In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Research Ethics in International Relations

  • Introduction
  • General Overview
  • The Feminist Research Ethic in International Relations

International Relations Research Ethics in International Relations
Srobana Bhattacharya
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 April 2018
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 April 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199743292-0230


Research ethics refers to a comprehensive set of values, standards, and institutional schemes that maintain and regulate scientific activity. It constitutes of a set of rules for practicing science morally. International relations (IR) is a field of study that explores the interactions between several international actors, including states, international organizations, nonstate entities, and subnational actors. It emphasizes the distribution of power and control in the world by focusing on three key areas of enquiry—IR theory, international security, and international political economy. In the field of international relations, research ethics applies to several dimensions of the field: selecting the topic of study, framing the research question, choosing quantitative or qualitative research methods, data collection, data analysis, and interpretation. This article discusses some of these aspects of research ethics in IR, particularly focusing on (a) conducting qualitative research on topics pertaining to security studies, (b) analyzing big data and using the Internet as a data collection tool, and (c) the feminist research ethic in IR. While the first two dimensions raise important issues about ethical methods of data collection, the third concerns itself with how certain topics should be framed. For instance, when we speak of “power” or “norms” in the context of IR, how should we frame them and how can we deconstruct their interpretation from traditional dominant narratives of understanding the world order? While the emphasis is on reinterpreting the frames of inquiry, the feminist research ethic also provides valuable insights on research methods and data collection. In the social and behavioral sciences, discussions about research ethics often refer to data collection methods involving human subjects research. Within this category, the primary focus of research ethics, until recently, was based on issues of protection and safety of human subjects in research. However, research in IR involving human subjects is complex. Such research is often part of a field research. While field research can be conducted in the researcher’s own country, it is often conducted in international locations as well. In these cases, the question of research ethics includes the selection of the international location and interactions not only with new and different cultures, but also with participants who are situated in a different sociopolitical and cultural milieu. Furthermore, sometimes the research includes sensitive issues like conflict and war, terrorism, ethnic cleansing, or violence against women, among others. A lot of discussion about research ethics in IR is dedicated to the discussion of these complex issues. One area of inquiry addresses the complicated issue of applying standard ethical rules to these challenging settings. This discussion, which evaluates the efficacy of existing institutional protocols in relation to field research in IR, has widened the conceptual scope of the topic of research ethics. By doing this it broadens the topic of research ethics in IR to include questions related to the applicability of research ethics to such nuanced environments and urges an exploration of the uniqueness of each research context. In addition to ethnographic studies, a second, more recent area of focus while discussing research ethics in international relations includes the use of big data sets and Internet research. These new and innovative research trends, guided by technology, have urged researchers to expand the scope of research ethics further, including its applicability to IR. Big data like these are often used to conduct research on security issues, international organizations, climate and environmental issues, refugee and migration studies, and social movements and revolutions, among others. The ethical discussion revolves around the retrieval and usage of these data in research. A third area that emphasizes the role of research ethics in international relations discusses the dimensions of feminist-informed empirical research and what impact feminist reflection has on IR research. The purview of research ethics in IR is broad. But scholarship on this topic has not yet specified this breadth and instead relies on specific dimensions of research ethics. The first part of this article presents an overview of the general context of these three areas of research ethics in IR. The next section highlights the challenges of applying standard ethical guidelines to complex research topics and locations, most notably in the context of field researches in conflict zones. The following section reviews how the ethical domain while conducting research in IR should also include big data and Internet research. The final section is on the feminist research ethic in IR. The overall conclusion is that research ethics pertains to a broad spectrum of scientific inquiry in the field of IR and is not only restricted to field-based research involving human subjects. The substantive changes in research methods and data collection demand new ways in which ethics can be applied to IR research.

