Deception and the Powerful Research Subject: Uncovering Neo-Liberal Corruption in Post-War Iraq


This case study examines a series of ethical dilemmas that emerged during a research project that explored the role of private companies in the occupation of Iraq after the 2003 invasion and during the subsequent reconstruction of the Iraqi economy. The study was based upon data derived from participant observation and interviews with key protagonists at a series of corporate conferences in the Middle East. Very early on in the research process, it became apparent that openness with research participants would have put the researcher in danger. Covert research techniques were therefore adopted as a mode of survival, as well as being a means to enhancing the data collection process. This case uses the researcher’s experiences to pose fundamental questions about how we think about and discuss deception in research generally, and how the ethical principles that we apply as professional researchers are not fit for purpose when it comes to researching relatively powerful participants. In order to move beyond the adoption of a “situational” approach to research ethics, this case will end by raising questions about how standards of research ethics might be positively repositioned to deal with the dilemmas raised here.

Learning Outcomes

By the end of this case, students should be able to

  • Critically reflect on the appropriateness of ethical principles guiding social research
  • Understand those principles that may differ according to the relative power held by the participants of research
  • Understand the relational nature of the distribution of power in research relationships
  • Critically reflect on the need for situational research ethics

Project Overview and Context

This case study reflects upon the ethical dilemmas faced by social researchers who study powerful organizations. It does so with reference to a case study of a project that sought to understand the role that private corporations and corporate elites played in the occupation of Iraq following the 2003 invasion by so-called “Coalition”1 forces.

The research project, “Uncovering Neo-Liberal Corruption in Post-War Iraq”, that is referred to throughout this case study used a mixed-methods approach. The fieldwork involved participant observation and interviews with people attending three high-profile meetings in 2015 held to discuss and organize the “reconstruction” of Iraq. Those meetings—two held in Amman, Jordan, and one in London—brought together politicians and state officials from both the interim Iraqi government and the “Coalition” of governments in charge of the occupation, alongside the big business players and other firms interested in exploiting commercial opportunities in Iraq.

The published findings of the research project (Whyte, 2007, 2008, 2010) sought to uncover how the economic transformation process was based upon a poorly planned and crude model of “trickle-down” economics that encouraged systematic corruption. Following the invasion, Western corporations were encouraged to play a longer term role as accomplices in this strategy and were required to consolidate the quick entry of Western (predominantly U.S.) capital into the economy. The process of how this was achieved by the Coalition can be summarized as follows. Corporations were encouraged to enter the Iraqi economy en masse with the lure of high value post-conflict reconstruction contracts. Those contracts were bankrolled by Iraqi oil revenue released for this purpose under United Nations (UN) authorization. Funds were distributed under a lax regime of permission in which the distribution of funds and the standard of work completed often went un-recorded. What emerged was a symbiotic relationship between Coalition governments and businesses in post-invasion Iraq that led to the systemic corruption of the reconstruction economy and the creative destruction of the country’s industrial infrastructure (Whyte, 2007, 2008).

The research aimed to find out precisely how this story unfolded. I wanted to hear the perspectives of those leading the process, and the perspectives of those involved as middle-level players, to build a detailed picture based upon empirical evidence. I was working at the University of Stirling at the time, and managed to secure a small amount of funding from the Carnegie Trust for the Universities of Scotland for my trips to the Middle East and London. The ethical approval I sought and received from the University of Stirling extended to conducting and electronically recording interviews based on the principle of informed consent, and to the written recording of field notes from my observations. As we shall see in the case study that follows, I ended up deviating significantly from this planned strategy, and I did so without further ethical review.

It is common for undergraduate sociology students to be taught three key ethical principles. These principles are the bedrock of the ethical codes that social scientists use to guide their professional conduct. The first is minimizing harm, where “harm,” normally referring to psychological or physical harm, to participants, must be minimized. Second, researchers must ensure the protection of privacy. Anonymity and confidentiality guarantees are normally given either unconditionally or perhaps on request as a condition of research. The third principle is the prevention of deception, where the researcher must do everything in her power to avoid deceiving the research participant.2

The core aim of this chapter is to show how the structural power possessed by corporations makes the practical application of the ethical principles outlined above look very different. In the section that follows, those three principles are explored in the context of researching powerful actors and organizations. It is in this context that we begin to see how a series of ethical dilemmas raised by the research case study might be framed differently across each of those principles.

