“You’re talking about ethics, we’re talking about the IRB [Institutional Review Board].”

While she is visiting the University of Keele, supported by a Fulbright Scholarship, Prof. Mary Brydon-Miller (University of Cincinnati’s Action Research Centre) presented ‘Community Covenantal Ethics and Structured Ethical Reflection: Enacting the Values of Action Research’ at the ESRI seminarmary_brydon-miller

The talk focused on ethics and action research, for Mary both of these were intimately related to personal narratives and identity as a researcher seeking to, in line with Action Research Centre’s (ARC) mission, “promote social justice and strengthen communities, locally and globally, by advancing research, education, and action through participatory and reflective practices.”

ARC’s mission is something that many researchers would sign up to but for those action researchers working in a university there are potential tensions between the progressive values of action research and the ethical review process in universities or, in America, the Institutional Review Board.  Currently, Human Subject Review processes are guided by principles of autonomy, beneficence and justice yet in universities these are typically interpreted in a narrow, contractual and legalistic sense that emphasises risk avoidance to exclusion of all else.


Mary suggested that rather than approaching action research through a contractual approach it is better to adopt a covenantal model, whereby an, “understanding of our deep and abiding responsibility to act in the interest of others shifts our current identification of research as commodity to a system in which all research, not simply action research, is regarded as a source of common good” (Brydon-Miller, 2009, p. 254).

Like action research covenantal ethics must also be situated in an institutional context and there are questions as to what this would look like in practice?  Mary outlined ‘structural ethical reflection’ as a potential approach and befitting a talk on action research, we all had a go. The process involved choosing values from list that we considered appropriate to our research. Then accepting the values the task was to understand what these values mean at different stages of the research, using a grid – see below.

MMU Education Covenantal Ethics Presentation

Of the values on the list, I felt most comfortable with applying honesty, respect, transparency, critical thinking, and determination to my research, rather than more open and expansive values such as wonder, love or courage.  I’m concerned that adopting and seeking to adhere to ‘lofty’ values while researching could create situations where I would let vulnerable individuals or groups down when a funding stream ended or I have to move job.  It is interesting that the reflection grid ends with the dissemination of findings, the end of the research from the researchers’ and funders’ point of view, and so there are questions as to what it means to commit to higher and more commendable virtues within such time-limited periods and potentially temporary relationships?

On the whole, covenantal ethics provides a positive foundation for researchers to navigate the ethical challenges they face while researching both in the short-term and over a career, beyond not being sued, being reminded and remembering to reflect on the ethical, moral and political dimensions of doing research can only be a good thing.

James Duggan

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