Keahey | Development Ethics 1
Keahey, Jennifer. Forthcoming. “Ethics for Development Research.” Sociology of Development.
Ethics for Development Research
Arizona State University, Email: Jennifer.Keahey@asu.edu
ABSTRACT Development ethics emerged as a joint critique of economic development
research and practice, giving rise to the alternative traditions of human, sustainable, and
participatory development. The ethical issues surrounding the mainstreaming of these schools
have implications for investigators. In this article, I reconnect the discourse on development
ethics to articulate common research principles for an international and interdisciplinary field.
Ethicists are asking development researchers to deliver actionable and multi-paradigmatic
understanding by improving measures, aligning values and approaches, and decolonizing
knowledge. While emerging research models can strengthen development relevancy and impact,
these are challenging to facilitate as well as vulnerable to elite cooptation. Not only should the
production of knowledge be rigorous and accurate, but scholars also have a responsibility to
query power and embrace difference. The principles presented in this article comprise a set of
shared values that may be used as a practical guide for planning, conducting, and evaluating
development research across methods, topics, and disciplines.
KEYWORDS Development ethics; research methods; human development; sustainable
development; participatory development
We know that development is in crisis. Forty years of steady growth in global GDP has
improved living standards across much of the world, but this progress has incurred significant
costs, with human rights violations, global climate change, and resurgent authoritarianism
representing primary threats to twenty-first century engagement (Blumberg and Cohn 2015).
While development broadly is recognized as ‘a normative project which rests on ethical
foundations’, its meaning and purpose remain contested and there is considerable disconnect
between ethics in theory, research, and practice (Deneulin 2013:217). Scientific, rational, and
positivist approaches often deliver policy prescriptions, but without considering the assumptions
driving their creation or the consequences of their implementation. Philosophical, critical, and
interpretivist approaches are conceptually sophisticated, but have little practical influence on
planning and practice (Malavisi 2014). Researchers also are discouraged from critically
reflecting upon and publicly discussing the moral dilemmas of their work. Indeed, the failure of
scholars to articulate ethical obligations to development processes and stakeholders suggests the
underdevelopment of research ethics (Camfield and Palmer-Jones 2013). Given these dilemmas,
what are appropriate researcher roles and responsibilities?
This article begins the process of establishing a common ethical foundation by integrating
key insights from the alternative schools of development into research standards. It follows the
broader philosophy of development ethics by emphasizing the need for open-ended values that
support the complexity of conditions and goals (Dower 2008). Theoretically, I illustrate how the
Keahey | Development Ethics 2
traditions of human, sustainable, and participatory development emerged in tandem with the
study of development ethics in the latter half of the twentieth century. Initially united in their
critique of development economics, these traditions have diverged into schools as conceptual
definitions, analytical frameworks, and ethical standards have become formalized.
Methodologically, I draw from the ethics espoused by these schools to propose a set of research
principles that are responsive to current trends and issues. Designed to accommodate
interdisciplinarity, these principles represent a set of shared values that offer direction to
researchers who are seeking to revitalize inquiry.
The purpose of development is to improve access to ‘the good life’ but scholars and
professionals have struggled to define and agree upon desirable criteria (Goulet 1997:1161). For
the past fifty years, the dominant neoliberal model has defined development in terms of
economic growth driven by trade deregulation, resource privatization, and competitive self-
interest. Yet alternative schools reconceptualize development in three key ways. First, human
development defines the good life in relation to human agency (Nussbaum 2007; Sen 2005).
Arguing that economic data is insufficient for evaluating development outcomes, it calls for
more sophisticated measures that capture levels of functioning, or the capabilities that people
have to assume control over their lives (Hick 2012). Second, sustainable development broadly
perceives development as that which meets present needs without compromising future
generations (WCED 1987). It calls for a regulated development model that prioritizes
environmental sustainability, poverty reduction, and social justice (Horlings 2015). Third,
participatory development seeks to democratize engagement and decolonize knowledge. In
practice, it involves stakeholders in development planning and management to extend citizenship
rights and strengthen democracies (Kapoor 2005). In research, it is aligned with the action
research tradition, in which scholars facilitate collaborative studies that empower participants to
voice their knowledge and solve problems (Brydon-Miller et al. 2003).
These traditions are becoming fairly mainstream, generating ethical challenges. While
participatory methods have become orthodox in the profession, their expansion into academia
has been slower as some disciplines question the legitimacy of action research (Felix 2007).
Scholars suggest that participatory development is shifting from a model of critically engaged
inquiry and bottom-up engagement to one of top-down analysis and technocratic automation
(Cooke and Kothari 2001). Sustainable development has experienced similar tensions as its
communitarian and regulatory ethics are subsumed by the individualistic and freewheeling
impulses of neoliberal development (Okereke 2008). Human development is somewhat removed
from these issues because it represents ‘an evaluation framework for assessing states of affairs’
(Deneulin 2013:225). Although this tradition requires less of a paradigm shift due to its emphasis
on individual well-being, its liberal orientation has been criticized for reinforcing Western and
neoliberal assumptions about human quality of life (Gasper and Truong 2010).
