Discussion: Ethics in Cross-Cultural Research


II Oh, the Perlllission, Perlllits, and Approvals You Will Need

Research Permissions

A week later we were in Kampala getting more permits. In addit ion to bri nging t he Land Rover into t he country, and the permit to keep it in t he country (renewable every two weeks - we'd have to drive eight hours each way to keep it current), and t he permit to bring dollars into t he country, and the permit to change money, and the permit to buy rationed " necessities" (kerosene, petrol, sugar, soap, beer), and the permit to enter, and the permit to work, and the perm it to bring in scientific equipment, and the perm it to ca rry an extra five gallons of petrol in a jerry can-in addit ion to all these- Marc needed the National Research Counci l to approve his prog ram and the forest ry department to grant him a forest permit.

- Halko and Hauser 1996, 92

Field research typically requires formal permissions, often at many levels.

Sometimes a dozen or more kinds of permissions, seals of approval, official let­

ters, and verbal agreements are necessary prior to commencing a field project.

Permission to be in the foreign country, permission to be in the physical space constituting "the field area," permission to conduct research that involves in ­

teracting with and/ or measuring other people, permission to capture, tag, and/

or measure wild animals, permission to bring field equipment in and out of the

study area, permission to collect objects in archaeological or paleontological

surveys, permission to collect plant samples, rock samples, tissue samples, or

whatever, and finally permission to export those samples out of the country


10 • CHAPTER 2

of origin and import them into the country where further analyses will be conducted. Permissions must often be negotiated in person, sometimes by personally walking paperwork through from office to office and waiting for an appropriate official to sign off on the project. In some cases, paperwork must be submitted far in advance for review by a research-permitting committee.

Some researchers tend to think they have the right to do "research" where and how they wish because of implications for advances in scientific knowl­

edge or public policy decisions. The lack of a formal research review process is taken by some as liberty to conduct research without permission. But safe­ guards have been put in place to ensure adequate review of research projects that affect the welfare/preservation of human and animal subjects, environ­ ments, and objects. This chapter describes some of the common research permissions that field researchers regularly obtain for their work. Giiven that permitting systems are seemingly ever evolving and can vary remarkably across research topics and field locales, we offer just a few examples here and emphasize the importance of consulting other experienced researchers who have conducted fieldwork on similar topics in a given field locale.


For research on living human and animal subjects, researchers generally first obtain permission to conduct field research from the home institution. In the United States, human subjects' research requires approval by a federally regu­ lated Institutional Review Board (IRB), and research involving live animals requires approval by a federally regulated Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee (IACUC). These permissions are required by U.S. institutions even when data collection is conducted off-site in a different country. Many other countries have similar procedures for obtaining research approval at the home institutional level, but here we will focus on the U.S. institutions.

Institutional Review Boards

Institutions in the United States use IRBs to evaluate the ethical aspects of research projects involving human subjects. For more information on U.S. policies, visit: http://www.hhs.gov/ohrp/assurances/irb/. IRBs operate under U.S. federal guidelines that have developed in recent decades in response to documented abuse and ethical violations by past investigators. The Tuskegee Syphilis Study is a well-known example of such transgressions within the


United States but similar ethical violations have occurred when U.S. research­ ers have gone abroad. Just recently, the United States issued a formal apology for unethically experimenting on prisoners and army personnel in Guatemala to learn more about the natural history of sexually transmitted infections in the 1940s (Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethics 2011). Although often seen as a hurdle by the research community, IRBs share important common goals with investigators to ensure research is conducted ethically, with solid scientific methods, and in ways that maximize benefits and minimize risks to study subjects (Burke 2005). They are essentially peer/ community review mechanisms analogous to the peer review system of journals and the review panels of federal funding organizations like National Institutes of Health (NIH) and National Science Foundation (NSF).

