Working with Concepts: The Role of Community in International Collaborative Biomedical Research

Public Health Ethics 4 (1):26-39 (2011)
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Abstract

The importance of communities in strengthening the ethics of international collaborative research is increasingly highlighted, but there has been much debate about the meaning of the term ‘community’ and its specific normative contribution. We argue that ‘community’ is a contingent concept that plays an important normative role in research through the existence of morally significant interplay between notions of community and individuality. We draw on experience of community engagement in rural Kenya to illustrate two aspects of this interplay: (i) that taking individual informed consent seriously involves understanding and addressing the influence of communities in which individuals’ lives are embedded; (ii) that individual participation can generate risks and benefits for communities as part of the wider implications of research. We further argue that the contingent nature of a community means that defining boundaries is generally a normative process itself, with ethical implications. Community engagement supports the enactment of normative roles; building mutual understanding and trust between researchers and community members have been important goals in Kilifi, requiring a broad range of approaches. Ethical dilemmas are continuously generated as part of these engagement activities, including the risks of perverse outcomes related to existing social relations in communities and conditions of ‘half knowing’ intrinsic to processes of developing new understandings

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