While development benefits from a plurality of perspectives and approaches, some level of
normative agreement is needed if researchers are to transcend ‘obstacles to interdisciplinary
interchange’ (Jackson 2006:545). My review indicates the imperative of connecting differential
knowledges as well as the need to ensure the production of accurate and policy relevant data. In
the following section, I share formative contributions to development ethics. Next, I cover key
debates in human, sustainable, and participatory development then examine the ethical
challenges of contemporary research. If development is in crisis, it is also in flux. The alternative
schools are grappling with significant challenges, but their growing influence suggests the
potential for transformative realignment, particularly if critical scholars are to continue informing
Keahey | Development Ethics 3
this process. I conclude by presenting nine research principles that will help investigators meet
the ethical demands of an evolving field.
A primary objective of development ethics is to determine the degree to which shared values can
be realized within the context of an unequal and globalizing world (Dower 2014). To begin
addressing this question, this section shares formative contributions. As I demonstrate, the field
of development ethics is marked by diversity. Yet it shares in common a critical moral
philosophy predicated upon social and environmental care, stakeholder participation, and respect
for difference. Not only do formative contributors encompass a range of scholars situated in
multiple world regions, but the field also has been informed by political movements in the
First, Western scholars and religious figures have contributed to the study of development
ethics. Karl Marx and Pope Leon XII predated the discipline but their objections to the
‘commodification of labor and the submission of human life’ to capital have influenced the
formation of the field (Deneulin 2014:15). Louis-Joseph Lebret also was an early pioneer. This
French priest and social scientist founded the Economy and Humanism Movement in the 1940s
to address systemic poverty in France. In the 1950s ‘the Lebret method’ spread to Brazil, where
it formed the basis of a field survey that combined scientific research with a spirit of social
reform to tackle underdevelopment (Valladares 2005:37). However, Lebret’s student, Denis
Goulet, has been credited with establishing the field (Dutt and Wilber 2010). Recognizing the
chasm between science and ethics, Goulet (1974) argued that economics ‘has achieved great
virtuosity in handling means, but it is no longer competent to evaluate ends or ideals’ (10). To
address this issue, he espoused a development model founded upon humanist, environmental,
and participatory ethics (Goulet 2006). Other formative Western influences include the Swedish
economist, Gunnar Myrdal, who offered a strategy for aligning scientific objectivity with values-
based intervention and the American sociologist, Peter Berger, whose work focused on the
political ethics of social change (Crocker 1991).
Second, anti-colonial democracy movements have contributed to the formation of the field.
In India, Mahatma Gandhi proposed a development ethic that emphasized nonviolent resistance,
responsible trusteeship, small-scale production, and access to basic needs (Goulet 1997). In
South Africa, anti-apartheid activists such as Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu aligned the
traditional African ethic of Ubuntu, or unity in diversity, with a modern ethic of care to navigate
the shift to multiracial democracy. Recognizing the interconnectedness of people through social
relations and systems, Ubuntu envisions justice as a process of truth and reconciliation and calls
for development to build social solidarity through conscious connection to difference (Quan-
Baffour 2014). In addition to helping South Africa avert civil war in the 1990s, this ethic has
continued to offer ‘an alternative conception of the good life’ in many African societies (Smith
Third, Southern scholarship has played a central role in the formation of development ethics.
In Brazil, Paulo Freire (1970) proposed the theory and practice of critical conscientization to
challenge top-down education and development systems that disempower humanity by
disconnecting knowledge from experience. Freire’s work has given rise to participatory action
research models that engage a process of non-hierarchical co-learning to produce actionable
knowledge that is situated in lived experience (Author 2019). An early review by Crocker (1991)
has further detailed the formative contributions of Southern scholars, including work produced
Keahey | Development Ethics 4
by: (1) Latin American scholars who articulated a praxis of ‘action and reflection’ to spark
‘sustained’ and ‘integral’ development; (2) Asian scholars who published a book on Buddhist
ethics for development;1 and (3) Oceanic researchers who called for a development ethic that is
responsive to the disruptive effects of modernization on traditional island cultures (458-459).
Finally, feminist scholars have contributed to development ethics. Specifically, feminists
have asked development scholars and professionals to: (1) generate contextual and situated
understanding of current challenges and prospects; (2) shift focus from development procedures
to the social relations of research and practice; (3) incorporate difference at all levels of
engagement; and (4) transcend the dualistic thinking that results in reductionist assessments
(Porter 1999). Foundational scholars have noted that ‘the interwoven processes of sexism,
racism, misogyny, and heterosexism are an integral part of our social fabric, wherever in the
world we happen to be’ Mohanty (2003). Feminist development has responded to these issues by
demanding global solidarity predicated upon a respect for social equity as well as for cultural
difference. The next section presents three development traditions that are playing an influential
role in the current discourse. Although these emerging schools prioritize different concerns, they
share complementary values and are united in their demand for transformative research
Conceptualizing development in terms of freedom from deprivation, this tradition represents an
evaluation strategy as well as a development ethic. In the late twentieth century, Martha
Nussbaum and Amartya Sen (1993; 1987) co-developed the human capabilities approach to
measure quality of life. Grounded in Aristotelian philosophy, this evaluation strategy asks
researchers to assess levels of functioning by examining the capacity of people to meet their
basic needs, engage in complex activities, and experience positive personal states (Sen 1999). In
addition to calling for more sophisticated measures of well-being, human development stresses
the importance of human rights to quality of life and the central role that social institutions play
in ensuring access to freedom from deprivation (Deneulin 2013:225).
