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Thinking about Ethics in Burma Research

From: Journal of Burma Studies
Volume 18, Number 1, June 2014
pp. 1-22 | 10.1353/jbs.2014.0001

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Burma’s colonial past, its years under military dictatorship, its ongoing ethnic and religious conflicts, and the current shifts in the political landscape all present unique challenges for researchers seeking to behave ethically with their informants, their institutions, each other, and the public sphere. The recent upsurge of interest in Burma presents an opportunity for scholars who study the country to reflect on the ethical dilemmas they have confronted and to articulate how they have addressed them. It is our hope that this effort can help those who specialize in Burma to consider the norms and divergences that exist within our inter-disciplinary scholarly community, and can aid those new to Burma Studies in navigating their research in a more informed manner. In light of the need for such a conversation, The Journal of Burma Studies agreed to publish this special issue.

The inspiration for this issue came from a panel discussion Rose organized at the 2012 Burma Studies Conference in DeKalb, Illinois, USA. Elliott Prasse-Freeman and Patrick McCormick both presented earlier versions of the essays included here, and Rose described her difficulties with using consent forms in her ethnographic research with teachers on the Thai-Burma border (Metro 2014). The audience members, who represented a broad cross-section of the field, raised a number of important issues that bear further exploration, and several tensions emerged that are echoed in these pages. In particular, a debate on the nature of objectivity between a senior and a mid-career scholar, both anthropologists, pointed to a generational paradigm shift toward an engagement with the inevitably political nature of Burma Studies. Another exchange, between McCormick, a US researcher based in Burma, and a Burmese person based in the US, highlighted what McCormick calls the “hierarchies of interpretation” in which the academic credentials and positionality of local and international scholars privilege some epistemologies over others. Additionally, several scholars brought up concerns with the consequences of conducting and publishing their research, whether that meant jeopardizing local contacts or having their work appropriated to ends they did not support. These discussions were thought provoking, despite the brevity, and when we found ourselves talking after the conference about the need for more discussion, we decided to continue the conversation in these pages.

Burma Studies, perhaps more than in other fields given that research opportunities were limited for decades, has a largely unacknowledged division between those who ascribe to an approach to research that seeks “objectivity,” and those who have come of age as researchers during or after what is variously referred to as the “reflective turn” or the crisis of representation. This reflective turn provoked researchers to acknowledge the inevitable human lenses through which all research is conducted and reported, and to argue that because a single objective account is impossible, a researcher’s positionality becomes necessary to understanding their “lens.” This has resulted in charges of research politicization (by both camps) in a country that is already politically polarized, creating a landscape in which ethical decisions are especially fraught. The fact that Burma was under official military rule until 2010, and that repression continues under the current government, raises the stakes of scholars’ decisions. All of these issues invite researchers to engage more deeply in reflexivity and to pay critical attention to power, as well as to the specifics of context, when making decisions about what is acceptable in the field, in relationships, and in publication. In this complex terrain, it seems clear that the most useful ethical guidelines will not be determined by an overarching set of rules, but rather, as Maaike Matelski and Anne Décobert suggest in their essays, by case-by-case negotiations unique to each setting. There are no easy answers; doublebinds are common, and ethical decisions cannot be bracketed neatly so the conclusions remain “pure.” Unfortunately, the richest source of our potential reflection — those mistakes we inevitably make in the field — are rarely discussed or remain “hidden and backstage” (Fine 1993: 269; see also Altheide and Johnson 2011; Li 2008). We hope to generate a discussion here that makes ethical decisions central to research rather than peripheral to it, making them the subject of inquiry rather than its by...

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