International travel demands a certain willingness to set aside the customs and practices of one's culture. And we ought not to have a problem with this. It's part of being a good guest. I have no problem with leaving my fork at home, if my hosts will excuse my awkwardness with chopsticks. I am prepared to eat unusual food.
But are some cultural practices harder to discard than our discomfort with the prospect of eating pig face or insects? Do some practices cut to the core of who we are as Americans? Might some even have the force of law?
I was presented with one such situation when I sought permission to conduct a small study of the way reading is taught in China. American universities have specific and complex rules and procedures designed to protect the subjects of research. American academics must submit to a rigorous procedure to have their studies approved. Informed consent documents must clearly and specifically
delineate subjects' rights and possible recourse should problems occur. An institutional review board (IRB) examines resesearch proposals to insure compliance with Federal guidelines.
But how do you explain to a group of Chinese school teachers that, as research subjects, they enjoy certain rights under American law? And why should the subjects feel these rights are relevant when these subjects live in China? While we may agree to suspend our use of the fork, we will not give over our manner of protecting the people we study. In an increasingly global arena, researchers may expect to encounter similar situations, which necessitate translating our cultural practices into terms understandable in another culture.
We may not always be successful, but it is essential that we try. The following is from an information sheet I'll be giving study participants:
It is an American custom that we tell people who take part in research many things about the study and their rights. My university and the American government require me to do this. The purpose of this study is to learn about the way reading is taught at the elementary and secondary levels in Chinese schools. I would like to give a small group of written questions to teachers ... who wish to take part... I will meet with you privately... If you wish to have some other person with us when we talk, this is O.K. I shall read the questions to you; then you can write down your answers yourself, or I can do the writing if you prefer...
I hope it works. When I say this, I mean I hope the teachers feel respected, valued, and do not feel coerced. That's the standard we set for ourselves as American researchers. It is a cultural value we cannot compromise.
I have sometimes resented the exacting review which the IRB requires. Organizational procedures carry with them a certain bureaucratic heaviness and may sometimes even seem silly. But, as I have gone through the procedures in preparation for working in China, I am enormously proud of the care Americans take when conducting human research. It is one more reason why I am proud of my country.