A plan to obtain informed consent is central to IRB approval for human subjects research. The term "informed consent" is used to indicate that per­ sons participating as research subjects have a clear understanding of what their participation involves, and based on that understanding, have agreed to participate. Informed consent is based on the principle of respect for per­ sons, one of the three ethical principles governing human subjects research (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services n.d.). It is the cornerstone of the protection of human subjects that the IRB process seeks to ensure. In the United States, informed consent is typically obtained using a written de­ scription of the research protocol and potential risks and benefits (including compensation), which must be signed by each research subject. Understand­ ably, the default procedure outlined above is not necessarily appropriate in all cultural contexts, hence the process of obtaining IRB approval for field research may, on occasion, present a significant challenge. For investigators working in countries with different cultural norms than those in the home country, obtaining IRB approval is often contingent upon clear explanations of the project that help the committee understand the unique context of the field research experience. It is important to keep in mind that the human subjects research experiences of committee members may have been largely restricted to the controlled laboratory or clinical setting in the United States, and without the proper context and explanations, a field research project can appear to violate some of the rules that the committee is there to ensure are followed. Important differences encountered during field studies may include recruiting nonliterate human subjects, and conducting research in a cultural

12 • C H APTER 2

context whereby informed consent must be provided by a community leader, or head of family, rather than the individual participant.

Institutional Animal Care and Use Committees

IACUCs operate to ensure ethical, humane care and use of animals in re­ search. For field projects on live animals, IACUC permissions are contingent upon researchers providing detailed documentation of research methods, with strong justification provided for any protocols that involve potential for pain or distress to the study subjects. Any invasive darting, blood- or tissue­ collection protocols. together with all methods for animal handling, receive detailed scrutiny to ensure ethical treatment of all study subjects that mini­ mizes stress and suffering, justifies the choice of study subject, and ensures the minimum appropriate number of study individuals to adequately address the research question. Some field researchers are surprised at the range of is­ sues contained in IA CUC forms that may not be even remote considerations for their field studies (such as surgery, euthanasia), but federal regulations require that all contingencies be addressed prior to granting permissions for research. Field research involving noninvasive animal observation or film­

ing procedures may be eligible for IACUC exemption, using special forms available from the IACUC committee at the relevant U.S. institution. IACUC committees may also provide follow-up questions on any field projects that place researchers in close proximity to potentially dangerous animals during data collection (including the study animals, or other animals occupying the same habitat) . Similar to IRBs discussed above, it is helpful to remember that the committee reviewing an IA CUC proposal for a field project may not have experience in research outside the laboratory setting, so it is worth taking the extra time to explain the field context of the research in a clear and detailed fashion in order to justify the study subjects chosen, number of individuals needed, and methodologies for data collection.

Gaining approvals

Institutional committees may have a limited review schedule, and must reach a decision and provide approval documentation to a researcher prior to commencement of study. It is important to be aware of the review dates, and to submit proposals in a timely fashion in order to ensure that home institu­ tional permission documentation is in place well in advance of the project, as


this is often a prerequisite for obtaining permissions from the host country where fieldwork is to be conducted, and is increasingly being required at the time of submission of grant proposals to support field research. Additional local permissions may also be required; hence failure to obtain institutional research permissions can result in significant delay or disruption of a field study. Keeping home institution permissions up to date is also important at the publication stage, as many journals require that documentation in the methods section of papers that publish field research results. Although many bemoan the lengthy forms and explanations required by institutional review panels, it is important to recognize that this first step may in fact be far less of a challenge than the myriad of hurdles that follow in obtaining permissions to conduct field research in the international setting.

In our experience, IRB or IACUC approval is often now contingent upon approval from a similar institution in the host country. This can present quite a hurdle when an investigator is without collaborators or affiliated institu­ tions in the host country, or in cases where approval from the host country must be obtained by making a request in person. Seemingly endless loops can arise when the host country ethical committee will not grant approval until the home institution grants approval, but the home institution will not grant approval until the host country ethical committee grants approval. In box 2.1 Todd Foster describes failed attempts to contact the host country IRBs in the Marshall Islands from his home institution, and the tangled web of contin­ gent approvals that faced him once he arrived.

Todd's predicament is not a unique one. When more than one approving body is involved, it can be a challenge to get contingent approvals, even when home. It can at times appear that there is no end to the circle. Often the home institution can be educated about the challenges of working abroad and can provide conditional approval until final approval is obtained from the foreign institution. It can be helpful to describe the challenges to your home IRB in person with the chair of the committee or, if available, during the committee meeting. Once conditional approval is in place, you can more easily amend approvals at home based on the foreign institution's requirements. Having an advocate in the foreign institution is also invaluable to making the process run more smoothly.