Research Principles and “The Powerful”

Minimizing Harm

Relatively powerless research participants are protected principally because they may be in a relatively vulnerable position in the research relationship. They therefore need to be protected from harms that can occur as a result of the research process. However, in the context of a relationship in which the research participant is relatively powerful, the harm principle begins to look rather different.

Very often, researchers who are interested in power and the powerful are concerned less with the harms that could be caused to participants simply because those participants are in a structurally strong position to resist any such harms. Often, powerful research participants are able to exert control over researchers in ways that relatively powerless participants are not able to; corporate managers can impose conditions upon the research process such as restricting the subject matter to be discussed in interviews and so on. If research on powerful respondents does yield evidence of anti-social activities or impropriety, it can be difficult for researchers to disseminate their research to the public for reasons that will be detailed later.

Often, the concept of harm is turned on its head when researching the powerful. For example, researchers seek to understand the harmful activities that powerful groups may be involved in. In other words, it may be the case that research participants are capable of causing significant harms that have damaging social impacts. As we shall see, this is precisely the issue at stake in this case study. The harm principle, bounded as it is by an idealized perspective that views the researcher as “powerful” in relation to research participant, is unidirectional. By that I mean it moves only in one direction to protect research participants from invasive research practices, rather than moving in the other direction to assist researchers to challenge power. This is because the harm principle says nothing about harms that can be produced by research participants themselves, particularly when those research participants are corporations. A key ethical question that is raised when we understanding research relationships in this broader social context is: how far should we allow the principle of minimizing harm to limit research that seeks to understand the socially harmful practices of the powerful? Moreover, how far should we allow the harm principle to limit research when those respondents are well equipped to deflect any potential harms the research process involves?

In the context of this case study, a consensus of international lawyers defined the 2003 invasion of Iraq as a crime of aggression (those arguments are summarized in Sands [2005]; also Kramer and Michalowski [2005] and Green and Ward [2004]). Corporations played a key role in the subsequent occupation. A range of violent and fraudulent activities involving both British and U.S. corporations were reported at the time. These reports included allegations of human rights abuses and war crimes (e.g., the killing of Iraqis by private military companies and the torture of detainees by private contractors in U.S. detention centers), and the theft and fraudulent use of reconstruction revenues. Several U.S. government and UN sources have since shown that anything between US$8b and US$13b of Iraqi oil money was left unaccounted for by the Coalition Provisional Authority3 (CPA) regime (for a discussion of those sources and various estimates, see Whyte, 2007, 2008).

In this context, the key question expressed above can be reiterated: where there is evidence of serious malpractice, and indeed crime, committed against a whole society, should the researcher still seek to uphold a unidirectional harm principle that protects all research participants, regardless of their relative power in the research process? We will return to this important question later in this case study.

Protecting Privacy

The issue of protecting privacy raises similar questions about the moral and practical equivalence of protecting private individuals in the same way as individuals representing corporations. Very often members of elites who are research participants enjoy prominent positions in public life as elected representatives, corporate executives, or functionaries in government (cf. Aguiar, 2012; Snider, 2000; Tombs & Whyte, 2003). They may have a public profile for precisely the same reason that they are potential participants for a particular project. This may mean that their anonymity cannot, practically speaking, be guaranteed. More broadly, their public role and profile raises questions about the moral and practical equivalence we can draw between the protection of the privacy of individuals acting in a private capacity and the protection of individuals acting in a public/professional capacity. This assumption of moral and practical equivalence fails to recognize that those of us who interview corporate executives or managers are generally not interested in those individuals’ personal lives. On the contrary, vulnerable research participants are generally included in a particular study because of an experience, or experiences, they have had in their personal lives: drug users, prison inmates, victims of domestic violence, residents of a particular housing area, users of social services, or whatever it might be. When they are research respondents, the researcher wants to know about things that are, by definition, personal. Relatively powerful respondents tend (and this is a tendency, not an iron rule) to be included in studies because of their professional role (as corporate executives, politicians, public servants, etc.). This is an important observation to make because in this context, research ethics end up protecting the professional life, rather than the personal life of the powerful research participant. And often this means protecting the general interests of the organizations that those respondents work for.

