Ethics Review and the Social Powerlessness of Data: Reflecting on a Study of Violence in South Africa’s Health System

  • Jessica Rucell


Ethics committees routinely require anonymisation of data based on the reasoning that masking all potentially identifiable details of participants determines ethical conduct. In this chapter I argue that the potential social benefit of research should instead be considered key to determining ethical conduct. I reflect on gaining ethics approval for my study of obstetric violence in South Africa and draw on research into public goods to demonstrate that social benefits of research are given limited attention during ethics review. I outline how public interest research may be especially restricted by bureaucratic barriers, conflicts of interest, and required anonymisation of data. I conclude that current ethics clearance models often restrict the potential social benefit of research and I show how such restrictions inevitably produce “powerless datasets”.



I am the primary investigator of the research project upon which this chapter is based and thus solely responsible for the contents of the chapter. This research has been supported by funding from the Economic and Social Research Council, United Kingdom, and through the EUSAid program of the European Commission.


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Copyright information

© The Author(s) 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  • Jessica Rucell
    • 1
    • 2
  1. 1.University of LeedsLeedsUK
  2. 2.University of Cape TownCape TownSouth Africa

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