Resilience, entrepreneurship and the rule of law: ethical dilemmas for researchers


One of the most emblematic television commercials of recent years is for the bank HSBC*. Shown on many news and other channels around the world, it shows a little girl who opens a lemonade stand outside her home. While Maurice Chevalier’s version of ‘Thank Heaven for Little Girls’ plays (somewhat dubiously) in the background, she makes a roaring success of the business by speaking several languages and taking a range of different foreign currencies.

At a symbolic level, this advertisement celebrates many of the dominant values of our time: feminine achievement, entrepreneurship, responsiveness to customers, openness to global markets and willingness to trust the finance industry.

But if we look through a different lens, and interpret it literally, what do we find? Child labour, tax avoidance, operating a business without planning permission, lack of respect for health and safety rules and a complete disregard for a range of other regulations.

What emerges from such analysis is a conclusion that probably seems self-evident to most social and political scientists: that there are strong contradictions between the drive for entrepreneurship on the one hand, and, on the other, the need for fair rules that allow markets to function transparently, safeguard individuals from harm and produce social cohesion.

The concept of resilience stands right at the centre of this contradiction. A resilient individual, some might argue, is someone who takes initiatives, seizes opportunities and tries something new in order to further their own interests and those of other household members. The biographies of many successful entrepreneurs include romanticised accounts of just such innovative achievements (the food made at the kitchen table or the products invented in the garage that turn into a global brand; the door-to-door salesperson or market-stall holder who launches a retail chain). Our lemonade-stand heroine is emblematic of such figures. But at what point does the kind of innovative entrepreneur she represents morph into a criminal or a benefit cheat in the public imagination or in the reality of how regulations are applied? We are, after all, also plied with images representing the alternative reality: the tax-evader, the exploitative sweatshop owner, the criminal.

The so-called informal economy (often called, revealingly enough, the ‘black economy’, ‘shadow economy’ or ‘grey economy’) has long been recognised as an ambiguous space, difficult to research, whose actors are viewed in multiple ways, both positive and negative. There is a continuum between serious crime, such as drug-dealing, extortion and protection rackets, shading off into dealing in stolen goods, black market trading, selling counterfeit products or smuggled goods at one extreme and, at the other, desperately poor people scraping a livelihood by hard work: selling second-hand goods, recycling garbage or growing food for sale. In between these extremes are a large number of grey areas where the applicability of the law is questionable but there may be no criminal intent, including working informally for friends for repayment in kind, homeworking, selling goods on commission for mail order companies or taking on occasional work as a seasonal agricultural worker, window-cleaner, child-minder, car-washer, deliverer of leaflets through letterboxes, dressmaker or cake decorator.

For the researcher, this field of study presents ethical as well as intellectual challenges. As the RESPECT project concluded, the professional researcher has to balance three very different ethical principles.

These three principles are:

  • First, the researcher should respect scientific standards. In the popular perception, this could be termed ‘finding the truth’. But, it is often argued, since all ‘truths’ are socially constructed, this may be an impossible goal. Nevertheless, the researcher has a clear duty to avoid deliberate misrepresentation, fabrication or misinterpretation of data and ensure factual accuracy insofar as this is possible.
  • Second, the researcher should respect the law. Again this principle may be contentious. There is, for instance, a widely held view that it is the duty of intellectuals to resist unjust laws, such as those imposed by totalitarian regimes. Nevertheless, there is a general consensus that there are some laws, such as those designed to prevent plagiarism or protect the privacy of research subjects that it is clearly in the interests of researchers, as a community, to uphold, since they form the basis of their own professional standards. More importantly, we must recognise that researchers are also citizens. In their capacity as citizens, they have a duty to inform the authorities if they witness criminal activity.
  • The third ethical obligation placed on the researcher is the avoidance of social and personal harm. This includes the well-known requirements to ensure that participation in research is voluntary, to respect privacy and to ensure that it does not lead to physical or emotional pain or material disadvantage.

Much to the frustration of research funders, ethical research does not and cannot involve blindly following any checklist of rules of good conduct because all of these principles may come into conflict with each other in certain circumstances.

To take just a few examples: research on activities such as drug use or prostitution may involve observing the law being broken without reporting it to the police; research on child sexual abuse or racist gangs may involve working undercover without gaining the informed consent of the subjects being studied; some psychological research involves deception of the participants. Some of these may be extreme examples, but most social scientists who carry out empirical research with human subjects come up against minor versions of such dilemmas on a frequent basis.

In research on resilience among poor households all three of these principles are in play and researchers, individually and collectively, have to exercise our judgement on how to balance them. How do we find out, to the best of our ability ‘what’s really going on’? But (if this involves some ‘grey areas’) how do we then decide whether what is going on is serious enough to report to the authorities? And, if we do so, how do we avoid any harm coming to our research participants, especially in the event that in reporting one kind of harm (such as the discovery of child sexual abuse, or serious benefit fraud) we end up being instrumental in bringing about another (such as the arrest of a respondent, or the withdrawal of benefits)? If we do not do so, how do we, as citizens, live with the knowledge that our failure to act may have resulted in some other kind of harm? And to what extent might we be personally liable if we are seen by the authorities as colluding with fraud or crime? Journalists, following their codes of practice, have faced jail sentences rather than reveal their sources of information. Should social researchers be prepared to take a similar stance? If we do not, how can we earn the trust of our informants?

These are big questions. The debate is just beginning.

Ursula Huws, January 16, 2015

*The ad can be viewed here:

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