Legal, ethical and moral issues in researching conflict, violence and peace

Lead Research Organisation: Queen's University of Belfast
Department Name: Inst Study Conflict Transf & Soc Justice


As organised violence increases in late modernity, research on violence and peace in dangerous settings is being undertaken with ever more frequency. This is the case not only with respect to transitional societies emerging out of conflict but also stable democracies that are experiencing austerity-related riots. The increased attention on this kind of research is coupled with two further developments: a growing awareness in British social science of the importance of managing risk in social research, and the emergence of new, more rigorous regulatory frameworks to structure the conduct of research. The advanced training we propose therefore responds to an increasing need for more specialised training in the legal, ethical and moral implications of research on conflict, violence and peace, and of research which is conducted in increasingly dangerous and sensitive locations. In meeting these training needs it builds capacity in British social science by educating new generations of researchers in the skills necessary for researching conflict, violence and peace. The course raises awareness not just of new regulatory frameworks but of broader ethical, legal and moral problems involved in this kind of research.

The bid draws on the skills and expertise of the School of Law at Queen's University and the new Institute for the Study of Conflict Transformation and Social Justice (ISCTSJ), which directly addresses conflict and peace from an inter-disciplinary perspective. Queen's University is world renowned for the depth of its experience and the international quality of its research on violence, conflict and peace, and has had long experience in dealing with the issues and problems involved in undertaking research of this kind. This makes the course nationally leading. The personnel providing academic leadership in the bid - John Brewer (ISCTSJ) and Pete Shirlow (Law) - are international figures in this field, they have collaborated in the past and have complementary methodological and substantive expertise. They will be joined by a number of early career researchers and teachers, which further reinforces the capacity building dimensions of this application. The course has the benefit of the lived experience of the staff involved, both as teachers in dealing with these issues in the classroom for a very long time, but also as researchers. The course will be based on real-life experience and examples, and will be multi-disciplinary and comparative, drawing on the experience of researching in several different countries from a variety of disciplinary perspectives. This includes research on perpetrator groups and victims, so the teaching team has a wealth of experience in negotiating the practical, legal and ethical difficulties in researching conflict and its aftermath, which will enrich the teaching.

The course will deal with the legal, ethical and moral issues around studying conflict, violence and peace in dangerous and sensitive locations. Its concerns include the following: the management of risk and danger, both to researchers and respondents; the special problems posed when undertaking sensitive research; issues around the management of gender and identity in the field in dangerous settings; recent developments in ethical and legal practice and the new regulatory codes of conduct; problems around the legal constraints operating on informed consent and promises of confidentiality; the management of risk in data collection; dealing with the problem of what is called respondents' "guilty knowledge"; and the legal and ethical issues involved in dissemination and publication. This draws on Queen's expertise in the field of sensitive and dangerous research and in the legal conduct of research. Each course will last one day and two courses will be offered each year, in Winter (December) and Summer (July). The application is to cover the costs of two courses per year for three years, a total of six courses in all.

Planned Impact

There are two categories of non-academic user who benefit from this research - course participants from within civil society, and non-academic users. The way they benefit and how is different for each category, so the two questions - who and how - are dealt with together and explained for each category of user.

1) Non-academic users. These include: a) multifarious civil society groups, victims, third sector organisations, charities and INGOs, restorative justice groups dealing with ex-combatants, and humanitarian aid agencies, all of whose staff can attend the course along with postgraduates and early career researchers, to better help them understand some of the legal, ethical and moral problems around the research they both use as practitioners in their employment, and which they might commission in the future in the area of conflict, violence and peace. b) Policy-makers, practitioners, governments, conflict resolution negotiators and others who have responsibility for managing the growth of organised violence and finding sustainable peace processes directly benefit from this training through the enhanced quality of the research, its improved information base and the improved quality of the research findings and outputs. This course helps, for example, meet one of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office's strategic priorities for 'coordinating a UK government contribution to conflict prevention and supporting conflict resolution in fragile states'. c) The general public (including ex-combatant groups, victim support groups, and ex-combatants and victims themselves living in societies suffering or emerging from conflict) benefit directly through better quality research that can have even greater impact in resolving the real world problems they suffer around violence, conflict and peace. d) Past and future research respondents and research subjects directly benefit from this training because they have an improved encounter with researchers and are left with better experiences as subjects, thus increasing their likelihood of participating in future research, which indirectly benefits the research community by eliminating problems with research fatigue.

2) Course participants from within civil society, practitioner fields and from the victims and ex-combatant sectors.
Direct benefits are most obvious to the course participants themselves, especially those from outside the Academy and who are in civil society, practitioner and professional employments that give them an interest in conflict, violence and peace as policy and practical concerns. These include:
a) Course participants from outside the Academy benefit directly through their awareness of the legal, ethical and moral dimensions of researching conflict, violence and peace, which can assist in their understanding and reception of such research and facilitate funding of possible future research. b) Course participants from outside the Academy benefit directly from their enhanced skills and training in understanding research on conflict, violence and peace, assisting in their use of it as practitioners and in their policy responses to stakeholder groups like ex-combatants and victims. c) Course participants from outside the Academy directly benefit from an improvement in their ability to understand the constraints on research of this kind arising from the difficulties in managing the risks associated with studies of conflict, violence and peace, helping them to contextualise its findings and apply research findings more sensitively in their practitioner and professional roles.

The teaching team has extensive civil society links, having worked with key stakeholder groups in a variety of different roles, ranging from researcher, consultants and advisors, speakers, and advisory board members. This network of contacts will be used in the design stage of the training, such as in finalising the syllabus in order to meet their needs, and recruitment and advertising.


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