Beyond the IRB: An Ethical Toolkit for Long-Term Disaster Research

March 2014 (VOL. 32, NO. 1)

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This article argues for expanding the ethical frame of concern in disaster research from the early phases of site access to longer-term issues that may arise in the field. Drawing on ethical theory, these arguments are developed in five sections. First, we identify the philosophical roots of ethical principles used in social science research. Second, we discuss how ethical concerns span the entire lifecycle of disaster-related research projects but are not fully addressed in the initial protocols for gaining Institutional Research Board (IRB) approval. Third, we introduce the idea of the philosophically informed “ethical toolkit,” established to help build awareness of moral obligations and to provide ways to navigate ethical confusion to reach sound research decisions. Specifically, we use the work of W. D. Ross to introduce a template of moral considerations that include fidelity, reparation, gratitude, justice, beneficence, selfimprovement, and non-maleficence. We suggest that in the absence of a clear framework that researchers can use to think through ethical dilemmas as they arise, Ross’ pluralist approach to ethical problem solving offers flexibility and clarity and, at the same time, leaves space to apply our own understanding of the context in question. Fourth, we draw on six examples from our research studies conducted following Hurricane Katrina. Using these examples, we discuss how, in retrospect, we can apply Ross’ moral considerations to the ethical issues raised including: (1) shifting vulnerability among disaster survivors, (2) the expectations of participants, and (3) concerns about reciprocity in long-term fieldwork. Fifth, we consider how the ethical toolkit we are proposing may improve the quality of research and research relationships.