Sen and Nussbaum propose different frameworks for engagement. As a development
economist, Sen (2009) rejects the positivism of his discipline by warning that universal
development models cannot account for human diversity. Although he believes that justice and
democracy are central to quality of life, Sen asks scholars to develop capabilities measures in
connection with local actors to meet the needs of the research setting. As a development
philosopher, Nussbaum (2003) calls for more substantive commitments to human rights. She
critiques the lack of specificity in Sen’s description of freedom by stating that the notion of
freedom often is used to justify practices such as rape, sexual harassment, hate speech, and other
forms of discrimination. Calling upon states to protect vulnerable populations, Nussbaum
employs feminist precepts to develop 10 central capabilities or fundamental entitlements that
represent a minimum threshold of well-being (2011). Her approach suggests the need to protect
marginalized social groups via the establishment of common principles; yet Nussbaum also
1 See Gunatilleke (1983).
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argues that her list represents a basic theory of social justice that may be interpreted and
measured in culturally diverse ways.2
Despite efforts to address tensions related to cultural difference, human development has
been criticized for perpetuating Western assumptions and failing to address power. First, scholars
argue that most capabilities studies do not ‘challenge conventional views regarding human
nature’ (Esquith 2010:12). If the notion of development as freedom falsely universalizes the
neoliberal attitude of individualism, capabilities research also normalizes materialism as studies
tend to measure possessions and access to services while ignoring relational sources of well-
being, such as caring and vulnerability (Gasper and Truong 2010). Second, there is a need to
grapple with questions pertaining to institutional power as capabilities research expands into the
domains of sustainable and participatory development. While human development offers a moral
philosophy of well-being that is capable of negotiating complex states of being, the capability
approach is insufficient in terms of identifying and addressing power imbalances in research and
practice. Recent studies note that capabilities assessments should be integrated with compatible
frameworks such as the sustainable livelihoods approach and participatory action research to
reduce gaps between intention and practice (Apsan Frediani et al. 2014).
Conceptualizing development in terms of responsibility, this tradition emphasizes an ethic of
environmental conservation and intergenerational care. According to scholarship, the world
cannot transition to sustainability without changing how development is conceived, practiced,
and studied (Horlings 2015). A recent report clarifies both the depth and breadth of sustainable
development challenges and the inability of existing approaches to address identified problems
(UNEP 2008). Interlocking barriers range from technological and economic problems to political
and social challenges, all of which are accelerating ecological devastation on a global scale. The
hundreds of researchers who produced this study conclude that comprehensive policies and
practices are needed to resolve intractable problems like global climate change. The degree of
devastation produced by industrial and neoliberal development also implies the need to revisit
scientific research ethics. Indeed, scientific research largely has been excused from considering
the ecological impacts of its technological innovations due to the anthropogenic orientation of
Western ethics (Nordgren 1997).
This tradition is aligning diverse perspectives to address various dimensions of sustainability.
Commercial efforts broadly consider the triple pillars of economy, society, and environment
(Fisk 2010), but social scientists have identified additional social facets, including political
sustainability, which queries the power dynamics of environmental management (Redclift 1991);
cultural sustainability, which examines how cultural values inform beliefs about nature and
affect local planning (Hawkes 2001); and moral sustainability, which considers the ethical
implications of methods and technologies (Pawłowski 2008). As a whole, sustainable
development espouses solidarity with difference through care and conservancy. While secular
actors arrive at this position through ecological and humanist values, religious ethicists view
sustainability as a form of transcendence that is cultivated through the values of love, peace, and
stewardship. In other words, sustainable development neither conceives of development as a
linear shift from tradition to modernity nor assumes opposition between science and religion.
2 Nussbaum’s list includes basic capabilities such as life, health, and bodily integrity as well as
complex capabilities like having self-respect and being able to learn, work, and play.
Keahey | Development Ethics 6
Rather, it views progress as a process of collaborative learning that supports the integration of
traditional and scientific knowledge (Zaccai 2012).
Despite efforts to align values and approaches, sustainable development has been criticized
for reproducing technocratic models that hinder meaningful change from occurring. First, social
concerns are being neglected or are treated in perfunctory ways (Okereke 2008). As neoliberal
ideas about justice3 have infiltrated sustainable development agendas, the notion of social
sustainability has become commodified within a global marketplace that ‘deliberately glosses
over current inequities in both power and access over resources’ (153). Second, sustainable
development is failing to combine cultural worldviews in ways that lead to transformative
thinking. Indigenous cultures have articulated ‘different foundations for, and perspectives of,
sustainable development’ but their knowledge has not been integrated into global frameworks
such as UN Sustainable Development Goals (Watene and Yap 2015:52). If overreliance upon
hegemonic Western knowledge has silenced different worldviews, the policy prescriptions that
rational approaches generate are also problematic, for these rarely account for the illogical and
unanticipated actions of humans and societies (Newton 2003).
Conceptualizing development in terms of grassroots engagement, this tradition is calling for a
praxis of democratization and decolonization. As a formative contributor, Goulet (1989) believed
local participation to be essential to development research and practice as power relations are
reproduced or circumvented through social interaction. Participatory development also builds
upon the work of postcolonial and feminist scholars who view development as a vehicle for
addressing inequitable power relations that negatively impact marginalized peoples in the Global
South (Cahill et al. 2007). Arguing that knowledge and actions are embedded in specific
worldviews, this perspective calls for research that delivers intersubjective meaning, or ‘a
common understanding of the problems’ that relevant actors face ‘and possible solutions to these
problems’ (Gauri et al. 2013:160). Generated through intensive interaction between different
social groups, intersubjective meaning offers situated and actionable insight into development
challenges and prospects.
