Ethical considerations for Social Work education and research in Africa: COVID-19, white privilege, structural inequalities and its implications for European Social Work
The current pandemic forces parts of social work practice, research and education to reinvent itself. Alongside new online formats and blended-learning models, new ethical questions and dilemmas arise. Those include issues of resources, control and power, access, accessibility, mobility and rising inequalities, positionality of researchers, data protection and the duty of care in social scientific research and education with migrants and other vulnerable populations. While individual-oriented models have arguably been a hallmark of the European social work practice come to its limits in the pandemic, communal practices and local self-organized support systems come to the forefront. Can the North learn in the crisis from Southern approaches?
The symposium draws on this notion of joint learning and raises important questions about the (im-)possibility of equal research partnership during times of worsening structural inequalities. The papers presented draw on social work-related research projects in cooperation with partners in Uganda, Ghana and Nigeria. The situatedness of the research projects has direct implicit and explicit implications for ethical questions to be considered in postcolonial settings. The first perspective focuses on critical whiteness in research practice and pandemic-related challenges regarding field access and exchange opportunities. The second paper calls for situated ethics based in transnational multi-site research with migrating persons. Drawing on the theory of Social Work as a human rights profession in a global context, the final paper then moves to emphasize the mandate of social work researchers, practitioners and education to consider the perspectives of those unheard and unseen in the current discourse. The range of papers point towards the dilemma of a predominantly white Northern Social Work profession that is only slowly reflecting upon and researching its own role in upholding and reproducing the colonial matrix of power. Suggestions are made how to work towards an ethical space of engagement in which power imbalances are recognized and an in-between space, in which one can in fact only stumble forward together, created.
Tanja Kleibl and Ronald Lutz will moderate the discussion. As a discussant, Robel Afeworki Abay reflects on intersectional and postcolonial analysis of labour market participation of disabled BIPoC.
Presentations of the Symposium
Ethical dilemmas in international Social Work research: Experiences of a PhD project of a European Social Worker in Ghana
The PhD project presented in this symposium is concerned with the intersections of Social Work and ‘indigenous/traditional’ helping systems in Ghana. Particularly relevant in this context is the critical examination of myself as a European white researcher in a formerly colonized country; especially because formal Social Work in Ghana was established by the colonial power and still today it can be spoken of a hegemony of western knowledge in the Social Work context (Apt & Blavo 1997; Kreitzer 2012).
The field research I conducted in December 2019/January 2020 was scheduled to be followed by further stays in 2020, which, however, were unfeasible due to the pandemic. Another field research trip is planned for February 2021; Whether this can take place, however, remains dependent on the outlook of the pandemic.
An accompanying research project, with the aim to analyse the Social Work curricula in Kumasi (Ghana) and Würzburg (Germany) from a postcolonial perspective could not take place either and is currently postponed to 2021. It remains to be seen whether this exchange programme with students from Ghana and Germany will take place physically or if it will be carried out online. If the pandemic does not allow us to travel and exchange cannot happen in person, all involved partners need to find alternative ways of creating a space where joint learning is possible.
The article presents the research project on Social Work in Ghana as well as the exchange programme and related ethical questions: Why is it necessary to critically scrutinise our own positions consistently in the research process? (How) is it possible to do research as a white researcher without (unwittingly) reproducing colonial patterns of thinking? Critical Theory, Postcolonial Theory and Critical Whiteness Studies provide relevant perspectives in that context.
Additionally, the pandemic-related challenges are presented in relation to planned field trips and the exchange programme. The difficulties in two-pronged preparation are shown and strategies to overcome these challenges will be discussed.
Key words: post-colonial Social Work research, Social Work curriculum, self-reflexivity, critical whiteness
Towards a situated ethics of social work research with migrants: politics, technology and the duty of care
Migrants experience social and structural vulnerabilities that present particular ethical challenges in doing research with these persons. The topic of migration is at the center of contested political discourses that also influence research agendas with their “destination country bias” or sustained focus on certain groups of migrants. In the context of the Covid 19 pandemic, there has been a rise in the use of internet technologies in research and social work teaching, including in practice projects. These technologies present a host of ethical issues from questions of self-determination of research participants to data security or the openness of research to unexpected discovery. The pandemic also exacerbated the vulnerable situations of migrants and rekindled debates around the “duty of care” and the balance between possible harm and benefits of social science research with migrating persons.
The presented paper draws on the author´s PhD research, which examines in a multi-side design the subjective attitudes to work of migrants from Nigeria to Germany. Additionally, the paper draws on the authors experience in teaching practice projects in an international master program “Social Work with migrants and refugees” as well as accompanying Social Work interns in various locations in the global South and global North in the 10 years of practice experience as a social worker.
The paper argues that Social Work research and education in the field of migration must mainstream robust ethical analysis in preparing and carrying out research and practice projects. Rather than a rigid “one size fits all” approach, a “situated ethics” must be developed. Attention must be paid early to how social work students engage with ethical questions in their practice and research projects. In the author´s experience, practice projects in social work education are often used as a “bridge” to qualifying research projects and must therefore from the beginning introduce research ethics reflection.
Key words: situated ethics, migration, internet technologies, duty of care
Social Work research with vulnerable populations in Eastern Uganda during the COVID-pandemic: on access and accessibility and Social Work research education
In March 2020, when the corona pandemic spread across the globe, many junior and senior researchers abruptly returned from their field studies, including the author. Many have remained tied to their desks ever since. Initially, the seemingly most urgent questions focused around being able to return to the field for data gathering, and around how to hold on to research designs. Quickly however, it became clear that the pandemic would increase (social) inequalities. The voices of those who had already been pushed to the margins (e.g. people with low socio-economic status, people who live in very remote regions, people with little education and limited or no access to digital technologies, individuals with disabilities, individuals with psychological challenges, minorities) prior to the pandemic now became unreachable.
Social workers addressed the potential consequences of this scenario early on during the first lockdowns. They feared not being able to reach their addressees and warned about the high costs for individuals, families, communities and societies at a whole. A new ethical dilemma arouse; should social workers and researchers return to the field and potentially increasing the risk of infection among their addressees, or should they restrain and maintain distance, thereby risking overseeing the needs of their addressees who are already not being able to make their voices heard? Common methods of Social Work practice and research suddenly did not seem to be applicable nor appropriate, demanding for substantial changes in methods and approaches used.
The presentation focuses on the ethical dilemma addressed above, thereby drawing on Staub-Bernasconi’s notion of social work as a human rights profession in a global context (2009: 139). This understanding demands social workers to consider human rights violations of individuals, groups, neighborhoods, communities, etc., and to move beyond analysis and critique through action. The paper draws on the author’s Ph.D. research with actors of the creative industry and artisan collectives in rural Eastern Uganda, thereby emphasizing ethical questions on access and mobility, and its implications for Social Work research education, which bridges theoretical studies of Social Work and practice.
Key words: mobility; silenced positions; access to technologies; rural Uganda