Ethical Issues for Practical Research week

Following close on the heels of the 10-week module on values in education came the week-long “masterclass” on how research is impacted by ethical considerations. In summary, I left the week more frustrated than ever before. I was hoping for an indepth discussion between participants about how ethics can influence educational research, but as the week drew on, most discussions centred on issues that were more properly social work, justice or other non-educational ones. I felt that the conflation of issues detracted from what could have been a meaningful discussion. Instead, well, the word ‘non-sequitur’ came to mind more often than I’d have liked.

Also, the notion of ethics in the English literature is, appropriately enough, informed by the values, attitudes and practices of those writers and their cultures. However, the “sue me” mentality can be linked to geo-cultural spaces and can be distinguished from purely ethical issues. The situation in Japan, for example, is markedly different from that in England regarding the type, importance and practice of ethics. I wondered how this would play out in the week’s discussions.

My initial post critiqued the speaker in a video who argued that the ethical being is an ontology that generates ethical doing. The argument itself is sound enough at the practitioner level, however there needs to be an associated epistemology so that practitioners can see ways of developing their being. Because that epistemology was missing, I felt that the argument was incomplete.

Williams’s (2009) focus on the ontology of ethics reduces the opportunities for the researcher to discover their ethical stance. He invites readers to consider the question of ethical doing as resulting from ethical being. His argument for the development of this ethical being, however, is based on a misreading of Archer’s (2007) notion of reflexivity, and consequently it ignores the critical distinction being the ontological knowing that and the epistemological knowing how (Dean, 2006). Williams’s ontology of aporias offers a significant contribution to the study of ethics in research, but it raises more questions than it answers regarding how researchers develop their ethical being. Broadly stated, Williams’s argument falls under the relationship of care, one of three ethical positions, the other two being ethics by principle and ethics by tradition (Dean, 2006). All three have well-established epistemologies, including the ethics of care which began with the work of Gilligan (1993) who developed key epistemologies based on women’s contingency perspectives in a male-dominated society.

At the base of Williams’s argument is the notion that a deadlock occurs when researchers find themselves holding information that is potentially dangerous yet not knowing what to do with that information (Williams, 2009). He describes five types of deadlock, or impasse in developing his ontology of aporia. Ethics of care, he asserts, is ontologically founded. It exists as a mediator “between our subjective powers and ‘”the role of objective structural or cultural powers play in influencing social action’” (Williams, 2009, p. 219, citing Archer, 2007). Archer (2007), however, distinguishes a typology of interactions between the contextual dis- and continuities, the self and reflexive action the self may employ during those situation (p. 314-315). That Archer’s list is ontological is undeniable, but her use of them shows a clear epistemology of how the individual relates to their internal and external worlds and how individuals can increase their sense of agency in a contingent world. By omitting this, Williams has confused the necessary epistemology inherent in the development of ontologies with the resultant ontology itself.

Many issues behind the need to develop an ethical practitioner researcher being stance are outlined by Williams in the video (Laureate, 2012). I would like to close by elaborating on one of them as it affects my own research space. Williams notes that managerialism has arose to protect the institution rather than researchers or subjects (Laureate, 2012). The rise of managerialism in Japan has not responded in this way and very few non-STEM researchers need to consider the needs of any ethics committee, which often do not even exist, in their work. Conversely, Japan has seen a reversal in attitudes to research ethics in the past 40 years (Arimoto, Cummings, Huang & Shin, 2015). An argument can be made about the correlation between the degree of litigiousness in a society and the growth of institutional protectionist ethics requirements (Helyer, 2011). The Anglo-US geopolitical sphere is characterised by a “I’ll see you in court” mentality (Townsend, 2013), which should be kept separate from the rule of law that undergirds those areas and Japan (Bingham, 2011). The questions for me and other Japan-based researchers are how the Anglo-US attitudes will be interpreted in Japan, and if other issues relating to ethics will arise in any uniquely Japanese way.


Archer, M. S. (2007). Making our way through the world: Human reflexivity and social mobility. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Arimoto, A., Cummings, W. K., Huang, F., & Shin, J. C. (2015). The Changing Academic Profession in Japan. Cham: Springer.

Bingham, T. (2011). The Rule of Law. London: Penguin Books.

Dean, C. (2006). Authenticity, Virtue, Expertise: Ethical being and becoming ethical. International Journal of the Humanities, 3(3).

Helyer, R. (2011). Aligning higher education with the world of work. Higher Education, Skills and Work, 1(2), 95–105.

Gilligan, C. (1993). In a different voice: Psychological theory and women’s development. Journal of Chemical Information and Modeling (Vol. 53). Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

Laureate Education Inc., (2012). Ethical Issues for the Practitioner-Researcher. [Audio]. Music Creative Support Services: Los Angeles, CA.

Townsend, E. (2013). Litigious Societies: A Comparison between the UK and the US. The Student Lawyer. Retrieved May 11, 2016 from

Williams, K. F. (2009). “Guilty knowledge”: ethical aporia emergent in the research practice of educational development practitioners. London Review of Education, 7(3), 211–221.

About theCaledonian

Scot living in north Japan teaching at a national university.
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