Beyond-Human Ethics: The Animal Question in Institutional Ethical Reviews

I have just published a new paper in Area Journal, titled ‘Beyond-human ethics: The animal question in institutional ethical reviews.’ It is part of their special section on Ethics in/of Geography, and will soon be free to read for anyone. I have been sat with the ideas in this paper for many years, since I had to pass (through) ethical review for my PhD research. As longer-time followers will know, my PhD research was on veganism in Britain and brought together historical, interview, and animal ethnographic research.

The ethical review for my PhD was arduous. It went through several rounds of reviews and took eighteen months to pass. More than once, they reviewed my ethical review incorrectly and once even sent back someone else’s documents instead of my own. Partially, this was down to bureaucratic incompetency, but I also saw something more nefarious at play, as well as an opportunity to intervene and challenge institutional bullshit. When I was writing up this paper, I went back to my ethical review application from 2017 and shared on Twitter an excerpt:

Before I started bringing the chickens into my PhD research, I had been through this ethical review and, like many critical animal studies scholars before me, questioned where and how I was supposed to include the animals I was working with. I open the paper with a quote from animal studies scholar Erika Cudworth from her research on walking and researching with dogs:

‘What would it mean for a dog to give their consent to be involved in research? Are dogs vulnerable subjects in that they cannot give consent in ways traditionally understood? Alternatively, might we need to revise our understanding of how we register and monitor consent in the research process?’

Erika Cudworth, 2018, Now, where were we?’: The highs and lows of hunting data with a research pack. Journal of Sociology. 54:4, 488-503, https://doi.org/10.1177%2F1440783318816761

Like many other critical animal studies scholars, Cudworth questioned where she was supposed to include these dogs in her institutional ethical review but she wanted to ‘get on’ with research and so did not raise the question of non-human participation. Within the bounds of the institutional ethical review, animals are included as laboratory animals, whose inclusion must be reviewed. For other animals, they do not belong in this space. This suggests that we cannot do harm to animals in social research. I, obviously, take issue with this. We clearly can harm animals in other ways and as more-than-human geographies/animal geographies/animal studies expands, there is a need to think about how we ethically engage and encounter animals.

In the paper, I argue that many of the issues of institutional ethics are bound up in its neoliberal preservationist underpinnings:

“Institutional ethics debate who counts as an ethical subject and enforce a particular research framework. Ethical review functions primarily to manage risk and uncertainty and reduce liability.”

I then contextualise my argument in my own experience of institutional ethics reviews to exemplify how the neoliberal politics of the institution play out in tempering radical research, and simultaneously ignore research that doesn’t fit their own vision of research. Ultimately, I suggest three ways that we could and should challenge ethical review: (1) revisiting who counts as research participants to subvert the process; (2) through a reimagination of ethical and methodological practice; and (3) through posthumanist reform of ethical review. T

he paper takes research with animals as an obvious challenge to institutional ethical reviews. However, this problem is not limited to beyond-human research, nor to geographers. Institutional ethical review boards are fundamental to implementing the disciplining and conservative vision of the university, and also shape and mould what our methodological practice can look like. The questions and suggestions I raise in this paper ask geographers more widely to refuse and reimagine institutional ethics.

I hope that geographers and beyond will find this paper useful in thinking about, and teaching, institutional ethics and adapting their own practices to meaningfully consult and include non-human animals and other subjects.

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