Given the myriad of challenges of conducting research in an international setting, the best approach is to consider the IRB or IACUC process as a peer

14 • CHAPTER 2


Todd Foster

My project involves examining the growth and development

of Marshallese children. I came to the Republic of the Marshall

Islands (RMI) on August 1st of this year. I attempted to get hu­

man subjects clearance before I left, but contacts in the RMI

would not respond to my e-mails or phone calls before I left for

the field. What I learned is that it is rude to conduct "business"

over the Internet in Marshallese culture. Face-to-face meetings

are preferred. So, I couldn't get a response. Furthermore, a pilot

study I had completed with another Marshallese researcher in

2006 complicated things. That researcher was from a differ­

ent family lineage, one that was having problems with family

lineages of people I needed to get clearance from in the RMI.

Having cleared that up with my contacts and submitting my ap­

plication to my host university, something else went wrong. My

host university got into some trouble regarding human subjects

over the summer and had to revamp their entire p rocess. T h is

resulted in a backlog of five hundred applications. After waiting

six weeks, my advisor was able to get some strings pulled and

I got a caseworker assigned. Now, I am doing anthropometrics,

so I need a research assistant. This research assistant is going to

be appointed by the Republic of the Marshall Islands Ministry of

Health. They will not appoint this research assistant until I get hu­

man subjects approval from the Marshall Islands Human Subject

Council. The Marshall Islands Human Subject Council will not

give me approval until I get approval from my host university's

human subject council. My host university's human subject

council will not give me approval until I get a research assistant.

Hopefully, you were able to follow the circulation of that as well

as have a good laugh. Anyway, I am almost at the end of the tun­

nel and I think (god, I hope!) I will finally begin collecting data in

January after being in the field for six months.


review essential to and benefiting field research. The process takes time, so it

is important to be cognizant of deadlines, and to allow sufficient time for ad­

dressing relevant issues raised by the review committee. Similarly, one must be

aware of and allow sufficient time for the ethical review process in the field area.


In addition to the general travel visas discussed in chapter 3, some countries

require specific research visas in order to conduct a study, and obtaining a research visa may require research clearance from an in-country institution or

ethics committee. Brazil is an example, as Barbara Piperata explains in box 2.2 .


Barbara Piperata

There is a very specific type of visa for research in Brazil. It costs

about $200 and can only be obtained if you can demonstrate that

you have (1) a local counterpart; (2) have received approval for your research; and (3) can demonstrate you have the funds to

pay for the research . You also have to submit the full research

proposal for review. When I went to Brazil for my dissertation

research in 2001, you needed federal government approva l!, and

since my research was on health it had to be approved by CONEP

(Comissao Nacional de Etica em Pesquisa, the National Commis­

sion on Ethics in Research ), which was a long, drawn out process.

My understanding now is that you still need to do this unless you

are affiliated with an organization (a university, for example) that

has a recognized internal ethics review board. Now when I work

in Brazil I go through the IRB at Universidade de Sao Paulo and

a colleague acts as the lead and ushers the proposal through. I

have not had any recent problems and the process has gone from

taking six to twelve months to about three months.

16 • CHAPTER 2

The process may not always be clear to an outsider, and as experienced by Barbara, countries and institutions within them may change policies and procedures on a regular basis. It is helpful to have a colleague in a local insti­ tution who can shepherd the protocol through the process; however, that is no guarantee that the process will be any faster or smoother. Ice was recently delayed due to the seemingly ever-changing research permissions process in Kenya. A relatively simple project, deemed to be expedited by her university IRB, took nine months for approval, even with the assistance of a very help­ ful colleague and the government research institution. As a result, she spent six weeks training local staff rather than collecting data. Luckily, she had an excellent collaborator and enough infrastructure and assistance locally to complete the data collection in her absence when she needed to return to her other academic duties.

It is also important to keep in mind that embassies can withhold and re­ voke visas at any time depending on poli tical conditions. For example, Den­ tan (1970) described that while he was in Indonesia undertaking an intensive language course in preparation for field research, official relations between Indonesia and the United States deteriorated to the point that the Indonesian embassy refused to issue him a visa for more than three months' residence, leaving him insufficient time to conduct the research he had planned.


Even with an appropriate visa, research clearance, and a formal affiliation with a local university or research institute, there may be a plethora of na­ tional, district, and/or local institutions in the host country with interests in regulating research by outsiders. Sandra Gray describes the impressive "maze of officialdom" she navigated in Uganda at both the national and district levels in order to conduct human subjects research in Karimojong (agropas­ toralist) communities (box 2.3). Regulating parties included a ministry and an affiliated hospital at the national level, and a parliament, ministry, a.nd eight other offices/organizations at the district level. Each of these political entities was external to, and did not necessarily operate in concert with, the political structures in the Karimojong communities she wanted to study.

