Ethical Issues in Cross-Cultural Research
Anne Marshall & Suzanne Batten
ABSTRACT: In the current postmodern context, researchers are challenged with how to
conduct and disseminate research in an ethical manner. Cross-cultural contexts and
multidisciplinary research teams present particular challenges. Many issues need to be
addressed: values and worldviews, definitions, research design, informed consent, entry
into the field, confidentiality, approaches to data collection, participant roles, ownership
of data, writing, representation, and dissemination of results. There are multiple and
complex cultural and contextual differences among researchers, among participants, and
between researchers and participants. Increasingly, it is recognized that existing ethical
codes and research paradigms do not sufficiently address these issues. Informational
meetings, detailed letters of consent, and reviews of interview transcripts do not in them-
selves ensure that prospective participants fully understand the purposes and potential
consequences of involvement in a research study. The perspective of community ethics
suggests that representation of multiple voices, enhancement of moral discernment, and
promotion of social change are critical components of ethical research. The research
process needs to be reciprocal and collaborative, with research participants and research-
ers working together to shape the conception and definition of the research.
In this paper, these ethical issues are discussed, within the context of two interdiscipli-
nary research projects investigating health-related issues for youth as a result of social
and economic restructuring.
KEYWORDS: Cross-cultural research, research ethics
The cultural landscape of Canada is constantly evolving. This development is a
process in which we interact and change through features of human knowing
and their implications for human change. Cross-cultural research requires inter-
actions between researchers and participants in which there is a search for and
W.-M. Roth (ed.), CONNECTIONS ‘03 (pp. 139–151).
© 2003 Anne Marshall
MARSHALL & BATTEN
acquisition of knowledge (Herring, 1999). From single case to community-size
research projects, culturally responsive researchers need to be capable of meet-
ing the needs of culturally diverse populations in the research relationship; how-
ever, there is a realization that current research methodologies and practices are
not meeting the challenges of the broad range of cultural identities represented
in today’s societies (Lee, 1995; Mtonga, 1986)). Researchers who are cross-
culturally literate increase their chances of working in an ethical manner with
participants from ethnic minority backgrounds (Ponterotto & Casas, 1993). Ca-
nadian researchers are becoming aware that the values in which the current sys-
tems of research practice are rooted in Western European-American culture and
that those values and those of culturally different participants, such as Asians,
Aboriginals, and Blacks, frequently come into conflict in the research process
(Lee, 1989; Pedersen, 1991).
The academic perspective, despite some theoretical grounding in diversity,
remains an extension of the dominant culture’s base of largely European West-
ern values, ethics, and norms. A number of authors have identified inappropriate
approaches to doing research across cultures (Lee, 1997; Choney, Berryhill-
Paapke, & Robbins, 1995). Research procedures can become more ethically ap-
propriate by acknowledging and incorporating practices relevant to the culture
of participants and their larger communities (Sue & Sue, 1990; Medicine-Eagle,
1989). For example, Leong (1993) asserts that traditional individually focused
psychoeducational processes and goals can often exist in opposition to Asian
collectivist value-orientations. In many Native contexts, illness is viewed as a
result of disharmony of the individual, family, or tribe in relation to the natural
order, thus healing can only occurred when harmony and balance are restored
(Herring, 1999; Thomason, 1999).
Through a review of relevant academic literature, this paper seeks to iden-
tify and describe some of the salient issues related to conducting ethical research
with culturally diverse groups. Our goal is to describe some of the ethical issues
related to designing and implementing psychoeducational research across cul-
tures. These issues include: values and worldviews, definitions, research design,
informed consent, entry into the field, control, approaches to data collection,
participant roles, ownership of data, representation, and dissemination of results.
Also discussed will be community ethics and collaborative research practices as
critical aspects of ethical cross-cultural contexts. Several implications of the
ethical issues will be identified and discussed in order to clarify current priorities
and future directions in the evolving cross-cultural relationship.
Ethics in Cross-Cultural Research
Values & Worldview
The need to focus on cultural differences in the research process is underscored
by literature that suggests that marginalized and minority participants frequently
report feeling misunderstood by researchers from mainstream (Euro-American)
culture (Hudson & Taylor Henley, 2001; Sue & Sue, 1990). Rapport building is
a recurrent theme in the literature, suggesting that a high level of cultural aware-
ness on the part of the researcher is associated with fostering relationships with
minority participants (Stubben, 2001; LaFromboise, 1993; Westwood & Ishi-
One key to understanding and conducting research with participants from
cultural minorities is the utilization of a systems approach (Sue & Sue, 1990).
