Rites of consent: Negotiating research participation in diverse cultures

Monash Bioethics Review 22 (2):9-26 (2003)
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Abstract

The significance of informed consent in research involving humans has been a topic of active debate in the last decade. Much of this debate, we submit, is predicated on an ideology of individualism. We draw on our experiences as anthropologists working in Western and non Western (Iban) health care settings to present ethnographic data derived from diverse scenes in which consent is gained. Employing classical anthropological ritual theory, we subject these observational data to comparative analysis. Our article argues that the individualist assumptions underlying current bioethics guidelines do not have universal applicability, even in Western research settings. This is based on the recognition that the social world is constitutive of personhood in diverse forms, just one of which is individualistic. We submit that greater attention must be paid to the social relations the researcher inevitably engages in when conducting research involving other people, be this in the context of conventional medical research or anthropological field work. We propose, firstly, that the consenting process continues throughout the life of any research project, long after the signature has been secured, and secondly, that both group and individual dimensions of consent, and the sequence in which these dimensions are addressed, should be carefully considered in all cases where consent is sought.

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