The complexity of internal political structures that Gray describes is not always evident to an incoming researcher. Dufour commenced fieldwork in Colombia in the 1970s with an appropriate visa, permission from the



Sandra Gray

Since 1998 I have been conducting fieldwork among Karimojong

agropastoralists in northeast Uganda. The Karimojong were

the subjects of Neville Dyson-Hudson's seminal 1966 mono­

graph Karimojong Politics. Navigation of the political aspects of

fieldwork in sub-Saharan Africa is always challenging. Initially

research permission was procured from the Ugandan Ministry

of Science and Technology and a Ugandan affiliation with the

Child Health and Development Center at Mulago Hospita l . Ad­

ditionally, permission was required and obtained from multiple

hierarchical political structures in Karamoja: (1) the parliamentary

structure, represented by elected members of parliament and

by the minister of state for Karamoja Affairs, the district ad­

ministrative officer, and the district medical officer, all of whom

are appointed administrators; (2) a system of local councils; (3)

the National Resistance Movement, the revolutionary body that

brought Yoweri Museveni to power at the end of the Ugandan

civil war. While much time and personal effort was expended in

receiving the "seal of approval" from this maze of officialdom, in

reality the success of the research depended on the goodwill of

the Karimojong communities in which I worked, which derived

entirely from the acceptance and support of the indigenous gov­

erning structure.

Indigenous governance among the Karimojong is based on

the consensus of local elders. In fact, although a plethora of rules

and regulations are imposed by officialdom, in reality these can­

not be effectively executed unless they are sanctioned by the

elders. Thus, Ugandan politics is external to and often in opposi­

tion to Karimojong politics. Very early in the research, I found

myself in the crossroads of these two political trajectories.


18 • CHAPTER 2

i:J.fi¥¥ii·Uiilt1Jiiif ·I

Each homestead is identified with a senior male elder, and in

each of the four clusters of homesteads in which I worked, one

elder carried particular authority as a consequence of his senior­

ity, his skill as a herder, and his wisdom. I met with the elders

in each cluster and collectively, and they agreed to allow me to

work there. I then appealed to the female elders-women were

after all the subjects of the study- and they likewise agreed. For

the most part, I had little interaction with males thereafter.

In the cluster of one of the most senior elders (Apangoleyiara),

however, the research took a somewhat different shape. Early on,

Apangoleyiara began to visit the place where I was interviewing

the women. Each day he sat quietly at a discreet distance from

the enclosure and observed the work. He never interrupted its

progress; he simply sat, listened, and observed. Eventually, other

elders joined him, but they followed his lead and sat quietly. On

one morning as we began our interviews, a young man - in his

late thirties perhaps-strode angrily into the enclosure where the

women and I were seated. He accosted me loudly in Ngakari­

mojong-and with some menace, inasmuch as he was armed with an AK-47, the diplomatic tool of choice among the younger

political set. My interpreter translated quickly- he, Mudong, was

the local council chair; I had not obtained his permission; he had

been away for the past week or so and what right did I have to

work in this place without consulting him? I should leave unless

I planned adequate remuneration (to him). I instructed my team

to pack up the equipment and, through my interpreter, told him

we assumed we had gained permission but since we had not, we

would leave. He continued to rail at us as we prepared to depart

and to scold the women who had dared to participate (and who

grumbled as he shooed us off).

At the start of the altercation, I saw Apangoleyiara rise from

the circle of elders and walk back to the homestead. When my

crew and I had finished packing up our equipment and were

heading back to the vehicle, Apangoleyiara reappeared with an

object in his hand. He came directly to me and, without a word,


extended the object, which was a live chicken. I took it, dumb­

founded, and he returned to the homestead. Suddenly, the noise

in the enclosure-Mudong's vituperation, the grumbling of the

women, the low hum from the elders-quieted, and everyone

sat in silence, looking first at me, then at Mudong. He lowered

his gun, shifted nervously, then appealed to me to wait. I should

stay, he said (somewhat flustered). It was a misunderstanding.

People seemed to like working with me. Certainly we could work

something out. He would allow me to stay. He shook my hand.

Continue your work, he said, and walked away. The women

chuckled. The elders looked solemn. My interpreter's eyes met

mine, and we looked at the chicken. We smiled.