For example, Aboriginal families tend to include extended family members,
place importance on collective identity and strong tribal affiliations (Thomason,
1999). Chinese families also include extended family members in “immediate”
family situations such as place of residence, finances, and decision-making (Ho,
1994). However, Pedersen (1991) suggests that no two families, or groups, are
ever culturally the same; each family internalizes aspects of the cultural norms
of the group in its own way. Factors such as acculturation, class, education, and
ethnic identity underpin such within and between group differences (Axelson,
1990). Religion and spirituality are often extremely important factors in the lives
of ethnic minority clients, and can provide a valuable source of social connec-
tion and self-esteem in times of stress or crisis (Malone, 2000).
Kerwin and Ponterotto (1995) describe “bicultural families,” in which the
parents come from two different cultures (often one from the dominant culture
and one from a minority culture). Healthy identity development for young peo-
ple from these bicultural families involves integrating both cultural backgrounds
into one self-concept that is unique (Diller, 1999). For example, today’s North
American Asian and Aboriginal youth often possess a bicultural identify in
which they identify with both traditional beliefs and self-awareness as well as
contemporary or more European-North American values; this bicultural sense of
self is usually linked to level of acculturation (Herring, 1999; Wetsit, 1999; Ho,
1994). Group or cultural identity, according to Trimble and Fleming (1989), is
based on each group’s or community’s history, and knowledge of this history is
essential for researchers to be effective with participants from that community.
External factors are often interrelated in psychosocial development in a
culturally pluralistic society (Koss-Chioino & Vargas, 1992). These social envi-
ronmental factors include racism and prejudice, economic status, and level of
acculturation (Diller, 1999). Sociocultural conditions greatly influence devel-
MARSHALL & BATTEN
opmental tasks for youth and children from minority cultures (Herring, 1999;
Lee, 1995). For example, traditional Native youth are raised within the context
of the extended family (grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, etc.), all of whom
hold responsibility for the socialization process (Herring, 1989; Wetsit, 1999).
Therefore, understanding the culture’s concept of family is a necessity for effec-
tive cross-cultural interactions, including the research relationship (Peavy,
1995). Developmental tasks can also be impeded by language barriers, poverty,
and stereotypes, which limit both perceived and real access to available re-
sources (Rivers & Morrow, 1995).
Herring (1999) suggests that socioeconomic concerns are often the least
discussed and thus the least addressed multicultural issue in education and
mental health research. Societal discrimination and poverty are merely two of
the issues faced by many people from ethic/cultural minorities (Atkinson,
Morten, & Sue, 1993). The impact of underemployed and unemployed parents
on marginalized youth is tremendous; it has been suggested that the most imme-
diate effect of poverty is restricted access to environmental resources with which
to improve lack of health care services and education, substandard housing, and
inadequate nutrition (Rivers & Morrow, 1995). Substantial data exists to lend
strong support to a relationship of low socioeconomic status and high rates of
psychological and educational maladjustment in marginalized youth (Myers,
These above factors related to cultural context and social environmental is-
sues are salient issues in psychosocial development, and can significantly impact
the mastery of key developmental tasks in childhood and adolescence (Pedersen,
1991). Research investigations must, therefore, be based on an understanding of
diverse cultural dynamics and their necessary impact on psychosocial develop-
Researchers need to be aware that there can be incongruence between their own
views or theoretical frameworks and those of the group or culture in the research
project. Where differences exist between researcher and participant, they must
be respected, and care must be exercised to not project one’s own values onto
the research process, nor judge a participant’s behavior that varies from one’s
own culturally sanctioned standards (Lee, 1995). For example, mental health
professionals and researchers have tended to adopt Western European, largely
male cultural definitions of what constitutes healthy and normal functioning
(Thomason, 1999). Self-reliance, self-actualization, assertiveness, autonomy, in-
Ethics in Cross-Cultural Research
sight, and resistance to stress are seen as some of the tenets of healthy mental
functioning (Sue & Sue, 1990). These are the goals toward which clients are of-
ten encouraged to strive; these qualities are not, however, valued equally in all
cultures. For example, effective healing for First Nations means working on in-
terconnectedness rather than autonomy, which is often the goal for individual-
focussed therapy (Appleton & Dykeman, 1996; Trimble & Flemming, 1989).
Therefore when considering research procedures or instruments across cultures,
it is important to take varied meanings into account (Peavy, 1998).
