What do you do with research that produces potentially harmful results? In this post Andrew Crane, explores how research can produce negative as well as positive impacts on society and discusses how his own research group has approached dealing with the complex issue of ‘negative impact’.
“If you put these things in your report it will kill our industry”. The words – whispered to a colleague by a senior industry figure – stop me dead in my tracks. As a management researcher, I am used to my research being ignored, but here are people thinking my research can fundamentally change their lives – and not for the better.
We are at one of several roundtables in India that our team has organized to get feedback on the preliminary findings from our research looking at decent work and economic growth in the South Indian garment industry. The room is crackling with tension and it is clear the word has gone around not to cooperate with us. Our local organizer tries a joke, but there are only set faces and fixed stares. I have presented to some tough crowds – this is the hardest. They think I am here to destroy them.
Leading up to these roundtables, we have undertaken months of detailed ethnographic work on labour issues in the garment industry and how they might be tackled. These round tables are part of the consultation phase and we are keen to explore how the solutions we have identified might effect positive change. “Impact” is the buzzword guiding us. We want our research and these events to benefit the industry and improve the lives of workers making the clothes that end up in our high streets.
I have presented to some tough crowds – this is the hardest. They think I am here to destroy them.
It is not hard to see where our audience was coming from. Local companies feared our research could be used by brands to negotiate lower prices, or to justify switching suppliers. They were also afraid western governments might encourage such switching, or even block imports from the region. They had, after all, been burned by critical media and NGO reports before. Resistance from parts of the business community was hardly unexpected. It came as more of a shock, though, when the same views were expressed by workers and unions. “Yes, there are lots of problems here,” one union leader informed us. His colleagues agreed: “The pay rates are low, it is too expensive to live here now, and 90% of the workers don’t know their rights. But no work is worse. Don’t destroy the industry. We need it.”
Obviously, we have no intention of harming the industry, but hearing these concerns reiterated to us how careful we need to be about what kind of impact we might create and how and to whom we should communicate our findings. What would happen if critics in the media, or NGOs, took our research and used it to push for changes that we did not want to see happen? And how exactly should we highlight problems in the industry in ways that would not harm our informants?
Returning from India, these questions were paramount. We were acutely aware that although the drive to achieve research impact has been beneficial, academics are not well versed in making risk assessments and are often unable to manage the potential impacts of their research. How then should researchers approach the issue of negative impact?
One option could be to adopt some version of the Hippocratic Oath and apply the maxim of “do no harm”. This is attractive, but may also promote an overly risk averse approach to research by de-emphasising the discussion of critical, but risky findings. Our team reasoned that this would probably only raise more ethical concerns, especially if we ended up withholding or concealing our findings.
The alternative we settled on was to carefully evaluate the potential outcomes of different courses of action in order to assess which pathways to impact might deliver the most overall benefit, even if that could mean some stakeholders being disadvantaged. As a business ethics scholar, this kind of utilitarian cost-benefit evaluation is familiar, but what is also familiar, are the drawbacks of this method in terms of ignoring the effect on those who lose out. Overall, though, we were in favour, provided we could find ways to build in safeguards.
As we develop the content and approach of our final report and the communication strategy behind it, there are likely to be further decisions to make. For instance, there would be little problem, even in disclosing our most shocking findings, if all we looked to do was publish them in an academic paper, especially one wrapped in scholarly jargon and ensconced behind a forbidding paywall. However, the pathway to impact we settled on includes additional forms of public engagement and media dissemination. All of these have to be created with an eye to not just gaining attention to our findings and recommendations, but also to making sure the benefits of talking about our research continue to outweigh the costs. Even the decision to write this blog post has not been taken lightly. Should we identify the industry we are talking about? Should we specify the exploitative labour practices we have identified? Should we name names? On balance, we decided collectively to only to do so in contexts where we can apply the appropriate nuance and specificity. This blog post is not the place to do that. However, there we will be contexts where it is possible to do so and where we can, hopefully, maintain some control of the narrative.
Going forward, we know that we are going to have to continue to be conscious of how and where we communicate our research findings, more so than we might be used to. While we feel the focus on research impact has been a positive development, our experience of carrying out this project suggests to us, that there is a clear need for greater awareness on the part of researchers of the potential for negative research impact and how to handle it. Academics can’t control all the impacts that derive from their research, but they can be better prepared and supported in recognizing where the wrong kinds of impact can emerge and what safeguards need to be put in place to minimise their effects. Better training for academics on managing impact would likely help. Extolling the benefits of impact is one thing, but preparing researchers for the realities of different kinds of intended and unintended impacts, especially as they play out on those most vulnerable, is a necessary step in helping ensure that our research makes a positive rather than a negative difference in the world.
Image Credit, Matt Artz, via Unsplash (Licensed under a CC0 1.0 licence)
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About the author
Andrew Crane is a Professor of Business and Society and Director of the Centre for Business, Organisations and Society in the School of Management at the University of Bath
Much-needed arguments here, although you could have gone further and acknowledged that some risks of harm may be justified if outweighed by greater public goods. If research is potentially consequential, its possible consequences may be adverse, at least for some people. Until we routinely ask researchers to show how they have considered possibly adverse outcomes, we can’t claim to be sincere in our claims about research impact. UK research impact assessment still flouts the basic norms of evaluation.
Questions that, for me, kept recurring as I read this piece is ‘who is being harmed?’ And who will be harmed if the research results are NOT published? Harming an industry – who seem like they also sponsored the research? – is one issue, but setting aside research findings that perhaps point to other forms of harm to other cohorts is equally problematic ethically. I am assuming that this is the case here, as it is not clear in the article. Forgive me if I am wrong. And if so, as researchers surely our ethical commitments are not to our sponsors or to any particular section of society but is much broader and encompasses all harm to any individual or group?
Good questions, thanks for this. Surely in most instances there are winners and losers (e.g. shutting down coal power stations means coal-workers lose their jobs)?