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Alice Mattoni and Ester Sigillò will talk about ethics in anti-corruption research

Their paper will be presented during the next ECPR General Conference

26 AUGUST 2020


ECPR General Conference - Online


Ethical Dilemmas and Safety Concerns When Investigating Anti-Corruption from the Grassroots


Corruption and grassroots opposition towards it are global phenomena that are, however, deeply tied to the specific local contexts in which they develop. How activists define corruption, decide to mobilize against it and through which forms of collective actions might vary to a great extent depending on the country in which activists are located. In some cases, anti-corruption from the grassroots involve widespread social movement coalitions that mobilize hundred thousand of people demonstrating in the street to blame the corrupted elites that rule their countries; in other cases, small activists collectives employ digital media platforms as leverages to denounce petty corruption in the daily lives of people. While the context in which anti-corruption from the grassroots happen might vary to a great extent, what does not vary is the ethical sensitivity of the topic, that requires researchers to take into consideration several ethical dilemma and safety concerns when designing their research.

In recent years, an increasing number of academic works have focused on the general ethical challenges of conducting fieldwork in specific contexts (conflict-prone, politically unstable or authoritarian areas) regardless the research project. This paper instead discusses the specific ethical concerns and the consequent methodological challenges related to a particular research topic. Drawing on the ERC funded research project BIT-ACT, that deals with digital media in grassroots struggles against corruption across the world, this paper reflects on how to keep a balance between the ethical commitment, safety concerns and research feasibility when investigating anti-corruption from the grassroots. The paper first revises some of the core ethical universal principles in the area of political studies at large and then considers how they might be put into practice in the framework of a qualitative cross-country research design. More specifically, it focuses on how to ingrain the core principle of “do-no-harm” human subjects when investigating anti-corruption efforts in different country settings, characterized by different levels of corruption, democratic participation and freedom of expression. To do so, the paper discusses three main ethical dilemmas and safety concerns that researchers working on anti-corruption from the grassroots might face before, during and after the fieldwork: first, how to establish secure techniques to negotiate field access with potential research participants and to harvest their (written or oral) informed consents to participate in the research project; second, how to develop a consistent and yet flexible risk assessment to establish how to deal with local authorities and other relevant institutional actors before and during fieldwork; third, how to protect the data of research participants and their transfer from the local setting of the fieldwork to the local setting in which the research team is based. Conclusions question the principle of “one-size-fits all” by highlighting the specificity of methodological challenges related to research projects on anti-corruption from below; and discussing the idea of research ethics and safety as evolving principles that are deeply relational and tied to the context in which researcher engage in fieldwork.