Educational attainment and achievement is another area that is greatly im-
pacted by cultural definitions and expectations for success in life and work. For
instance, some collectively oriented cultures view individual educational and
vocational achievement as important only when it positively impacts the group,
in contrast to a typical Euro-North American emphasis on individual growth and
goal attainment (Atkinson, Morten, & Sue, 1993). When working with partici-
pants in a cross-cultural situation, researchers must be aware of differences re-
lated to local norms, mainstream culture knowledge, language proficiency skills,
educational opportunities, and culturally appropriate role models (Daily, 1988;
LaFromboise, 1993; Martin & Farris, 1994). Additionally, minority and mar-
ginalized groups face limited access to educational and employment opportuni-
ties (Diller, 1999). Research interpretation and recommendations can thus be
impacted by factors such access to educational and employment opportunities,
or socioeconomic status (Herring, 1999).
Informed consent, in terms of cross cultural research and interaction requires a
special definition (Piquemal, 2001). In some cultures, ethics is a more fluid con-
cept that requires constant reexamination and redefinition, with informed con-
sent viewed and implemented as an on-going process. What this means is that
consent must be asked for and given at almost every step of the research process
to assure that it is valid and that the participants remain fully informed and cog-
nizant of each aspect of the research proceedings. The standard letter of consent
that participants read and sign is only one part of this process, and indeed, can
act as a barrier to truly informed participation unless fully explained in under-
The source of consent for many marginalized groups also requires special
consideration and so must be more clearly and operationally defined. This must
be done on a case-by-case basis because each ethnic/cultural community or
group has a strong and self-created identity that is each unique and different
MARSHALL & BATTEN
from other cultures’ notions of self-identity. Identity, as community research it-
self, must be viewed through a process of interpretation which focuses more on
the importance of the relationship and experience itself rather than its content
(Herring, 1999; Piquemal, 2001).
Entry into the Field, Control & Participant Roles
Entry into the field in research across cultures requires researchers to proceed in
culturally sensitive ways. Respect and continuous communication are two es-
sential elements in this process (Mtonga, 1986). Asking, rather than telling, and
on-going consultation with knowledgeable key informants in the community
help to build mutually beneficial research partnerships.
Community control, another theme in the literature, is emphasized in re-
search across cultures because it involves the participation of community mem-
bers to define and flesh out their social realities, and to decide who and what is
researched in their communities. This type of participation, in the context of a
research project, serves to increase a group’s autonomy through the process of
praxis (Hudson & Taylor-Henley, 2001).
The notion of control demands that research processes empower the com-
munity by respecting cultural values and belief systems, which traces back to a
basis of ensuring informed consent. Integral to a community’s control over re-
search is authority over a project’s agenda (its purpose and methodology),
budget, and participant selection (Hart, 1995; Whyte, 1991). For example, in a
cross-cultural context, the host community and not the researchers must them-
selves select consultants throughout the research process, demonstrating a clear
link between concepts of informed consent and control in the research design
and implementation. However, Hudson and Taylor-Henley (2001) caution that
control is something that must be measured by degrees and that it is unrealistic
to believe that a community can have complete control over a research project
implemented by outsiders. Instead, the relationship should be viewed as a part-
nership agreement, but with major decisions ultimately made by the community.
A closer look at the theme of control suggests that if there is social or politi-
cal dissent or problems within a group or community, deciding which members
should be legitimate spokespersons or co-researchers might be difficult. Kerr
(2002) states that adherence to research procedures such as random assignment
and unbiased participant selection within the community can be one way to deal
with such issues. There is a need for further research and discussion on these is-
sues in the literature.
Ethics in Cross-Cultural Research
Approaches to Data Collection
Issues such as community damage and inaccurate findings have been identified
as major concerns with ethic/racial minority participants (Ponterotto & Casas,
1991). Historically, the social sciences have shown interest in traditional and
folk healing/medicine in the disciplines of anthropology and sociology; more re-
cently, mental health researchers and practitioners are considering and integrat-
ing such practices when dealing with minority participants (Herring, 1997;
McCormick, 1997). Culturally appropriate research affords a method that allows
socially legitimate collective knowledge to be used as part of the methodological
framework of the research (Brandt-Castellano, 1986). According to Parlee
(1983), “Psychological knowledge would be dramatically changed if it were
consistently developed through interaction with its ‘subjects’ and its intended
audiences instead of being developed with professional colleagues in mind and
‘given away’” (p. 1).