This is significant in light of the case study, as it reflects a basic distinction between public and private spheres in the way we think about the organization of liberal democracies that is reflected in the way we think about research ethics. The formal distinction between public and private sphere can make a big difference to the way that researchers understand particular sets of social relationships or historical processes. In the immediate aftermath of the invasion and subsequent occupation of Iraq, it was very difficult to obtain information about private companies precisely because they were deemed, in law, to be private. Nevertheless, such companies were not only carrying out activities that were funded by public money, the activities they were being asked to perform were often those that would normally have been performed by state actors, such as the military. Regardless, it is the case that contracts between governments and corporations are generally protected by the principles of commercial confidentiality and can therefore be kept hidden from public view; corporations are exempt from information disclosure rules that apply to governments in most developed countries.

As a result of the way in which rules about commercial confidentiality protect corporate privacy, it is almost impossible to obtain accurate information about the value or the terms of contracts awarded in Iraq during the occupation. It is therefore impossible to understand much about the role and impact of corporations in the occupation from sources that we might use to understand the outcomes of government policy and practice. A key example here is the rules that govern what we know about the private military sector. When armed operatives working for private military companies were killed in Iraq, the governments of the nations to which they belonged did not record those deaths in the roll call of servicemen and women who have died. Indeed, those killed or injured by British private military companies were not recorded systematically, in one place, meaning that we could not determine an accurate total. In comparison, the names of those dying in service of a particular country’s armed forces, as well as an accurate total of those killed by such forces, is a matter of public record. This is a function of the formal division of responsibility between “public” and “private” institutions that exists in law and in the organization of government and policy. It is a division that enables information relating to corporate activities to be kept “private” despite the fact that they are performing a public function.

The dilemma for us as researchers is, then, whether this formal distinction “public” and “private” should be the universal ethical principle that guides all research? Should we regard private companies and employees of companies acting out a public function as having the same rights to privacy as individuals? Again, this is an issue we will return to later in the case study.

Prevention of Deception

The prevention of deception principle - where the researcher must do everything in her power to avoid deceiving the research participant - can also look very different in the context of researching those in positions of power. Relatively powerful institutions and individuals are very often able to control, distort, or shape the research process and its outcomes in ways that are themselves very often opaque and potentially deceptive. Scholars across different disciplines have drawn attention to the practical difficulties associated with researching powerful organizations, including the way in which the exercise of social or organizational capital can allow them to influence the research process (Tombs & Whyte, 2003).

Relatively powerful participants have significant capacity to refuse access to researchers to research materials or to interviews and other sources of data. Researchers commonly face opposition from the organizations or the actors they have researched, who may have little difficulty raising the resources—be they financial or in the shape of alternative “expert evidence”—to discredit, censor or otherwise challenge the research findings (Michaels, 2008; Proctor, 2008; Tombs & Whyte, 2003). Suppression may happen in the field of the “journal industrial complex” (Arrigo, 1999, p. 1) where there exists a variety of unconscious and conscious processes to exclude certain forms of work from prestigious publications, and where critical scholarship can be denied recognition in particular (Tombs & Whyte, 2003, p. 36). A number of researchers have described this level of manipulation by powerful players as a form of deception, especially when it equates to censoring, or to forcing particular findings to be changed and the selective presentation of findings (see, for example, Whyte, 2000). We might therefore consider whether or not part of the purpose of research is to overcome corporate deception? What if the research is designed to actively and deliberately shed light on a subject that we do not adequately understand because sources of information are being manipulated and controlled by corporations? Should the researcher still abide by rules that are designed to protect individual research participants from deception? Where are the ethical principles that take account of the deception of researchers?

Breaking the Rules: Ethical Dilemmas

All three of the ethical principles, then, begin to look rather different in the context research that aims to scrutinize powerful actors and powerful organizations. And this is the background for exploring the dilemmas that were thrown up during the fieldwork discussed in this case study. It is those dilemmas and how they prompted a series of breaches of the normal rules and principles of doing research that we now turn to.

The data gathered for the research were derived from semi-structured interviews and participant observation conducted during three fieldwork trips to corporate events. Two of the events were held in Amman, Jordan (Rebuild Iraq 2005,4 April 4-7 and Iraq Procurement 2005, June 28-30) and one in London (Iraq Mobile Telecommunications Conference, July 21-22, 2005).5 The research described here relates to the first conference I attended, Rebuild Iraq 2005.

