Social Science & Medicine
Volume 196 Pages 1-246 (January 2018)
The possible worlds of global health research: An ethics-focused discourse analysis
Original research article
Ben Brisbois, Katrina Plamondon
Representations of the world enable global health research (GHR), discursively constructing sites in which studies can legitimately take place. Depoliticized portrayals of the global South frequently obscure messy legacies of colonialism and motivate technical responses to health problems with political and economic root causes. Such problematic representations of the world have not yet been rigorously examined in relation to global health ethics, a major site of scholarly effort towards GHR that promotes justice and fairness. We carried out a discourse analysis of four guidance documents relevant to the ethical practice of GHR, purposively selecting texts covering different genres (UN documents and journal articles) and prominent GHR foci (HIV and clinical trials). In light of increasing acknowledgement of the lessons Indigenous health scholarship holds for global health ethics, the four analyzed texts also included a set of principles developed to support Indigenous nation-building. Three of four documents featured global disparities as reasons for ethical caution. These inequalities appeared without explanation or causes, with generation of new scientific knowledge following as a logical response to such disparities. The fourth – Indigenous health-focused – document clearly identified ‘colonialism’ as a reason for both inequities in society, and related harmful research practices. Solutions to disparities in this text did not necessarily involve cutting-edge research, but focused instead on empowerment and responsiveness to community priorities and needs. These contrasting representations of the world were accomplished in ways that depended on texts’ ‘participants’, or the people they represented; specific vocabularies or language usages; intertextual relationships to prior texts; and overall objectives or intentions of the author(s). Our results illustrate how ethics and other guidance documents serve as an important terrain for constructing, naturalizing or contesting problematic representations of the world of GHR.