Participatory development has articulated an ethic of genuine participation and multi-
directional learning. Practitioners demonstrate their commitment to equality by investing in
consensus-based decision making and horizontal power relations. Drawing from Arnstein’s
(1969) typology of citizen participation, which differentiates between genuine and false forms of
participation, this school has developed several categorical frameworks to evaluate levels of
stakeholder involvement and determine the actions needed to ensure ‘transformative’
engagement (Godden 2017:3). Consensus building is an essential method for participatory
decision making, although attention must be given to ‘the quality of the consensus and the power
relations involved in reaching it’ (Kapoor 2005:1209). Horizontality also is paramount as
transformative development cannot be realized through top-down interventions (Wald 2015). As
a research modality, action research both critiques and supports participation in development
practice by employing an action-reflection approach that brings local communities into research
as co-investigators (Reason and Bradbury 2001).
3 According to Okereke, neoliberal justice ideals emphasize protection of private property rights,
individual freedom, and rational pursuit of self-interest.
Keahey | Development Ethics 7
Despite efforts to empower stakeholders, participatory development has been criticized for
failing to transform systemic power imbalances. First, the superficial mainstreaming of
participatory methods in development practice has engendered what Cooke and Kothari (2001)
term a ‘tyranny’ of participation. Not only does the UN global consultation process claim a
participatory ethic without attempting to shift power relations in practice (Enns et al. 2014), but
neoliberal actors are coopting participatory methods to consolidate control over indigenous
resources in the Global North (Caine et al. 2007) and to suppress peasant resistance to
agricultural restructuring in the Global South (Córdoba et al. 2014). Second, researchers who
express a genuine commitment to participatory ethics are struggling to meet the ‘high operational
costs involved in running such complex studies’ (Schurr and Segebart 2012:152). These issues
hinder the potential for scalability. There is a need to extend action research to multilateral
venues where hegemonic power resides, but such efforts require considerable funding, time, and
skills, as well as an ability to reconcile the slow-moving world of academic scholarship with the
fast-paced world of development practice (Author 2018).
While this section has presented human, sustainable, and participatory development as
separate schools, it is important to note that these domains intersect in reality. Sustainable and
participatory development are well-aligned in rural studies due to a research tradition of farmer-
expert collaboration.4 Indeed, the interdisciplinary field of agroecology has become increasingly
participatory, placing academics into close dialogue with practitioners and social movements
(Méndez et al. 2013). In welfare economics, Sen (2013) is working to connect human and
sustainable development by formulating a freedom-based approach to sustainability; and in
environmental studies, action researchers are integrating human and participatory development
to decolonize natural resources management (Bockstael 2017). However, as the next section
demonstrates, development ethics cannot be brought into greater alignment without reconciling
antithetical worldviews that derive from dualistic thinking.
A primary issue facing development research is the influence of power over the production of
knowledge. More specifically, epistemic injustice, or the subordination and assimilation of
difference to a hegemonic Western worldview, occurs when elite actors ignore the value of
indigenous and local knowledge (Santos 2014). Given the inequitable terrain upon which
development is situated, development ethicists agree that researchers must make ‘fundamental
changes in the ways knowledge is produced, legitimized and justified’ (St Clair 2007:145). Yet
dualistic thinking is hindering the potential for change. Figure 1 illustrates key conceptual
tensions in development research, separating concepts for the sake of clarity while using
overlapping circles to illustrate their interconnectedness.
4 For classic examples of collaborative methods, see Chambers (1994) participatory rural
appraisal approach and Pretty’s (1995) participatory learning strategies for sustainable
agriculture. More recent work has focused on building knowledge networks that connect farmers
through bridging activities (Šūmane et al. 2018) and the development of a participatory action
research curriculum on agroecology and climate change (Bezner Kerr et al. 2019).
Keahey | Development Ethics 8
MoralNeu tr al
FIGURE 1. Conceptual Tensions in Development Research
First, development lacks consensus on ontology, or the nature of being, existence, and reality.
According to positivists, both the physical and social worlds are bound by general laws; thus,
universal forces guide the development of societies over time. For example, Rostow’s (1960)
classic account of the stages of national economic growth presumes a universal reality of linear
progress and hierarchical order. In contrast, postcolonial development views reality through a
prism of difference. According to this worldview, universal assumptions indicate hegemonic
realities; thus, false universalisms prevent subaltern cultures and people from asserting their own
claims to existence (Spivak 1990). Rather than seeking to uncover universal truths through
quantifiable observation, postcolonial scholars employ an interpretivist approach to deconstruct
the politics of development and situate difference in lived experience.
The universal-relative dichotomy is of primary concern to the field of development ethics,
with Gasper (1996) querying whether it is possible to develop a universal ethics that leaves room
for local interpretation. For him, the struggle involves establishing a common value system
without ‘presuming that European cultures have universal validity’ (627). McFarlane (2006)
extends the discussion by calling for alignment between positivist and postcolonial perspectives.