These fora offered a relatively unique opportunity to observe a group of elite players who were crucial to the transformation of the Iraqi economy. The meetings were typical of the model used in similar events around the world. This model combines a restricted-access conference that disseminates the political and ideological message (and may also provide some practical guidance to delegates) with a trade exhibition that is designed to allow businesses to meet procurement officials and potential business partners and clients. In the context of the “reconstruction” of Iraq, the conferences were typically restricted to 200 to 300 delegates and the trade fairs were mass participation events, attracting an unknown but much larger number of people. The role of those events was to accelerate the process of economic transformation by providing a mechanism for businesses to meet and discuss collaborations with government officials and the large prime contractors appointed by Coalition governments to participate in the economic transformation (among them Halliburton, Bechtel, and Fluor). It also provided a forum for networking that the smaller players needed to enter this market. In many ways, those were ideal places to conduct research because they are gatherings at which a large number of potential research participants are gathered together.

I went with two “facts” about the occupation at the forefront of my mind: first, the consensus, noted earlier, of international lawyers who regarded the invasion to be a crime of aggression, and, second, the fact that a large number of corporations were queuing up for high value, relatively low risk, contracts and who—as a number of critical journalists and campaigners pointed out at the time—could be criticized for their eagerness to profit from the spoils of war. I was setting out to research how, precisely, corporations involved in the occupation and reconstruction of Iraq were benefitting from the spoils of (an illegal) war, and how their presence was facilitating the corruption that was apparently spreading across the country. I therefore had a problem familiar to those who research sensitive topics: how to gain the consent of participants for a project that is likely to be received as hostile? I knew that asking directly about either profiting from an illegal war or profiting from a corrupt postwar environment would be off-limits, or, at least, would be too combative an approach to expect prospective respondents to agree to be interviewed.

My first set of ethical dilemmas, then, related directly to the fact that I knew I would face resistance when asking a group of powerful individuals about potential abuses of power. My second set of ethical dilemmas related to the problems of entering a relatively closed-off world as an outsider. How I dealt with those dilemmas is set out in more detail in the following sections.

In the Trade Exhibition

In the trade exhibition, my participant observation involved wandering around the stands, collecting brochures, getting involved in conversations at stands, and gathering a range of different types of data that would tell me something about the process of how the Iraqi economy was being (re)structured. At no point in the observation process did I inform anyone that I was involved in conducting research. I merely tried to fit into the environment as best I could, although I know that made me appear as if I was a commercial participant in the trade exhibition. If anyone asked me who I was, I would respond by saying, “I am a sociologist who is interested in the role of corporations in the process of economic development.” If the person was a potential respondent, I would follow this by saying, “I would like to interview you with a view to discussing your company’s role in the economic development of Iraq.” When I approached potential respondents and asked them to participate, I therefore adopted a relatively neutral and sanitized introduction to the topic of the research. If they agreed, I then provided all of the informed consent and participant information, including giving each respondent a card with my contact details. I was more than aware that this vague introduction to the research could be regarded as deceptive. Indeed, it is clear that I was not fully disclosing the intention of the research to participants. I did this to ensure that the chances of being declined were minimized, and to make sure I was not identified as a threat to the whole group. It worked. My response rate was relatively high, and I secured interviews from more than half of the initial contacts I made.

Although I did not invent an entirely fabricated identity as I quite deliberately masked the intention of the research, my approach was nevertheless deceptive. In terms of the participant observation element of the research, this deception went further: I did not seek the informed consent of participants I was observing. In other words, I knowingly broke what is probably most carefully guarded ethical rule of research.

By adopting this approach, I am convinced that I managed to understand the process of economic reconstruction in Iraq in a much more detailed way than would otherwise have been possible, had I stuck to the rules. I managed to access an incredibly rich level of detail. Most memorable among them were the stories from the halal lamb traders from New Zealand, the inflatable ironing board saleswoman from Italy (seriously), and the Texan who was selling oil products to oil-rich Iraq (at a very considerable profit). All of them told me their stories in ways that allowed me to understand in fine detail what was happening in the economy. I am quite sure they would not have spoken to me in the way that they did—and probably would have refused to talk at all—had I been completely honest with them.

