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Title: Ethics and Knowledge in the Contemporary University
Contributor(s): Scott, Catherine (author)
Publication Date: 2003
DOI: 10.1080/1369823042000241294
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Abstract: About three years ago I received one too many letters from the ethics committee at my then university of employment informing me that my application for approval of a proposed research project had 'problems'. The proposed research, it seems, presented a real risk to the wellbeing of any potential participants. This I regarded as arrant nonsense and in the resulting fit of 'committee rage', I penned an article attacking what I saw as the unethical nature of university ethics committees (Scott & Dinham 2000). It seemed to me that these committees were dedicated to the prevention of research rather than its facilitation. It was certainly the case that their role in the university had increased substantially in the matter of a few years and their demands had become more and more stringent and difficult to satisfy. I document this situation in the opening section below. One issue that has become especially problematic is the perceived power differential between intellectuals as researchers in relation to their subjects, and as teachers in relation to their students. The heightened sense of vulnerability in contemporary society, coupled with a suspicion of traditional authority figures, outweighs any sense of the benefits of university research, and underlies the demand for restraint, which is embodied in ethics committees. To account for this development I will use the theories of the anthropologist Mary Douglas. Douglas argues that the shift over the course of the twentieth century from a society characterised primarily by a hierarchical 'cultural project' to a competitive individualist one has left individuals increasingly anxious about their own positions, and seriously undermined trust. This explains the apparent paradox that a putatively more individualistic society should also be characterised by increasing rather than diminishing regulation. I argue below that bureaucratic attempts to contain risk in university research are at odds with the pursuit of that work and tend to reinforce the lack of trust that gives rise to them in the first place. More than that, the restrictive nature of university ethics committees both reflects and institutionalises distrust of intellectuals in general, presenting a serious obstacle to the development of new ideas.
Publication Type: Journal Article
Source of Publication: Critical Review of International Social and Political Philosophy, 6(4), p. 93-107
Publisher: Routledge
Place of Publication: London, United Kingdom
ISSN: 1369-8230
Field of Research (FOR): 130399 Specialist Studies in Education not elsewhere classified
Peer Reviewed: Yes
HERDC Category Description: C1 Refereed Article in a Scholarly Journal
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