Definitions and concepts

Norwegian authorities restrict their definition of ethnic minorities to include only national minorities, immigrants and indigenous peoples. According to the terminology used by Statistics Norway (SSB), national minorities are groups that have a long-standing association with Norway. Jews, descendants of Finnish immigrants, Roma, the Romani and the Forest Finns are included in this category. Immigrants are groups of people whose association with Norway is more recent, and are defined by Statistics Norway as people born abroad to two foreign-born parents (SSB, 2006). ILO Convention no. 169 concerning Indigenous and Tribal Peoples in Independent Countries, which was ratified by Norway in 1990, defines indigenous peoples in this way: “peoples in independent countries who are regarded as indigenous on account of their descent from the populations which inhabited the country, or a geographical region to which the country belongs, at the time of conquest or colonisation or the establishment of present state boundaries and who, irrespective of their legal status, retain some or all of their own social, economic, cultural and political institutions.” In Norway, the Sami are defined as an indigenous people.

Ethnically defined groups

Research should normally never be disadvantageous to the group of people under study. On the contrary, it is often argued that research, if anything, benefits the groups concerned and should work to their advantage. However, we need to acknowledge that it can be difficult to define exactly what is beneficial to a certain group. For example, all members of a group may not concur on what is to their advantage. The question of what it means for something to be advantageous or beneficial to certain groups who are members of a wider society, may also involve complications with respect to the most appropriate interpretation of group identity, society, or the relationship between the two.

Whenever the object of research is associated with ethnicity, it is important to seek to ensure that the terminology used cannot be perceived as offensive to anybody, and particularly not to the people included in the study. Researchers should take care never to use categorisations or terminology that may give cause for unreasonable generalisation. At the same time, it is clear that in some cases it can be exceedingly difficult, perhaps even impossible, to comply with the ideal of using correct terminology, not least if the members of the group disagree among themselves in this respect. If a group incorporates sub-groups who hold different opinions on correct or respectful terminology, or who perhaps hold different views on the criteria for group inclusion, the researcher may well be unable to find terminology that pleases everybody.

Furthermore, ethnic groups may be small and/or easily recognisable, which raises ethical challenges in relation to the requirement for confidentiality in research. If ethnicity will be registered by the researchers, they must bear in mind that ethnic identity is considered sensitive personal information, which is subject to special processing rules (cf. ss. 2 and 9 of the Norwegian Personal Data Act). It is generally more demanding to process sensitive information when dealing with small populations, and it is important to be aware that a record of ethnicity may cause otherwise satisfactorily anonymised data to be more easily traced back to groups or individuals.

Ethnic groups as a type of vulnerable group

Ethnic groups may be vulnerable in the sense that they may be less able than others to protect their own interests vis-à-vis researchers. If so, researchers bear a particular responsibility to ensure that the autonomy of each individual is safeguarded, and to protect them against unreasonable pressures. For example, it is important that information provided about the research project is based on familiarity with the subjects’ cultural background, and in a language which they will readily understand. This is a premise for meeting the requirement for free and informed consent.

On the other hand, our wish to protect vulnerable groups may work contrary to our intentions. It may also be unethical to abstain from conducting research on a given group, for example by neglecting to investigate the living conditions of a vulnerable group. Such research may benefit a certain group by providing knowledge that may help to improve the group’s living conditions. It may for example be useful to be able to demonstrate which groups of immigrants are doing well in the labour market, and who are not doing so well, in order to design relevant and effective countermeasures. It is however essential that such knowledge will in fact benefit the group under study, particularly when that group is already vulnerable.

Dirty hands?

Ethnic groups may also be vulnerable because of the harm inflicted by earlier research. This raises the question of whether today’s researchers carry joint responsibility for the unethical research on ethnic groups that was carried out in an earlier era. In Norway, research based on clearly racist ideas was conducted on ethnic groups from the mid 19th to the first half of the 20th century. Its objective was to document the hierarchical positioning of different races. Besides, the material on which this research was conducted, human remains, was largely obtained by grave robbing: neither relatives nor the population at large were approached for permission to open the graves. Is it right to hold today’s researchers responsible for the actions of earlier researchers, and if so, what does this responsibility entail?