At the Conference

At the conference, held in the Grand Hyatt Hotel, Amman, I took this level of deception to new heights. As matter of necessity, I decided to sneak into the conference. This was because my travel grant did not cover the U.S.$1,300 entry cost and, because I did not have personal access to my own funds, not even on a credit card or bank overdraft. Although the security was very tight—involving two armed airport-style checkpoints6—it was relatively easy, as a White man wearing a suit, to blag my way past security without being asked for credentials. Once I was inside, I found an extraordinarily fertile research environment. On entering the conference, I was very quickly overwhelmed by the sheer volume of data that I knew I would be missing if I did not record it somehow. From the keynote speeches made by government officials, to the discussions on the conference floor and the casual interactions I had with conference participants, I knew I would have to either take notes openly in ways that would arouse suspicion, or find another way of recording and remembering the content of the discussions.

In the first couple of hours, I sat down to lunch with the group of nine ex-U.S. Army personnel, some of whom had recently left service to set up private companies in Iraq. The first conversation I was involved in was an exaggerated story about a shoot-out in a bar in Baghdad the night before. I realized I was immediately immersed in a very different social field to one I was used to. In this situation, I was hardly in a position to follow the research ethics manual and explain honestly that my main interest in being here was to write about the legality of the war and its aftermath. Luckily, no one asked who I was or what my reasons were for being there. It did not take much intuition to know that it would be risky to own up to who I was and what I was really interested in. At the same time, I knew that to use the rich insights I was coming across at the conference as “data”—beyond the macho bravado of concocted “shoot-out” stories—I would need to record the conversations I was involved in accurately. Most of the discussions I was involved in as a participant, or merely those I was listening into on the first day of the conference, contained new and rich insights into the corruption of the economy. These included an individual who happened to sit next to me describing exactly how he was able to set up a private security company, angry delegates on the conference floor who accused the U.S. procurement system of being designed to aid corrupt practices, and the private corporation that lectured us from the conference platform on how it “designed-in” anti-corruption measures. All of these examples constituted rich data that needed to be accurately captured if they were to be useful.

I had two problems: two issues that were barriers to acting in accordance with ethical practice. First, I was at the conference without permission, and second, I knew I could not own up in public to the real aims of the research. For those reasons, I did not have the option of making my position as a researcher “visible”. So I took the decision that I would secretly record the whole thing—conference proceedings, the conversations involving me, and those that I eavesdropped into—on my portable electronic recorder. I turned the recorder on and put it inside my suit jacket pocket. The quality of the recording was variable, but it was clear enough to be able to produce accurate transcriptions. This is how I managed to gather 3 days of highly valuable data.

Clearly, those were deceptive practices that involved a lack of informed consent. These research practices also took me into the territory of breaching both the “harm principle” and the “privacy principle.” In terms of the former, I already explicitly recognized in the real aims of my research that the way that the Iraqi economy was being restructured could be profoundly harmful for the Iraqi people in the long term, and that the research sought to understand those harmful practices. My research was therefore informed by a critique of the process of “development” or “creative destruction” (Whyte, 2007) that my participants were involved in. In short, I saw what they were doing as part of a socially harmful set of practices, and one aim of the research was to challenge and expose those practices. Although I do not wish to overestimate the ability of research to precipitate social change—and, as it happens, I do not think that this research project could have possibly influenced the corporate or political agenda in Iraq—part of the aim of the research was to make the corrupt practices involved in the reconstruction of the Iraqi economy public. For this reason, I published early research findings in two on-line publications linked to anti-war campaigns. In retrospect, I do not think that those publications were particularly effective, but they did seek to achieve something that was not in the interests of my participants. Indeed, I was explicitly aiming to do harm to their interests. In other words, by doing nothing to avoid compromising the professional interests of research participants, I was very consciously breaching the rules of the harm principle.

In terms of the “privacy principle,” I freely named the corporations employing my respondents. Therefore, if I am guilty of not respecting the “privacy principle,” this is largely because my research revealed the identity of corporate persons rather than real persons. I was confident that, with one exception, individuals could not be identified in my publications. The one exception was an individual by the name of Lieutenant Colonel Peter Vint, who was a representative of the U.S. Military Joint Contracting Command. He told the Iraqi business people in the conference audience that the best way to win contracts is to “hire an American!” This advice was met with vocal expressions of discontent, to the point that conference proceedings had to be brought to a premature close to protect Vint from the verbal onslaught led by the Iraqi delegates at the conference. I named him because he made a speech in a public space, and knowingly did so in the presence of journalists who could have reported his comments to an international audience. Indeed, I used his hubristic turn of phrase “Hire an American!” as the title for one of my research papers (Whyte, 2008).