In particular, he notes the need to ensure respect for difference while resisting descent into ‘a
disconnected or romanticized localism’ (35). Long (2015) similarly questions how far the
rejection of universalism should extend. Arguing that global concepts of ecological conservation,
human rights, and social justice have been informed by a range of perspectives, he concludes that
their incorporation into UN agendas represents a more sophisticated vision of development than
Keahey | Development Ethics 9
‘what has gone before’ (205). Finally, Gasper (2014) suggests that interpretivist methodology is
essential to the construction of global ethics given its emphasis on multicultural ‘listening,
learning, and cooperation’ (138).
Second, development spars over the ideologies of individualism and collectivism. Neoliberal
development assumes the superiority of modern individualism, or a secular and self-interested
mentality. According to this worldview, ‘the good life depends on taking advantages for growth,
exploration, and self-expansion’ (Adams et al. 2018:20). In contrast, critical development views
modern individualism to be a catalyst for environmental devastation and social inequality as it
presumes a world of unlimited resources and obscures systemic advantages that reproduce elite
privilege (Adams and Estrada-Villalta 2017). Capabilities scholars are working to reconcile this
dichotomy by noting that an ethical commitment to individual rights is not incompatible with a
collectivist ontology that recognizes the relationship between social, environmental, and
individual well-being (Robeyns 2005). In response sustainable development is calling for an
infusion of communitarian and environmental values into the human rights framework (Spahn
2018). Indeed, sustainability scholars note that researchers should revisit rights-based concepts
as these largely were developed during the European Enlightenment, with the limited
understanding of eighteenth-century Western science (Curtin 2005).5
Third, development does not agree on researcher positionality. In contrast to positivist
scholars who promote value neutrality in an effort to limit distortions related to personal bias,
critical and interpretive scholars believe claims of neutrality obscure the normative and political
nature of development (Wald 2015). Moreover, an overreliance on value neutrality can lead to a
repudiation of ethics, with unforeseen and unfavorable consequences for development as data
alone cannot determine morality (Crocker 1991). Whereas development ethicists welcome
positivist studies that shed light on broad patterns, scholars such as Camfield and Palmer-Jones
(2013) note that the rationalization of development research through evidence-based policy
making is highly problematic as emphasis on methodological uniformity thwarts disciplinary
diversity, making research a tool for legitimating rather than informing policy.
It is also important to note that value neutrality is no longer the sole measure for evaluating
research validity. Arguing that all knowledge is socially ‘embedded within a system of values’,
action researchers determine validity by querying the relevance of research to marginalized
populations (Brydon-Miller et al. 2003:11). Feminists extend this prescription by asking scholars
to place subaltern interests at the center of engaged inquiry. In the Global North, intersectional
feminists are calling for participatory action research studies that prioritize marginalized
worldviews as these provide critical insight into power and inequality (Collins and Bilge 2016).
In the Global South, postcolonial feminists are encouraging scholars to ‘revolutionize the
research methods landscape’ by investing in multi-paradigmatic research partnerships that
engage subaltern epistemologies and revitalize valuable local knowledge (Chilisa et al.
2017:326). As hegemonic Western discourse has become mired by sexist, racist, and classist
assumptions that derive from colonialist logic, there is a crucial need for development scholars to
‘theorize globalization from the other end of the power structure, based in the knowledge claims
and praxis of our research participants’ (Richards 2014:150). Yet action research is not simply
about theorizing the realities of marginalized people. Research effectiveness also is determined
5 For example, Curtin proposes replacing the individual rights-based definition of citizenship
with the collective responsibility-based notion of ecological citizenship, which he argues is
founded upon a more scientifically accurate understanding of global interconnectedness.
Keahey | Development Ethics 10
by impact validity, or the degree to which the knowledge produced can be mobilized for social
change (Quijada Cerecer et al. 2013).
Finally, there is disagreement whether objectivity is possible or even desirable. Myrdal
(1969) contends that the notion of objective science is a fallacy maintained through artful
ignorance of disciplinary and personal bias. Rather than omitting the assumptions that that have
informed research design in an effort to perform objectivity, scholars may achieve more genuine
levels of objectivity by publicly sharing their assumptions. Ethicists also note that subjective
experience and objective knowledge are not mutually exclusive. Goulet (1997) contends that
scholars can improve research accuracy by systematically developing, communicating, and
testing knowledge in connection with research participants who have lived experience of the
topic. In a similar vein, Ulrich (2003) states that development should replace objective ethical
norms with procedural ethics that enable situated responses to fieldwork dilemmas.
Ideally speaking, development represents a transformative process that seeks systemic
change at multiple levels of engagement. A common set of research ethics is needed to navigate
the role of scholarship in this process and to protect vulnerable populations who are stakeholders
in development research. Due to the complexity of challenges, the diverse cultural contexts in
which studies are situated, and the interdisciplinary nature of the field, adaptive principles are
more appropriate than are prescriptive rules. In the next two sections, I summarize scholarly
insights on research ethics then present a conceptual guide comprised of nine principles that
researchers may draw from to plan, conduct, or evaluate development research.
ETHICS FOR DEVELOPMENT RESEARCH
As an international and interdisciplinary field, development lacks coherent research standards.
This is problematic as broader standards are insufficient for dealing with development contexts.
Institutional and university codes largely ignore international issues related to literacy, access,
and equality (Sultana 2007). Scientific codes are anthropogenic in orientation; thus, researchers
are not obligated to protect other species and environments from harm (Stacey and Stacey 2012).