Respect for the individual suggests that scholars must proceed with great care if they conduct research today on ethnic groups whose members have previously been exploited by researchers. This means that researchers should have a certain understanding of the history of the ethnic group under study and that they must take care never to use terminology or classifications that may give cause for continued prejudice against these groups. Researchers will thus have to ensure that they use their own clearly defined criteria to identify the group rather than, for example, extending the currency of vague ideas about biological race determination under the cover of cultural ethnicity. They must also have a clear understanding of the ethical problems that may follow from such imprecision.

“Researchers are under an obligation to take subjects’ self-image seriously, and to avoid descriptions that diminish their legitimate rights.” (Guidelines for Research Ethics in the Social Sciences, Law and the Humanities, point 18).

Research that relates to ethnic, religious or political groups can add to the perception that individuals are considered representatives of this one particular group, rather than representatives of any other entities or qualities. This is a problem because the identity of individuals is generally associated with multiple categories (gender, age, occupation etc.), and the greatest explanatory force may not always rest with ethnic identity.

By supporting the perception that a given group is a single entity rather than multiple individuals who also represent other entities, research can add to the stigmatisation of the members of the group, thereby putting them under unreasonable pressure. One of the mechanisms commonly played out is that the population at large, outside of the group, may feel they have received confirmation of certain highly generalised traits. If it is found that one in a thousand individuals in sub-population X belong to a certain class of criminals, there will be a more or less articulate tendency to interpret this to mean that “sub-population X are criminals”, i.e. “everyone who belong to X is a criminal”. The risk of this form of irrationality is further increased if some degree of specialist cultural knowledge is required in order to fully understand the reported classifications. For example, this will often apply to concepts that suggest religious affiliation.

Beyond the threat of downright stigmatisation, research conducted or disseminated without due deliberation can help to reinforce cultural clichés in a way which is not particularly helpful. Since ethnic belonging is often closely associated with an individual’s perception of identity, this effect does not end with the population at large, outside of the studied group. The group’s perception of itself will also be shaped in response to the judgement passed on them from the outside. This factor is always at work in any cultural exchange, and not always for the good.

Political relevance

Research on ethnic groups can significantly influence policies, particularly in relation to social welfare and integration. For this reason it is important that researchers exercise special care and give due consideration to the presentation of their findings, to ensure that the public can gain the best possible insight into the mechanisms at play. It is also important to be aware of how the knowledge obtained can be used and abused.

Reflections surrounding ethnicity will often leave an impression that ethnicity is a scientific entity of which individuals are merely passive recipients. It is however important for researchers to be aware that ethnic classifications, to the extent that they say something about people’s lives and the way they live them, also say a great deal about choice and identity-building. These categories may thus form a basis for solidarity and a sense of unity. (The historic formation of a group as a recognised ethnic entity can of course rarely be traced back to a single agent, like a state or a scholarly discipline.) This is also true in a political sense, as being recognised as an independent group brings a chance to exert political influence and to take control of one’s own fate which is otherwise not available. (For example, the implication to the Sami of having acquired status as an indigenous population is that they are considered a people under international law, and therefore have a right to self-determination.)

In a political context the absence of information about ethnicity can also constitute an ethical issue in research. The UN Racial Discrimination Committee has criticised Norway for failing to present figures that show the ethnic composition of the Norwegian population. According to these allegations, the statistics compiled by Statistics Norway (SSB), the central body that compiles and disseminates official statistics in Norway, provide insufficient information about ethnicity. The Norwegian strategy is not simply about avoiding a research ethical challenge; it is a choice that can be considered problematic because it means society is unable to benefit from valuable practical information.

Further debate

Under the general umbrella of “ethnic groups” the FBIB Research Ethics Library also offers access to Forskningsetisk kontekst: Historisk urett og forskning som overgrep (In Norwegian, to be translated) by Einar Niemi and Anne Julie Semb, an article which discusses the political aspects of the relationship between research on Sami populations and descendants of Finnish immigrants; and En faglig utfordring i innvandrerforskning (In Norwegian, to be translated) by Ottar Brox, a discussion of “political correctness” as an unfortunate trend among researchers who study ethnic groups.

This article has been translated from Norwegian by Hege Hernæs, Akasie språktjenester AS.