Conclusion: Resolving the Dilemmas?

This research therefore broke the most sacrosanct ethical conventions in social research. When I published the first paper based on the research, the journal did not require me to provide details of ethical approval, but did require me to include a detailed methodological note. In that note, I “owned up” to the covert methods I used to gather data. It didn’t seem to create any problems for me; indeed, the research won the journal’s prize for the best article of the year.7 Regardless of this outcome, I certainly do not take the ethical conventions we use lightly. Throughout my research career, I have endeavored to uphold those principles and treat them, and my research participants, with respect. Neither do I think that when we face barriers that militate against ethical research, researchers should simply do what we want. Rather, I hope this case study has provided some context that explains the very particular circumstances that impelled me to break the rules.

Moreover, I know that I am not alone in finding those ethical rules impossible to apply in studies of the “powerful.” Indeed, it has become commonplace to find acknowledgments in social scientists’ ethical codes that the rules that guide social research are not set in stone: that they may be suspended particularly when research involves “powerful” respondents. In this vein, the British Sociological Association (BSA, 2002) points out, “[b]ecause sociologists study the relatively powerless as well as those more powerful than themselves, research relationships are frequently characterised by disparities of power and status” (p. 2).

A common justification for the suspension of the rules in ethical codes of conduct is the importance of producing knowledge as an end in itself. For example, the British Society of Criminology (BSC, n.d.), while accepting that the informed consent principle may not be over-ridden “in all but exceptional circumstances,” does however note that “[e]xceptional in this context relates to exceptional importance of the topic rather than difficulty of gaining access.” (p. 3) (author’s emphasis). The code of ethics published by the Finnish Advisory Board on Research Integrity (TENK, 2009) probably goes further in this respect, asserting boldly, “As a matter of principle, studies on the use of power should be allowed without the consent of those in power” (p. 8).

The reasoning that typically justifies such caveats to ethical compliance or the recognition of extenuating circumstances is that researching powerful participants can itself be reason enough to suspend the normal rules of research. Two prominent U.K. codes of ethics refer directly to a principle of “the public interest” in relation to researching powerful institutions. It is this notion of the “public interest” that enables researchers to suspend the ethical standards that they are expected to comply with. The BSA (2002) notes that

[t]here may be fewer compelling grounds for extending guarantees of privacy or confidentiality to public organisations, collectives, governments, officials or agencies than to individuals or small groups … [where] … there are clear and compelling public interest reasons not to do so. (p. 5)

Those codes, then, at least identify the core problem that we tackle in this case study: often, the only way of obtaining key information about the activities of powerful respondents is by breaking the rules. The Socio-Legal Studies Association (n.d.) adds to this public interest clause the notion of “abuse of power”: “In some cases, where the public interest suggests otherwise and particularly where power is being abused by those being researched, obligations of trust and protection may weigh less heavily” (p. 4).

I am not convinced that the various ethical codes I cite here have many answers to the problems that have been raised. In summary, the problem is this: powerful institutions such as corporations occupy a social position that enables them to repel the advances of researchers, to strategically opt out of participation in research, and to manipulate the research process in a range of ways. It is this ability to influence both the viability and the shape of a research project that renders researchers—rather than their research participants—relatively powerless. The ethical problem that this raises is contained in the assumption that a private corporation can be given the same protections, using the same ethical principles, as an individual. Thus, institutions with significant control and influence over our lives are, when they are research participants, expected to be protected in the same way as victims of crime, or homeless people, or users of a leisure service.

It is in the failure to present a nuanced understanding of how power shapes the entirety of the research process that codes of conduct underestimate the degree to which ethical contradictions are produced. As we have seen in the preceding discussion, there is some distinction made across different types of research participants in reference to a general notion of power. But the problem of institutional power is not specified or developed in such codes of conduct. The danger is, therefore, that a moral and practical equivalence is established between a range of research participants who are fundamentally unequal in character. The solution is unlikely to be found in adding a few additional provisos or footnotes to existing ethical rules and codes of conduct.