General Overview

Research ethics regulations are listed by scientific research associations like the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), whose regulations are detailed in the Federal Policy for the Protection of Human Subjects (Common Rule). The Common Rule presents the US system of protection for human subjects and is influenced by the 1979 Belmont Report (National Commission for the Protection of Human Subjects of Biomedical and Behavioral Research 1979). It was established in 1981 and published in 1991 by HHS. The need for such systematic codification resulted from a regulatory process initiated by the 1974 National Research Act, which was passed to address discrepancies in medical and psychological research, including the Nuremberg Doctors Trial, the Tuskegee Syphilis Study, and the Milgram experiment on obedience to authority figures. The outcome was the Belmont Report, which clearly laid down that respect, beneficence, and justice of human subjects involved in research has to be valued. The primary objective of codifying ethics is to include informed consent and avoid harming the participants. Furthermore, the purpose of issuing such general rules is to receive a prior, independent ethics review before pursuing a federally funded research project involving human subjects. The ethical principles and guidelines outlined in the Belmont Report are considered a key document in research ethics, and they are therefore applied to research ethics in the conflict and post-conflict environments, which is a prominent area of IR. Undoubtedly, this has created complexities, because several scholars and researchers agree that the principles laid out in this report are insufficient to particular challenges and dilemmas involved in conducting research in complex and sensitive environments (see Campbell 2017). These scholars call for more nuanced guidance. In response, country-level initiatives and some specific institutions have published revised ethical guidelines to include other goals, specifically defining the nature and scope of research ethics in social sciences. National Committee for Research Ethics in the Social Sciences and Humanities 2016 mentions research ethics in four main categories: (1) standards for freedom of research, good research practice associated with the researcher’s quest for truth and independence, and the relationship between researchers; (2) standards that regulate the community of researchers engaged in Human Subjects research (3) standards that regulate relationships with individuals and groups directly affected by the research; and (4) standards regarding social relevance, public interest, and cultural reproduction and rationality in the public debate. The Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) in the United Kingdom provides a detailed framework for research ethics and sets out good practice for social science research, detailing the principles and expectations from researchers, research organizations, and research ethics committees (Economic and Social Research Council 2015). Such initiatives are worthwhile. However, certain challenges remain, as discussed in the next section, on the Applicability of Research Ethics in International Relations Involving Human Subjects. In addition to discussing the applicability of ethical guidelines while conducting IR research including human subjects, scholars argue that the domain of research ethics should be widened to include Big Data Sets and Internet Research, which leads to another topic: virtual ethnography (see Virtual Ethnography and Research Ethics). Finally, the Feminist Research Ethic in International Relations attempts to change the dominant male narrative in IR research, mainly on the issues of power and security, and demands reflexivity and ethics of care to guide and inform research in this field.

  • Campbell, Susanna P. “Ethics of Research in Conflict Environments.” Journal of Global Security Studies 2.1 (2017): 89–101.

    DOI: 10.1093/jogss/ogw024

    This article presents an overview of the inefficacy of the ethical guidelines outlined in the Belmont Report when applied to conflict and post-conflict environments. It provides four specific challenges: obtaining truly informed consent, maintaining confidentiality, judging the levels of risk, and determining the moral and ethical obligation of researchers to give back to the subjects. In the concluding section, the article offers specific suggestions by scholars on how to minimize these ethical challenges and dilemmas.

  • Economic and Social Research Council. ESRC Framework for Research Ethics. Swindon, UK: ESRC, 2015.

    The Framework for Research Ethics helps researchers to consider ethics issues during the complete life cycle of a project. It includes information and guidelines on good research conduct and governance. The ESRC encourages the research community to share guidance, experience, and solutions to ethics dilemmas to facilitate innovative research.

  • National Commission for the Protection of Human Subjects of Biomedical and Behavioral Research. The Belmont Report: Ethical Principles and Guidelines for the Protection of Human Subjects of Research. Rockville, MD: Office for Human Research Protections, 1979.

    This report outlines the basic ethical principles that should underlie the conduct of biomedical and behavioral research involving human subjects, as well as the guidelines that should be followed to assure that such research is conducted in accordance with those principles.

  • National Committee for Research Ethics in the Social Sciences and Humanities. Guidelines for Research Ethics in Social Sciences, Humanities, Law and Theology. Oslo: Norwegian National Research Ethics Committees, 2016.

    NESH is part of the Norwegian National Research Ethics Committees, and this publication provides guidance and advice on research ethics. The guidelines are important tools for promoting good scientific practice in the Norwegian research system.

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