• Ministry of the Interior and the Ministry of Health (it was a health-related project), permission from the regional Catholic bishop (this was the highest regional authority), and permission from the local community. But it turned out that these were not sufficient, and she was threatened with deportation by the Ministry of Culture for not obtaining their permission as well. This underscores the importance of identifying all legitimate host country stake­ holders and obtaining permissions prior to commencing research-a task made much easier as more and more countries make their scientific research policies explicit on the web, often with downloadable permit forms and on­ line submission procedures. As we have noted many times already, talking with experienced researchers in the field area is often the best head start to smoothing the process for a successful field project. If you work ahead and still have problems, it is best to keep a level head and do what you can to work within the system you find yourself. Gray was probably able to move forward because she had established strong ties and trust with the local community.

Importantly, permission for a specific project does not last forever. As Lee (1995) notes, "Access to a research setting is never a given. What is open at one juncture can be closed at another time or in different circumstances." He gives the example of Brewer (1993), who was studying routine policing

20 • C H A P T E R 2

activities in Northern Ireland. Brewer was originally granted permission be­ cause his research was of interest to the chief constable but when that person retired, the new chief discontinued his research permission.

Nor are the conditions attached to research permissions always clear. In box 2.4 Jeremy Koster recounts the tale of almost losing the permission from local authorities in Nicaragua due to a misunderstanding related to whether or not his wife would provide weekly English classes to the local community. Often a collaborator from the host country is useful in navigat­ ing these types of issues.

Jeremy's story demonstrates not only the challenges of getting research permissions but the importance of giving something back to the communities within which we work. He was able to resolve the misunderstanding and result­ ing difficulty by listening to his community and providing a reasonable solu­ tion. When demands are asked of you that you cannot honor, consider finding something that is within your ability that also will satisfy the community.


Institutional, national, and regional permissions may or may not be relevant at the local level where the research will actually take place. Generally, it is necessary to obtain the consent of the community, and not just individuals within the community. Anthropologists have long navigated this issue, but it is worth pointing out here, as even recently, local permission has presented an unexpected hurdle to medical researchers in the field {Diallo et al. 2005). The need for local community buy-in may also be important to convey to IRBs unfamiliar with the culture of field areas outside North America. Research may pose risks to local communities that are separate from the risks to indi­ viduals (Khan 2005). For example, indigenous nations in the United States and Canada typically have established protocols governing research (Kawul­ ich 2011). As Teufel explains in box 2.5, Native American groups have taken active steps to protect the community as well as the individuals within. They are aware of the impact of research on their communities, and hence prefer to be the last approving body for all research proposals that concern them. Community requirements for approval can go beyond what is typica[ of IRBs and may include approval of all presentations and publications resulting from the work. As Teufel points out, this additional permitting layer ensures that researchers think about the impact of their results on the "researched" them­ selves, an important consideration for all field projects.



Jeremy Koster

Researchers who want to work in the indigenous territories of Ni­

caragua's Bosawas Reserve must first secure permission from the

territorial leadership. When I arrived to begin my fieldwork, I there­

fore arranged to have a meeting with the territorial president, vice

president, and secretary, along with various community leaders.

Everyone at the meeting recognized that, because I was still

a graduate student, the scope of my project would be smaller

than other projects. Nevertheless, the leadership seemed im­

pressed when I indicated that I could provide a few dollars per

month for every household that participated in my study. We

drafted an agreement (convenio) that documented the com­

pensation, the length of the project, and my plans to weigh all

harvested fish and game.

At that point, the indigenous president, Felipe, observed that,

while there were clear benefits to the community where I would

be working, it would also be appropriate to provide something for

the people of the territory more generally. He patiently explained

that many people in the reserve earnestly wanted to learn English,

and then turned to my wife, Stefanie, and wondered if she could

travel to provide English lessons every week in Raiti, the terrijtorial

capital. Stefanie was caught off guard by Felipe's request, but she

promised to consider the possibility. Content with this answer,

Felipe ended the meeting by wishing us well and assuring us that

he would have a typed version of the convenio soon.

It was about three months later when Felipe returned from

Managua with a typed version of the convenio. He sent a mes­

sage by radio. asking that I travel to Raiti to sign the document.