More broadly, dominant research paradigms came into being during an era of colonization that
empowered Western researchers to extract data from subjugated societies and formulate theories
and practices according to their own worldview (Chilisa 2009). This legacy continues to inform
disciplinary standards, making it challenging for scholars around the world to conduct research
in a less oppressive manner. In this section, I extend the foundation for a unified research ethics
that is responsive to current trends and issues by articulating: (1) appropriate researcher roles and
responsibilities; and (2) transformative methods and analytical frameworks.
In terms of researcher roles, Curtin (2005) states that scholars and professionals should
reposition themselves as learners by accepting ‘that other cultures could have something to
teach’ (9). As he discusses, a combination of local and expert knowledge is needed to address
development issues. Regardless of methodological orientation, researchers may become learners
by revisiting the assumptions undergirding their engagement and by developing a keen
awareness of local worldviews. Assuming the role of learner requires cultivating sensitivity to
power. This is particularly important when working with marginalized populations who are
vulnerable to epistemic injustice, or ‘the production, assimilation, and subordination of
difference’ to expert knowledge (Janes 2016:77). However, scholars also should retain their
independence. As third-party actors, scholars are ‘uniquely positioned to facilitate critical
interventions’ in development contexts (Caine et al. 2007:462).
Keahey | Development Ethics 11
Concerning responsibilities, development ethicists emphasize protection from harm,
respectful engagement, and local relevance (Ulrich 2003). As development researchers, we must
be methodologically rigorous as well as morally responsible in order to protect research subjects
and ecologies from harm while meeting our broader obligations to funders, employers, scholars,
and policymakers (Camfield and Palmer-Jones 2013). We may more respectfully engage by
embracing the principle of critical reflexivity, or an active, rigorous, and iterative awareness of
the influence of the self on the research process (Berger 2015). We can ensure local relevance by
investing in multi-scalar, mixed-methods, and multi-stakeholder studies that deliver policy
relevant findings situated in lived experience. While quantitative research is needed to map broad
parameters, impacts, and outcomes, qualitative research is needed to improve understanding of
local conditions, relations, and perceptions (Seyfang and Smith 2007). Action research further
contributes by opening forums for multi-stakeholder research and action. Indeed, this modality
offers participatory policymaking methods that ‘enable marginalized groups to engage with
policy processes from an empowered position’ (Hicks and Buccus 2007:94).
Researcher responsibilities also include meeting the standards of our methods and paradigms.
Scientific and positivist researchers should consider values when determining topics and policy
prescriptions, but remain neutral during data collection and analysis (Nordgren 1997). Critical
and radical researchers must boldly investigate the structural barriers to development as well as
elucidate alternatives to neoliberal and authoritarian rule (Wald 2015). Interpretivist researchers
should generate intersubjective meaning, or a common understanding of issues, by sensitively
engaging with and mediating between social and cultural differences (Gauri et al. 2013). Action
researchers are obligated to produce knowledge that improves development experiences and
outcomes (Brydon-Miller et al. 2003). As participatory methods are vulnerable to elite
cooptation, action researchers must also develop intersectional awareness of power dynamics and
work to ensure genuine levels of participation (Schurr and Segebart 2012). Although
differentially positioned, these standards are not mutually exclusive. In sustainable development,
researchers are investing in transdisciplinary and mixed-method collaborations to advance
understanding of sustainability processes and outcomes (Burford et al. 2013).6 Such endeavors
require meeting the standards of multiple methodological paradigms but offer scope for
harmonizing differential knowledges.
Finally, researchers must invest in multi-paradigmatic theory building (Chilisa 2009). Not
only does this mean moving beyond the dualism embedded in hegemonic Western thought, but
Southern and Eastern epistemologies offer transformative insight. The African philosophy of
Ubuntu transcends the individual-collective dichotomy by perceiving individual freedom in
relation to a communitarian ethic of solidarity (Chilisa and Ntseane 2010). Rather than stifling
opportunities for self-expression and personal well-being, the Ubuntu ethic protects individual
rights by ensuring the social and environmental conditions that enable generations of people to
Truong (2006) uses a multi-paradigmatic lens to tackle the universal-relative dichotomy. She
finds that Buddhist and feminist philosophy ‘share a common approach to the self as something
that exists in and through relationships’ (1269). Whereas feminism employs the concept of
‘generalized vulnerability’ to theorize interdependence and articulate an ethic of care, Buddhism
6 The Burford study combined scientific and interpretive logic and employed a mixed-method
approach in collaboration with research participants to develop intersubjective values-based
indicators capable of assessing the moral dynamics of sustainable development.
Keahey | Development Ethics 12
perceives suffering as a universal condition that ‘can be relieved through the intervention of a
clear mind,’ enabling people to ‘fully appreciate relations of interdependence’ (1270). According
to Truong, both views encourage us to cultivate the compassion needed to articulate a culturally
sensitive framework for global human rights. Her work suggests the potential for diverse streams
of consciousness to converge in response to the manifold crises threatening our world today. As
researchers who operate in development contexts entangled with a history of oppression, we
have a moral duty to support this process by opening our minds to difference.
This section synthesizes the lessons learned from the alternative schools of development into
nine principles for development research. While the guide is designed for the interdisciplinary
field of development studies, it broadly agrees with the values espoused by the American
Sociological Association (ASA). Similarly to the ASA Code of Ethics, the guide aligns standards
related to competence, integrity, and responsibility with those pertaining to respect, dignity, and
diversity (ASA 2018).