To some extent, I responded to the very specific demands of the research environment I found myself in. Some might consider this form of “situational ethics,” and argue that researchers must be prepared to adopt an ethical stance that responds to the infinite number of situations that they find themselves in (Hardwick and Hardwick, 2007). But my story is not one in which I merely responded to a particular situation. The problems we face when researching powerful organizations are general problems rooted in more general relations of power. I therefore argue that we need an alternative set of general principles—as opposed to a flexible or situational ethics—that can be applied to researching the powerful. My main conclusion from reflecting on this case study is that we need to completely rethink research ethics as they apply to relatively powerful organizations and individuals, such as corporations and the executives and managers that work for them. We need a code of ethics that is focused on protecting us all from harm, and on ensuring that we are not deceived by vested interests that are remote from the research process, and probably care very little about what social researchers do and think, as long as we do not challenge their social power.


1. The term “Coalition” is used loosely to denote the alliance of states participating in the invasion and subsequent occupation of Iraq. Although the United States was the leading government in the Coalition, key members included the United Kingdom, Australia, Poland, Italy, The Netherlands, Spain, South Korea, Ukraine, and Georgia. In U.S. military terminology, the Coalition was known as the “Coalition Forces Land Component Command” until June 2003. During the period of the post-invasion Iraqi government of occupation under the Coalition Provision Authority (between May 2003 and June 2004), the military Coalition was known as the “Combined Joint Task Force 7.” Thereafter, it became the “Multi-National Force—Iraq (MNF–I)” before reverting to separate national military commands in January 2010.

2. This tripartite construction of ethical principles is not uncommon, though sometimes “deception” is reduced to “informed consent,” “privacy” to “confidentiality,” and “avoiding harm” to “minimising harm”; see, for example, Israel and Hay (2006).

3. The government of occupation installed and administered by the “Coalition” (see Note 1) during Year 1 of the occupation. Principally organized by the United States, significant authority was also held by the U.K. and Australian governments. The Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) was disbanded in June 2004 and its responsibilities split between two newly established organizations, the Project Contracting Office (PCO, dealing with the allocation of funds for and the oversight of reconstruction projects) and the Iraq Reconstruction Management Office (dealing with policy oversight and “advising” the Iraqi government).

4. Rebuild Iraq was an annual trade fair and conference that ran for 5 years to bring together the big business players and other firms interested in exploiting commercial opportunities in Iraq.

5. A more detailed methodological note is included in Whyte (2007).

6. The same hotel was bombed 6 months later, on November 9, 2015, killing nine people.

7. Whyte (2007) won the 2008 Radzinowicz Prize, see:

Exercises and Discussion Questions

  • Think of a research project that involves interviews with relatively powerful respondents.
  • What are the ethical dilemmas that might arise in gaining access to respondents?
  • What are the ethical dilemmas that might arise in conducting those interviews?
  • What are the ethical dilemmas that might arise in the publication of research?
  • How do those ethical dilemmas fit the standard rules guiding social research?
  • Under what circumstances should the standard rules guiding social research be broken?

Further Reading

Aguiar, L., & Schneider, C. (Eds.). (2012). Researching amongst elites: Challenges and opportunities in studying up. Aldershot, UK: Ashgate.
Galliher, J. (1980). Social scientists’ ethical responsibilities to superordinates: Looking upward meekly. Social Problems, 27, 298308.
Lilleker, D. (2003). Interviewing the political elite: Navigating a potential minefield. Politics, 23, 207214.
Smith, K. (2006). Problematising power relations in “elite” interviews. Geoforum, 37, 643653.
Tombs, S., & Whyte, D. (2003). Unmasking the crimes of the powerful: Scrutinizing states and corporations. New York, NY: Peter Lang.
Whyte, D. (2000). Researching the powerful: Towards a political economy of method? In R. King & E. Wincup (Eds.), Doing research on crime and justice (pp. 418429). Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.


Aguiar, L. M. (2012). Redirecting the academic gaze upward. In L. M. Aguiar & C. J. Schneider (Eds.), Researching amongst elites: Challenges and opportunities in studying up (pp. 128). Aldershot, UK: Ashgate.
Arrigo, B. A. (1999). Critical criminology’s discontent: The perils of publishing and the call to action. The Critical Criminologist, 10(1), 1013.
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