Stefanie arranged for a couple of local men to ferry us two hours

downstream to another community, from which it was another

two-hour walk to Raiti. Covered in mud and tired from the trip,

we were stunned to arrive in Raiti and see that Felipe had inserted


22 • C H A P T E R 2

i:J.f:W#ii·Uiilt1Jiiif ·I

a clause in the convenio about weekly English lessons to be taught

by Stefanie. By that point, Stefanie was engrossed in her conser­

vation work, and we had realized that it would not be feasible to

travel to Raiti on a weekly basis. I therefore explained to Felipe

that I could not sign the document until that clause was removed.

Felipe was disappointed, but he acquiesced.

Another two months passed, and the date for the territorial

assembly was approaching. It was an election year, and Felipe

was hoping to be reelected as president. He was also receiving

considerable pressure to solicit donations from organizations to

fund the assembly, specifically to purchase the supplies needed

to feed approximately one hundred participants for three days.

Felipe had already received sizable donations, but not enough.

He contacted me by radio to say that, because I had not fulfilled

my end of the convenio, he was requesting approximately $400

to pay for the assembly. If I did not provide the money, I risked

being denied permission to continue my research.

I was scheduled to provide an update on my research at the

assembly, and I brought along a fair amount of money just in case. I had underestimated the ire that the situation had aroused

among the leaders in Raiti. During my presentation, one man

stood up and loudly interrupted, accusing me of being just like

Christopher Columbus, always taking and taking and giving

"trinkets" in return. Another spoke up in my defense, insisting

that my thesis research would not make me wealthy. I added

that the people in my study community seemed content with the

compensation, which provided higher pay per hour than virtually

any other job in the reserve.

These explanations did not mollify the crowd, and I left the

meeting worried that someone might be angry enough to at­

tack me on my way home. In the end, though, tempers on both

sides cooled fairly quickly. Stefanie and I arranged for some col­

leagues at the U.S. embassy to donate some English language

materials to the people of Raiti. Felipe was not reelected, and

his successor made no additional demands during the remain­

der of my research.

R ES EA R C H P E R M I S S I 0 N S • 23


Nicky Teufel

Native Americans have endured more than a century of research

they have not consented to involving observation, interviews, and

measurement. Data have been collected, analyzed, interpreted,

and disseminated most often by non-natives. Over the last two

decades in an emerging era of indigenous self-determination,

tribes have developed formal and informal systems of approving

research. These systems tend to have greater jurisdiction than a

standard Institutional Review Board (IRB) and are designed not

only to protect the rights of individual human subjects but also

to prevent the collective harm that has occurred when sacred

cultural beliefs, practices, and instruments, and even distinctive

biological characteristics (e.g., metabolic rates, body composi­

tion, genetic markers, etc.) have been described and interpreted

outside the larger sociocultural context and without consultation

from native experts.

For projects that involve tribal members, tribal review com­

mittees, boards, or councils require that investigators request

approval and, in some cases, a tribal resolution for development

of grant applications, research plans, and protocols, as well as

all lay and scientific presentations and publications. These com­

mittees often prefer to be last approving body. Subsequently

investigators are asked to gain approval from their institution's

IRB and then the tribe, so the tribe is assured no additional

changes will be made after its approval. This order of approval

can create a dilemma for an investigator as many academic and

research institutions prior to review may request some evidence

that the tribal community has approved the proposed research.

Investigators should consult with their institutional IRB to resolve

this predicament.


24 • C H A P T E R 2

i:J.fi¥4Ji·Uiilt1Jiiif ·I

Publication review by nonresearchers and actually the re­

searched requires that investigators think about the local im­

pact of their work and fit their outcomes to the sociocultural

context. The following example comes from a tribal community

that had given consent for a project to implement and evalu­

ate the impact of in-school physical activity sessions led by

trained community members to build capacity in a setting with

few or no certified physical education teachers. The joint team

of native and non-native researchers developed a publication

sharing pre- and post-intervention outcomes reporting changes

in youth's anthropometric measures and level of fitness. The

draft manuscript was submitted to the tribal committee for

permission to publish. The manuscript used the term obese to

describe a proportion of the youth. The tribal committee was

concerned about the derogatory overtones of the word obese.

In addition, the committee asked about the validity of applying

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) standards

developed from non-native populations to native youth. The

researchers and committee collaborated to revise the wording to state that these youth fell above CDC's recommended weight

for height. The revision may seem small but the collaborative

process yielded a document acceptable to both the researched

and researchers. A trusted relationship built on mutual respect

was initiated and paved the way for another decade of approved

collaborative research in this community.