1. Question Assumptions
To begin cultivating an open mind, investigators should problematize the personal, disciplinary,
and professional assumptions that inform research processes and practices. This includes
identifying any sources of implicit bias that may distort inquiry (Godden 2017). In particular,
researchers should challenge assumptions undergirding theories and methods, perceptions about
nations, cultures, or social groups, and existing data and interpretations. The eradication of
unfounded assumptions is necessary to ensure the improvement of development studies as a
whole; thus, researchers should not attempt to perform objectivity by omitting assumptions when
publishing or otherwise sharing their work. Rather, researchers should pursue greater levels of
objectivity by publicly sharing and critiquing assumptions (Crocker 1991; Myrdal 1969).
Scholars and professionals who evaluate studies should also ruthlessly question their own
assumptions when considering papers for publication, judging work for the purposes of award or
promotion, or determining the potential of scientific innovations or policy prescriptions.
2. Ensure Intellectual Integrity
Development research is a multifaceted process that requires careful planning and execution.
This process must be shaped by a clear commitment to intellectual integrity. When conducting
studies, investigators should meet the standards of their research paradigm unless there is a
clearly articulated rationale for divergence. Scientific and positivist researchers should refer to
development ethics when considering topics, designing research, and considering innovations,
but maintain a position of value neutrality during data collection and analysis (Nordgren 1997).
Critical and radical researchers should reveal structural power dynamics as well as elucidate
alternatives to conventional approaches that reify systems of inequity (Wald 2015). Qualitative
and interpretivist researchers should mediate between social, cultural, political, and moral
differences in order to give voice to research populations and integrate knowledge systems
(Gauri et al. 2013). Action researchers should secure genuine levels of participation and produce
knowledge that improves development experiences and outcomes (Brydon-Miller et al. 2003).
While the above paradigms are fairly distinct, these knowledge traditions are by no means
mutually exclusive. Mixed approaches are beholden to multiple intellectual standards.
Keahey | Development Ethics 13
3. Embrace Intellectual and Social Difference
Development research must be grounded in a fundamental respect for difference. Given the
international and interdisciplinary composition of the field, researchers must be willing to
actively engage with people of different social backgrounds and intellectual traditions. This
means recognizing the validity of diverse knowledge systems and working to establish common
ground. Investigators also must move beyond binary logic and ideological interpretations that
ignore complexity and silence marginalized views (Mohanty 1984). Regardless of intellectual
orientation, all researchers can assume the position of learner by accepting that local cultures
have a great deal to teach (Curtin 2005). Collaborative studies should consciously incorporate
difference as well. Whereas intellectually diverse research teams can minimize distortions arising
from disciplinary or methodological bias (Hussein 2009), socially diverse teams can reduce
distortions related to social group bias (Näslund et al. 2010). Knowledge platforms should
welcome diversity and judge knowledge claims according to the logic of stated methods.
4. Center Subaltern Knowledge
There also is a need to prioritize marginalized group concerns by centering these in research and
practice. Global South knowledge systems have been silenced by a process of scientific
colonialism that continues to inform disciplinary practices, making it challenging for researchers
around the world to operate in a less oppressive manner (Chilisa et al. 2017). To bring subaltern
views to the center of inquiry, scholars must first conceptualize research as a learning exchange
(McFarlane 2006). Researchers can prevent epistemic injustice from occurring by working to
revitalize Southern epistemologies that inform the global ecology of knowledge and by
supporting the broader development of a ‘plurality of scientific practices’ (Santos 2014:193).
Potential means include intersectional analysis and multi-paradigmatic theory building.
Intersectional analysis sheds light on the complexity of marginalized experiences and identities
by examining intersecting axes of social division (Collins and Bilge 2016). Multi-paradigmatic
research partnerships bring Southern knowledge systems into dialogue with development
through a transformative process of critical action and reflection (Chilisa et al. 2017).
5. Articulate and Apply Ethics
Development researchers are obligated to diverse interests including stakeholders, disciplines,
funders, employers, policymakers, and ecologies (Camfield and Palmer-Jones 2013). Not only
must investigators adhere to institutional and disciplinary standards, but conduct must also must
account for ‘social, structural, and geographic context’ (Cahill et al. 2007:312). Abstract
standards, including the principles stipulated in this guide, should be viewed as tools for
developing a comprehensive ethical code of conduct that is uniquely situated to the research site,
topic, and discipline, topic. In addition to articulating ethical standards and using these to plan
engagement, researchers should revisit and modify criteria when issues arise. The code should be
developed in consultation with the research population with critical awareness of structural
power dynamics; and in cases of participatory research or interdisciplinary collaboration, all
researchers must be actively involved in the process of determination (Sultana 2007). In addition
to protecting human participants, ethical codes of conduct should consider non-human subjects.
6. Protect Species and Environments
Environmental ethics emphasize the need to protect species and environments from harm
(Nordgren 1997). Researchers should consider the potential consequences of their research on
Keahey | Development Ethics 14
humans, other species, and ecologies as well as take steps to eliminate negative environmental
impacts resulting from research practices or interventions informed by study results. Researchers
may begin by extending institutional codes related to the protection of research subjects to non-
anthropogenic subjects. More significant levels of protection may be achieved by conducting
information exchanges that enable research communities to share their ecological knowledge and
concerns with development scholars and professionals (Curtin 2005). The five capitals model of
sustainable development (natural, human, social, manufactured, and financial) may be used to
assess potential impacts in areas beyond the scope of research (Stacey and Stacey 2012). By
developing a research protocol based on the five capitals model, development researchers can
play a critical role in redirecting ‘the frontiers of technological innovation’ to more
environmentally responsible pathways (61).
