Ethics and Design Research at South African Higher Education Institutions: a Prolegomenon:



Design Education Research


  • ethics, biographical, research approaches

South African Universities demand of their lecturers, amongst other things, a burgeoning research track record. Such research is inevitably subject to the requirements of research and included in these requirements is that the research is carried out within the bounds of acceptable research ethical practice. Therefore, any research that emanates from Design programmes has to meet the mandate of such research ethical practice.

This paper sets out to explore what such a mandate might entail. It does not interrogate the ethics of design practice in general practice– there is an extant body of work in this domain -- but concentrates on how this necessity of research ethics might impact on the type and practice of research that is generated in Design programmes at tertiary institutions. In this regard it concentrates on Practice Based Research as this approach might apply to Design, because the basic tenets of Practice Based Research imply that it is in the specific design-making process that new knowledge might be generated. In essence there is research about a design, and there is research in and through design. The former might be seen as design critique, and this in not the focus of this exploration, whereas the latter will become the central area of investigation.

All research projects undertaken at South African universities require ethical consideration and clearance. (In the United States, for example, these projects are reviewed by Institutional Review Boards or IRBs). Based on the personal experience of the author (who serves on such an ethics committee) this paper will explore the major decision-making approaches to ethics in research in general and their epistemological underpinnings. In essence the paper will interrogate the basic principles of Non-Maleficence, Beneficence, Scientific/Scholarly validity and Human Rights. It will then lay these theoretical constructs out against the underpinning concerns of participant (and environmental) vulnerability, invasiveness, risk/benefit ratios and Informed Consent as these apply to research in the design arena.

It is acknowledged as a basic principle that Design as a practice is innately emergent in nature, and predominantly inductive in approach. This places great tensions on the control over ethical issues that might arise in the design research process (as regularly witnessed in the development of a research proposal, for example, for research design projects at tertiary institutions.) It is hoped that this paper, as a prolegomenon, might open these tensions out for debate and a possible development of a code of research ethical conduct in Design departments at tertiary institutions.

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