• In the 1970s some benefits of Dufour's fieldwork in the Amazon were

evident to the community. For example, she and her spouse provided basic health-care supplies, including general antibiotics, TB treatments, wound­ care supplies, and rehydration IV fluids, under the supervision of a nurse at the nearest mission. A second benefit was an agreement to provide peri­ odic "gifts" to the village in lieu of payments to individuals. The risks were

R E S EA RC H P E R M I S S I 0 N S • 25

less obvious at first, but included the possibility of introducing infectious diseases, particularly colds, as the researchers traveled between the village and other sites.

Diallo et al. (2005) outlined the steps to obtaining community permission in rural Mali for a malaria vaccine study. The first step was to study the com­ munity to understand local customs and to identify legitimate community representatives. These included a district-level administrator, an elected

mayor, and traditional community leaders (neighborhood chiefs and school directors). This step was followed by a series of meetings: (1) an introductory meeting with the leaders to explain the proposed research and to solicit guid­ ance on how best to obtain community permission; (2) formal meetings with leaders to explain the goals of the project as well as risks and benefits in detail; (3) personal visits with leaders to further explain the project and answer ques­ tions; ( 4) meetings with traditional health providers to explain the project and solicit collaboration as it was a health-related project. Information about the project was communicated to heads of households by the neighborhood chiefs. Only after all of those steps had been completed did researchers ap­ proach individual subjects for participation.

The politics of local authority are not always so clear cut. Trudy Turner describes a situation in box 2.6 in which she thought she had obtained per­ mission at all levels of authority, but found that she missed the lowest level.


The fundamental level of approval needed for research projects involving human subjects is usually the informed consent of individual participants. Informed consent is a requirement of IRB approval for most types of research involving human subjects, and is often required by other ethics committees. It can be a challenge to implement subject consent in field situations for at least two reasons. First, the concept of an individual providing informed consent may fly in the face of cultural practices that allocate that responsibility to a community or clan leader, or a head of family. Second, the format of informed

consent typically required by IRBs is a written document that the subject must sign, and in our experience, signing such a document can be seen as a very strange custom, and one to which little significance is attached. Furthermore, when working with nonliterate populations, ethical concerns arise when asking people to sign a document that they cannot read, or fully understand even when

26 • C H A P T E R 2


Trudy Turner

I have been doing fieldwork in Africa for more than thirty-five

years. Over the course of numerous field projects, many things

have gone wrong. There has been a smash-and-grab while I was

in a car at a red light; there has been a car accident; there has

been illness; there have been endless bureaucratic hassles and

hassles with landlords; and there has been loneliness. There

has also been the privilege of meeting wonderful people and

having lots of adventures. But one incident sticks in my mind

as something that exemplified for me some of the difficulty in

doing field research.

My team and I had been in Kenya for nearly a year. We had

set up three field sites and had spent over a month at each site

trapping and sampling vervet monkeys for a population genetics

survey. We wanted to complete one final site, but were having

trouble locating one that met all our requirements. We found a

place and packed up all our gear, our equipment, and moved out

with two trucks to set up field camp for us and for our workers.

When we got to the site we could not reach the campsite because

we could not cross a river that had swollen during the rains. We

turned back with no real plan B.

We searched for another site for a few weeks and finally

settled on one somewhere between Amboseli and the Maasai

Mara in the south. Once again we packed up everything and

moved to set up camp. It was with great relief that we were

spending our first night in our new camp in a lovely site by a

small pond not too far from the base of Kilimanjaro . It was a

moment of great relief.

Suddenly a car pulled up and three extremely large men got

out. The leader of the men said that he represented the local

R ES EA R C H P E R M I S S I 0 N S • 27

Maasai council and asked us who told us we could camp on this

land. We certainly had all the national and local permissions

to be where we were. We had confirmed our presence on this

piece of land with the official authorities. But apparently the local

permission had not included a discussion with the local Maasai.

Things escalated. There was yelling and the head man and my

assistant were facing off against each other. My assistant was 6

feet 4 inches tall and the other man was taller and bigger. Things

looked bad and looked like there was going to be a real fight. I

was exhausted from the weeks of looking and preparing and was

incredibly dismayed at the turn of events. When things looked

really perilous, I could think of nothing but to actually place my­

self between these two men and stop this (I am 5 feet 3 inches).

