Unethical social scientific research may negatively impact a society’s trust in our scholarly field. In a recent case of fraudulent research practice the discipline of anthropology, incorrectly, got the blame. This is part three of our impact blog series.
On 27 February 2018, Tilburg University released a statement concerning the PhD thesis “Institutionele reproductie van salafistische jongeren in Nederland” [The institutional reproduction of Salafist youth in the Netherlands] of Mohammad Soroush. It communicated that the researcher and his promoters violated scientific integrity. Soroush’ promotor, sociologist Prof. dr. Ruben Gowricharn, will lose his ius promovendi at Tilburg University, and co-promotor, Arabic and Islamic scholar Jan Jaap de Ruijter received an official warning. Soroush has been summoned to not distribute his thesis any further and to publish rectifications in Current Anthropology and the newsletter of the American Anthropological Association. The controversy about Soroush’ research has received a considerable amount of media coverage in the Netherlands. Unfortunately, his case demonstrates the risks of research when done unethically: negative impact.
The controversy of Soroush
What happened? Based on meagre participant observation, Soroush argued and presented in national media outlets such as EenVandaag and De Volkskrant, that Salafists would oppose integration and have no loyalty to Dutch society. This research boosted Tilburg University’s ‘impact’, since impact is measured by, among other things, media coverage. Soon after, two mosques send in official complaints to Tilburg University because they did not recognize themselves in Soroush concept of ‘salafist’, a concept that he did not define or explain in his thesis. Anthropologists Martijn de Koning, Annelies Moors and Thijl Sunier wrote a substantial critique on the thesis in which they question his methodology and point out his lack of theoretical grounding and lack of adherence to ethical principles such as ‘informed consent’ by engaging in undercover research.
Anthropology and ethical guidelines
In response, Tilburg University installed a committee that investigated the scientific integrity of Soroush’ research, which led to the abovementioned reprimands. The committee did not withdraw Soroush’ title of Doctor, reasoning that “there are no clear guidelines within the discipline of anthropology that offer researchers guidance in making ethical considerations”. Any student of Cultural Anthropology at Leiden University would disagree. The ethical guidelines of the American Anthropological Association, the guidelines of the European Association of Social Anthropologists, and any book on ethnographic methods offers guidelines in field research. Guidelines that Soroush clearly did not follow.
Yet there is an additional problem here: why is anthropology getting the blame here? Soroush received his PhD from the department of sociology, not anthropology. Not one anthropologist was involved in the PhD committee, neither in the committee for scientific integrity. The committee consulted two external experts, both sociologists, not anthropologists. Soroush does not mention anthropology in his thesis and does not present himself as an anthropologist in his thesis. I can only think of two reasons why the committee for scientific integrity blames anthropology for this faulty research. First of all, the method of participant observation is linked to anthropology, and secondly, to not put the blame on the disciplines that this research was actually located in Sociology, and Arabic and Islamic studies. On the contrary, we could argue that if Soroush had been trained in anthropology, a discipline not represented at Tilburg University, his PhD research might not have violated scientific integrity as it did.
Participant observation and the issue of trust
Anthropology’s main method of participant observation is becoming more and more popular outside of our discipline. Scholars in sociology, political science and the humanities take on ethnographic methods to get into closer contact with their research participants and to discover more in-depth details about their lives. This will not only advance our understanding of the social world, but as Marianne Maeckelbergh mentioned in her introductory blog on this series on impact, participant observation can also have a valuable impact on the people we work with. Peter Pels furthermore mentioned in the following blog in this series that “the quality and validity of ethnographic knowledge depend on the social relationships maintained between researcher and people studied”, and this is why ethics are important from the start of every research project.
There are quite a few anthropologists in the Netherlands who are doing research on Islam, Muslims, mosques, and salafism. Very often these research projects are possible because they invest in personal relationships for years, foster honest and open communication about their research objectives and adhere to clear ethical guidelines. The case of Soroush reminds us of two things. First of all, it demonstrates that researchers need training in participant observation and other qualitative research methods. Ethical considerations that many anthropologists deem inherent to our methodology need to be spelled out, especially to researchers who do not have this training. Secondly, it demonstrates that research can also have a negative impact, both on the people that we work with and on the larger discipline we are located in, which is why we need ethical guidelines in the first place.
Responsibilities of the researcher
The ethical guidelines of the American Anthropological Association make researchers attentive to the ways in which their research can impact the larger discipline of anthropology. Researchers have a responsibility not only to their interlocutors, but also towards their academic disciplines. If they refrain from taking this responsibility, the possibilities for future research may be negatively impacted. In this case, mosques might refrain from cooperating in future research. It is extremely unfortunate that Tilburg University has labelled Soroush’ research as “anthropology” and has wrongly stated that our discipline lacks clear ethical guidelines. Rectifications should in the first place go to journals within Soroush’ own disciplines.
When researchers decide to study a certain topic, practice and/or place they have to of course also take into account how unethical research can negatively impact the people that are being studied. We need critical scientific conduct based on ethical research practices. The verdict of the committee for scientific integrity of Tilburg University suggests that the university cares more about how to control the damage they suffer, then on reducing the damage done to the research participants. The rectifications in scholarly journals and newsletters do not help the people that were harmed by the unethical research practices of Soroush. Muslims in the Netherlands, and the mosques and their visitors that were mentioned in the thesis more specifically, would gain much more if official rectifications would be made in the media that reported on this research.