7. Improve Measures
Development researchers are beholden to the ongoing improvement of measures. This requires
relentlessly revisiting the theories, concepts, and analytical approaches that inform research
design (Curtin 2005). It also means developing global measures that support vulnerable interests
(Nussbaum 2011) while working to locate points of agreement across cultural and intellectual
difference (Truong 2006). More comprehensive measures can be developed by sampling for
difference, or sampling away from the mean to study differences in units of observation
(Stinchcombe 2005). Researchers who work with interpreters and in cross-cultural contexts also
must work to ensure intersubjective meaning, or a common understanding of issues, as this is
required to ensure accurate translation of research questions and responses (Phillips 2016).
Multi-scalar, mixed-method and collaborative research projects may also advance measures by
developing indicators that are ‘intersubjectively conceptualized within clearly defined practical
contexts’ (Burford et al. 2013:3035). Indeed, action research provides researchers with an
opportunity to improve upon global measures, such as the UN Millennium Development Goals,
by integrating a culturally informed analysis of historic and political economy contexts into
research and assessment (Bacon et al. 2008).
8. Be Transparent and Accountable
Development researchers must be morally responsible to ensure the legitimacy of the field as a
whole. To ensure transparency, investigators must scrupulously communicate intentions during
initial consultations with stakeholders as well as deliver a summary of research findings in the
local language at project end (Brydon-Miller 2008). Accountability encompasses impact as well
as intention. Researchers are accountable for protecting participants from harm, establishing
respectful engagement, and ensuring local relevance (Ulrich 2003). As part of this process,
investigators should publicly disclose potential risks and consult with knowledge networks to
reduce risk. Researchers also should refuse to deliver simplistic analyses or technocratic
solutions that are wholly grounded in Western worldviews as such practices repeatedly have
been shown to denigrate cultures, damage environments, and desiccate knowledge systems
(Okereke 2008; Rahnema and Bawtree 1997; Santos 2014). Knowledge platforms must hold
researchers accountable for studies that reify classist, racist, and sexist assumptions as well as for
prescriptions that do not consider social or environmental consequences.
9. Practice Critical Reflexivity
Keahey | Development Ethics 15
Development researchers should commit to an ongoing process of critical reflexivity, or an
awareness of the influence of the self on research (Berger 2015). A global crisis of representation
has called into question the ability of researchers ‘to produce knowledges across multiple
divides…without reinscribing the interests of the privileged (Nagar and Geiger 2007:267).
Feminist scholarship has made strides in addressing power imbalances in research, particularly
when reflexive analyses are aligned with intersectional critique (Schurr and Segebart 2012).
However, studies that do not directly focus on identity politics often do not demonstrate critical
reflexivity. Given the inequitable terrain in which development research necessarily operates,
critical self-awareness should not be seen as the purview of feminist or qualitative research
alone. While degree of flexibility is contingent upon paradigm and choice of methods,
researchers of all social backgrounds and intellectual traditions should scrutinize the processes
by which knowledge is collected, interpreted, and shared. This includes engaging in critical self-
reflection and working to improve the social relations of development in everyday research
engagement. Indeed, a self-aware, inquisitive, and adaptable positionality is essential for
ensuring rigor in a world of complexity (Chambers 2015).
As the recognized founder of the field of development ethics, (Goulet 1997) believed that ethics
would provide the ‘conceptual cement’ needed to reconnect theory with policy and research with
practice (1169). Although his work has informed the rise of alternative development traditions,
the field as a whole has remained fractured due to structural barriers wrought by global power
relations, the segregation of scholarly research and professional practice, and the presence of
disciplinary silos that reify intellectual divisions (Malavisi 2014). Development researchers may
not be able to transform structural forces that are fueling the broader crisis in development, but
the alternative traditions of human, sustainable, and participatory development offer clear
strategies for improving the standards by which knowledge is produced. Yet development studies
continue to lack a common research ethic. Part of the problem with establishing protocols is a
tendency to reinforce extremes, either by reducing values to technocratic rules or by succumbing
to a level of particularism that does not support common ground (Curtin 2005). Similarly to other
contributions to development ethics, this article takes the position that ‘a plurality of values’ is
needed to ensure actionable ethics (St Clair 2007:158). It also recognizes that some level of
normative agreement is needed to ensure the legitimacy of development studies as a whole
This article has brought together a wide-ranging discourse on development ethics to begin
the process of articulating a common ethical foundation for development research. As I have
demonstrated, the alternative schools of development conceptualize development in critical and
complementary ways. Although the schools are navigating manifold ethical challenges, including
crosscutting conceptual tensions, they have collectively recognized the destructive outcomes of
conventional approaches and broadly agree on the need for transformative engagement. Indeed,
human, sustainable, and participatory development share several research values in common. I
have drawn from these points of agreement to propose a set of principles that may be used to
plan, conduct, and evaluate development studies. As my list draws from a socially and
intellectually diverse body of scholarship, it represents a collaborative starting point for dialogue
and engagement. Debate is welcomed.
Keahey | Development Ethics 16
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