Cultural aspects of ethics approval

I’d like to share an experience I had today when I looked into getting ethics approval for the upcoming interview. As we were informed, our interviews cannot proceed without such institutional approval, so getting this is an important step. Yet, I learnt that this step is itself a value-laden pursuit imbued with many layers of institutional and national culture, practice and expectation.

Here’s a summary of what happened. I went to a senior academic who is involved with the faculty-wide curriculum planning. I asked for his advice about where and who to approach for ethics approval and also to invite his opinion on who would be a good choice for an interviewee. It turns out that there is no ethics committee at our institution, nor is there any expectation of garnering ethics approval for any non-invasive research. The upper limit of ethical consideration is that if students are ‘used’ as test subjects, they must be informed of the study, they are allowed to refuse to take part and any identifying information cannot be used in the final report. There is nothing about the storage of documents, about participant informant sheet and consent forms (and their storage), or anything else. But we agreed that I should talk to the dean and have him act as a proxy for institutional consent in lieu of there not being any official body.

The dean was equally bemused by my request. I described the purpose of the consent and exactly what that may entail. He understood that his signature was required, but he didn’t have (!) a signature. In Japan, adults use stamps and any handwritten signature is not officially recognised. He practiced a few in front of me before committing his new one to paper. It was at this point I realised that Baaska’s statement; “You cannot collect data without such approval/authorization”, can only refer to the submission to theUoLiverpool.

This process revealed much about the Western-centric assumptions inherent in the requirement for ethics approval. Much research into ethics in non-Western contexts assumes the expectation of ethics approval from the Western researcher’s position (see for example Koulouriotis, 2011, whose work in Canadian ESL rightly questions the role of the researcher with non-Western respondents but makes no mention of the respondents’ expectation or limitations of ethics ). Koulouriotis (2011) goes further and asks if the current ethics forms are sufficient to protect Aboriginal respondents, a question that may be reframed as being patronising. Jamrozik (2004)also recognises the limitations of the formal standardisation of the ethics forms and wonders if this fails to address the purposes that ethics forms were originally set up. Having to gain ethics approval prior to research may be seen as a deontological duty, a kind of box ticking, or as an integral element of the research process during which time is given to serious considerations of the relationships and types of relationship present in the research itself (Kanuka & Anderson, 2007). Box-ticking protects researchers (and their sponsoring institutions) against the most basal criticism. However, this protectionism only has relevance in cultures that are litigious. Japan has had no incident where a humanities researcher has come under attack for unethical research practices. Accordingly, there is no culture of needing ethic approval, leading to the non-existence of ethics boards.

Jamrozik, K. (2004). Research ethics paperwork: what is the plot we seem to have lost? BMJ, 329, 286–287. doi:10.1136/bmj.329.7460.286

Kanuka, H., & Anderson, T. (2007). Ethical issues in qualitative research. International Journal of Qualitative Methods, 6(2), 20–39. Retrieved from

Koulouriotis, J. (2011). Ethical considerations in conducting research with non-native speakers of English. TESL Canada Journal, (5), 1–15. Retrieved from

About theCaledonian

Scot living in north Japan teaching at a national university.
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