Uscreates asked themselves where the felt comfortable spending public money more frequently too.

Adam Drazin

Adam started by emphasising that ethics needs to be viewed as a process which is both reflexive and reactive, as something which emerges and is situated in the relationships between people, and with materials. As such, we might call all ethics ethics in practice.

Adam then highlighted that we can see ethics as something which is present in the means and the ends. Ethics can be focused on the delivery of an ethical outcome or ends, either in a service, product or the facilitation of certain behaviours, and it can also be embedded in the means, the research or generative process itself.

Like Mary, Adam also pointed out that ethical consideration needs to be given, not only to the relationship between ethnographer and informant, or designer and user, but also to the relationship between collaborators on a project.

Building on the issue of collaboration Adam highlighted how differently design and social sciences research approach the issue of ethics. Adam noted that in books on social research you will find an individual chapter dedicated to the question of ethics, it is a clearly named issue, and a clearly defined object of academic interrogation. In contrast, within books on design, ethics manifests itself in the concerns about the values that design, and design methods, should embody. This difference could be summarised as one between a distanced, intellectualised approach and a practice imbued with ethics so closely you could miss their presence altogether.

As an explicit object of anthropological work, the encounter with an ethical dilemma therefore also becomes key to proving your ability as a researcher; how you negotiate an ethical dilemma is a way of demonstrating your sensitivity to the values of your informants, the quality of your engagement and your sense of responsibility. As Adam put it, it is a “badge of honour”.

Building on this Adam argued that part of developing meaningful research relationships – an ethical means – might also involve a situated negotiation with important ethical principles, most notably informed consent. What should you do if presenting yourself overtly as a researcher in the first interaction causes damage to the engagement, and how can you resolve this whilst still following the principle of informed consent? Furthermore how do we define informed consent? As anthropologists and other social scientists develop long term engagements with people’s lives the boundaries between what should and shouldn’t be shared become more blurred, and the expectations of the informant may change.

Adam argued that the difficulty anthropology has in managing the material lives of its informants is also important to consider. If the material interaction is the area where cues for improved interaction, or particular issues are addressed by proxy, how should it be accounted for in ethics?

Alongside these issues Adam emphasised the potential of collaboration as a way to expand and enrich the ethical debate and in turn improve practice. Adam raised the possibility of the social researcher or anthropologist acting as a critic and analyst within a multidisciplinary team. In this arrangement researchers can recognise they are not best placed to intervene but can work in a collaborative team with people who can (designers), and then take responsibility for drawing attention to instances where interventions might ‘violate systems of value’ of user-informants. Equally, designers can hold ethnographers to account, interrogating the kinds of materials they produce, questioning whether publishing a policy report or in an academic journal is the most ethical course of action, once fieldwork has been completed.

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