Throwing myself between them forced them to move away from

each other. I asked the Maasai what we could do to make things

right. He said that if we paid 400 shillings to the local Maasai

council we could stay. I agreed, but said I did not have the money

on me. I did not want to give him the money right then. I did not

mind paying the local council, but I did not want the money to just go to this man, because then we were vulnerable to another

visit another night. I agreed to meet him at the local council

house the next day.

We arrived the next day at the local council house and pre­

sented the money in clear sight of several other people. Now

everyone knew we had paid to be able to camp on the land and

we were left alone for the rest of our stay in the area.

What I learned was that there are many levels of authority.

Even though I had done everything we had done in other places,

in this one place, we needed to do something more. But I did

not want to pay a bribe to a single person. If I was going to give

something to a community, I wanted to be sure it went to the


28 • C H A P T E R 2

it is read to them. Rather, what is most important is a meaningful discussion of the intent of the project, and what participation really means in terms of time, costs, and benefits. This kind of a discussion is part of a process of establishing trust between researchers and subjects, something that should be fundamental to research on human subjects. Issues of recruitment/retention of study sub­ jects will be discussed in greater detail in chapter 5.


Field research projects that do not involve living subjects, such as archaeolog­ ical or paleontological studies, can also require a complex and lengthy set of permissions, with requirements that vary by host country. These may include permission, for example, by Ministries of Science, Culture, or the Environ­ ment, as well as affiliations with and permissions from local academic insti­ tutions. In most cases, researchers conducting projects on nonliving subjects do so in partnership with local or governmental agencies that act to facilitate the research and interface with local communities to improve protection and preservation of localities containing antiquities, and improve positive outcomes and impacts of the research. In these types of studies, separate permissions are often required for excavation and export (where applicable) of study samples, requiring due diligence by researchers to avoid transgres­ sions that could result in misunderstandings and/or prosecution by local and international authorities. For these and all field projects, it is best to research well in advance the laws governing research practices for the country in which fieldwork is to be conducted, and engage in detailed consultations with in­ stitutions and/or individuals experienced in working in the host country to establish a plan for obtaining appropriate permissions for the research topic.


The topic of equipment and sample transport is addressed in greater depth in chapter 3 with examples of the different challenges that field researchers en­ countered. But in short, field researchers must obtain all necessary permissions for and be aware of regulations that govern: the import and export of equip­ ment required for field research; the import and export of fossils and other an­ tiquities; and the transport of biological materials that could contain etiological agents, hosts, and vectors of human disease. These include regulation of human and animal tissues into the United States by the United States Department of

R E S EA RC H P E R M I S S I 0 N S • 29

Health and Human Services, and regulation of plant and soil samples from for­ eign countries by the United States Department of Agriculture. Even shipping materials themselves can prove problematic (for example, shipping crates made from local wood may require additional permissions/inspections so it is often better to go with plastic or metal containers). In general, it is important to look into the ins and outs of import/export for research equipment and materials ahead of time to avoid unnecessary delays and difficulties.

And finally, even transporting oneself across borders during field research can require unanticipated permissions. Sheets Payson (2006) claims that Dante's The Inferno omitted border crossings in Central America, describ­ ing his ordeal of crossing from El Salvador to Guatemala and the "fees" and stamps demanded, the ever-present threat of being sent back to the capital city for some kind of document that could take days to obtain, and the elaborate complexities of a process that seemed designed to keep him from his work.


A successful field research project in a foreign country generally requires a variety of permissions, permits, and approvals. Some concern the research itself, and others are simply required in order for a researcher to legally stay in the field area. Some are easy to anticipate from the outside, others are not.

In short, the best strategy is to adopt the attitude that nothing should be taken for granted when it comes to getting a new field project up and run­ ning, and unanticipated wrinkles can occur with research permissions even in long-term projects. In our experience, it is most useful for researchers new to a field area to identify mentors who are familiar with the local setting and/or type of research project to obtain important pointers about the permissions specific to their study, to allow plenty of time to obtain permissions at all levels, and as ever, prepare to encounter and address unexpected challenges! Specifically we recommend the following prior to beginning a field project:

• Seek research clearance and permits well in advance of planned travel. It is often best to start with your home institution. Plan minimally six months in advance and ideally a full year in some locations.

• Determine if you need a research visa to enter the country or if you can en­ ter on a tourist visa and seek the necessary host country permissions while you are in country.

  • Ice_1-2
  • 11-12
  • 13-14
  • 15-16
  • 17-18
  • 19-20
  • 21-22
  • 23-24
  • 25-26
  • 27-28
  • 29-30