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Power-Laden (Mis)Understandings Surrounding Written Voluntary Informed Consent Procedures in Postcolonial Southern Africa

Michelle R. Brear

2020 South Africa, Africa

Written voluntary informed consent (VIC) procedures are the standard approach for operationalising the ethical principle of respect for persons’ autonomy in qualitative research. However, achieving fully informed and truly voluntary consent is challenging, particularly in qualitative research and/or postcolonial contexts. Evidence about (mis)understandings (i.e., unintended meanings) surrounding VIC comes primarily from participants in quantitative, biomedical research. I aim to advance knowledge about qualitative research participants’ (mis)understandings of VIC. I used ethnographic methods to document the evolving (mis)understandings participants attached to written VIC procedures in two postcolonial settings, Eswatini and South Africa. All participants provided me consent to document their interactions as co-researchers in participatory research, in which they learned about, designed and implemented VIC procedures. I analysed the data interpretively and abductively, informed by Bourdieu’s theory of practice. Participants valued the opportunity to decide and sign consent to participate but held (mis)understandings of study information and signing, which evolved as they participated. Many (mis)understandings were shaped by what the unfamiliar act of signing symbolised to them (i.e., binding, contractual agreements that protected the researcher/university and through which they relinquished their rights), from their positions of marginalisation amidst economic/material, cultural and social power inequalities. In postcolonial settings, requiring qualitative research participants to sign consent forms likely undermines the ethical principle of respect that VIC is intended to operationalise. Based on these findings I recommend alternative non-written procedures are used to operationalise the principle of respect in postcolonial qualitative research settings.

Power, Post-Coloniality, Voluntary Informed Consent, Research Ethics