Participatory action research (PAR) is a form of social science and health
research in which researchers engage in research and practice using theory as a
framework while remaining aware of the “discrete” nature of each case (Som-
mer, 1999). Hoare, Levy, and Robinson (1993) define PAR as an approach that
relies on community member participation to examine social reality and the
creation of local skill capacity for the express purpose of creating community
autonomy through the process of praxis. Participatory action research is also
known as action research (AR), action science (Argyris, Putnam, & Smith,
1985), and praxis research (Honadle, 1996). PAR is mostly advocated as an ef-
fective research methodology for working with marginalized populations, in-
cluding the poor, women, immigrants, and in North America, First Nations peo-
ples (Choney, Berryhill-Paapke, & Robbins, 1995). Action research appeared in
the literature as early as the 1940s, when Lewin (1946) conceived of Action Re-
search as a method of research requiring the active involvement of the potential
users of the information throughout the research process; this notion was not
typical of traditional research practices (Sommer, 1999). In support of partici-
patory research, Herring (1999) writes that educational research with minority
individuals and groups must be conceived of and carried out through a process
of praxis. Meeting the needs of cross-cultural research participant is the rationale
for an investigation into PAR as a possible effective and efficient methodology
for implementing research with marginalized and minority participants.
In summary, PAR or AR is usually value-driven instead of value-neutral,
and has several related objectives: to improve the lives of the participants; to ad-
MARSHALL & BATTEN
vance knowledge; and to improve the practice of AR through a critical exami-
nation of the collaborative process (Hart, 1995; Sanford, 1970; Whyte, 1991).
Writing, Representation, and Dissemination of Results.
Herring (1999) writes that some cultural groups have been made suspicious of
outside research because of historical exploitation that did not accurately express
their cultural experience and did not benefit the community in any way. Several
reasons for community damage from research/ psychological practice have been
identified. One is that much research is done from a dominant culture perspec-
tive that is either derogatory or a romanticization of marginalized identity and
life-style (Herring, 1999, Weenie, 2000). In addition, researchers have tended to
generalize a specific culture when concentrating on specific cultural problems
(Darou, Kurtness, & Hum, 2000; Smith & Morrissett, 2001). Also, generalized
research results or “truths” are often culturally inaccurate (Herring, 1999; Smith
& Morrisette, 2001). Researchers need to work with community members to
help ensure appropriate and representative portrayals in their dissemination.
Community Ethics: An Illustration
Concerns about power centre around who makes decisions about research proc-
esses, methodology, data collection and analysis. In a research relationship,
community ethics is a concept that means that a collaborative and agreed-upon
decision-making process exists that enables communities to hold the power the
research (Hart, 1995). However, in terms of research ethics, the community may
not always have the information or knowledge to make sound ethical decisions
which the academic researcher is, at least, ethically bound to consider. As illus-
tration, in one community-based research project, the co-researchers from the
community formulated questions for a survey that the academic research ques-
The group asked questions that I would not have asked myself. I tried to revise or elimi-
nate some of the more intrusive questions, but if the group felt the issue was important, I
had no authority to delete items from the questionnaires. As an example, a survey had
been initiated by the parents of a young woman who had been sexually assaulted at least
twice while in mental health facilities. The parents wanted to know how often this oc-
curred. Because they could not find any published information, they decided to do a study
of IRAM parents. One question asked directly “Has your daughter ever been sexually as-
saulted while in the mental health system? If yes, how many times?” After the parents
Ethics in Cross-Cultural Research
collected the replies, I felt ethically justified in helping them to tabulate the answers and
write the report. (Jennings, Jennings, Sommer, & Burstein, 1987, p. 669)
In this case, the researcher respected the community-researchers’ power in the
process, yet remained aware of the ethical implications of what was being asked.
Understanding the impact that cultural influences have on basic values, priori-
ties, beliefs, and behaviors is of critical importance. Academic researchers must
recognize the likelihood for differences in perceptions when working with par-
ticipants from diverse cultural backgrounds. Respect and acknowledgement of
community values, differing worldviews, and ethical practice are salient issues
for cross-cultural researchers. Taking the necessary time to get to know and un-
derstand community workings is critical also. Researchers must recognize that
almost all marginalized and minority groups have shared certain undesirable ex-
periences in common such as prejudice and stereotyping, socioeconomic and ca-
reer disadvantages; and struggling to maintain their own ethnic identity while
adapting to life in the dominant culture. Collaboration and consensus, communi-
cation, and negotiating partnerships are necessary considerations for researchers
entering cross-cultural situations. Participatory Action Research (PAR) methods
are particularly appropriate in these contexts.
The preceding issues and implications are designed to enhance knowledge
about cultural differences and to provide appropriate suggestions for possible re-
search design and methodology with diverse cultures. The hope is to provide re-
searchers with ideas and direction for cross-cultural research methods that are
respectful, synergetic, and aim to benefit the community.
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