Goodwin, R. (2002). Conducting cross-cultural psychological research in changing cultures: Some ethical and logistical considerations. In W. J. Lonner, D. L. Dinnel, S. A. Hayes, & D. N. Sattler (Eds.), Online Readings in Psychology and Culture (Unit 2, Chapter 10), Center for Cross-Cultural Research, Western Washington University, Bellingham, Washington USA.

This material is copyrighted by the author(s), who have kindly extended to the Center the right to use the material as described in the Introduction to this collection and the form entitled "Agreement to Extend License to Use Work."



Robin Goodwin, Ph.D.
Department of Human Sciences
Brunel University
Uxbridge, United Kingdom


Cross-cultural psychology can be a stimulating enterprise, but one that presents the researcher with a number of significant ethical and practical challenges. In this chapter I discuss some of the key dilemmas associated with obtaining funds for cross-cultural work, the practical and ethical issues arising from the recruitment and motivation of participants, and the use of appropriate questions and research methods when tackling sensitive research topics. I conclude by arguing that the pursuit of appropriate ethical practices in international research is essential if we are to meaningfully interpret our findings across cultures.


Men with machine guns mysteriously appearing outside your hotel bedroom, colleagues being investigated by the police for distributing "suspicious" questionnaires... in a decade or so of exploring social relationships in transient cultures I have rarely found life boring. Working primarily in the former Communist nations of Central and Eastern Europe has been a truly fascinating enterprise, and has certainly challenged me about my own preconceptions of research methodology and ethics. This short chapter represents a rather personal account of some of the issues, pragmatic and ethical, that have confronted me when I have been conducting my cross-cultural research, but these discussions will hopefully have some resonance with colleagues engaged in trans-cultural work across the world.

What We Investigate

As social scientists, we probably all have a series of ideals concerning the research enterprise. One of these might well suggest that the very research topics we choose to investigate represent a response to a detailed reading of the literature, a lengthy consideration of the key theoretical areas that demand investigation (perhaps ones that appear in the "areas for further research" in the Discussion sections of learned journals) and a long consultation process with colleagues and other experts in the field. Whilst of course this does occur, the "realpolitik" of the cross-cultural research enterprise often leads us towards rather different research practices. Good cross-cultural research will frequently require a considerable commitment of time, as well as the means to motivate a diverse range of participants (see below), and as such this usually requires some form of funding. Faculties, too, "encourage" their staff to seek external sponsorship for their work - indeed, in the United Kingdom this is one major criterion for the evaluation of research departments. This is not, in itself, a bad thing - funding often follows pressing needs for applied research leading, for example, for significant international research on health interventions, and may lead us to address real topics of concern in a culture (rather than just the "esoteric" passing fancies of the lead researcher from an affluent culture). However, the desire for external funding in cross-cultural research can also lead researchers to "ambulance chasing" - pursing agendas simply aimed at attracting resources - or at least to the formation of less-than- obvious research alliances with corporations little concerned with the theoretical and methodological rigours of cross-cultural investigation. This can lead to research agendas that are insulting to a culture or cultural group or which simply reflect outdated stereotypes held by a funding body and their often ageing trustees. It can raise important questions as to who controls the overall research design, who decides on methods and participants, and who controls the dissemination of findings. It may also lead to profound ethical questions concerning the use made of research findings (see, for example, the military funding of Project Camelot, a project designed to analyse "insurgencies" in developing nations (Warwick, 1980)).

As a result, cross-cultural researchers need to be as aware of funding opportunities as their mainsteam colleagues, but need to add several "layers of consciousness" to their research applications that consider the real relevance of the research to the culture they are investigating and the problematic ways that their research might be employed by both the funding authorities and others reading their research findings. As Warwick (1980) notes: "Whatever the likes and intentions of the researcher, cross-cultural psychological research is never a value-free, apolitical exercise" (p. 324). Researchers need to consider carefully the purposes, or at least priorities, of the funding agency, and, even when these purposes are quite benign they must consider how representations of this funding body might affect the willingness of respondents to participate honestly (consider, for example, how participants in some cultures might respond to research funded by NATO). Protecting our respondents from the fallout of our own research often means following what is generally good scientific practice anyway - recognising that the differences between cultural groups are as likely to be due to differences in economic conditions and practise and immediate lifestyle demands as they are due to more inflexible and deep-rooted "cultural phenomena". Consequently, findings concerning differences between cultural groups should be couched in qualifying statements that emphasise more immediate temporal factors, so that differences between the behaviour of those in cultures X and Y are framed as much in the context of recent local land reforms etc. as in the frequently vapid speculations reflecting the "deep-seated genetic dispositions" of the peoples of such cultures, or vague (and often patronising and inaccurate) interpretations of "ancient religious doctrine" or "traditional cultural beliefs".

Research Methods

Recruiting Participants

In most areas of mainstream psychology the issue of recruiting respondents is not seen as highly problematic. Indeed, the link between the phenomena under investigation and the sample recruited is probably given insufficient attention in psychology. Students are questioned in class or for course credit, advertisements are put in local newspapers for happy (or unhappy) couples (used often in relationship work), or established panel members are paid participants in a series of studies. Often such participants are simply inappropriate for cross-cultural research. Studies of social change across countries, for example, often utilize students, despite the fact that student life may be one of the few universal constants in a society. Indeed, students themselves are rarely as comparable a sample across cultures as is often assumed. Countries vary enormously in the percentage of a cohort that attends university, and students are from a wide range of economic and religious backgrounds across cultures. Even the demands made by the curriculum means that students in different cultures live very different lives: compare, for example, the traditional graduate student in the United Kingdom, who might complete a doctoral study in three years, with an older German counterpart, who may be married with children, working at least part time, and may take several more years to complete a highly demanding course.

Furthermore, consider using the "traditional" student or newspaper sample when you wish to study highly mobile populations (such as immigrants or refugees), or when examining adolescents at risk living partly in shelters and partly on the street. Imagine trying to compare groups of "small businessmen" in different societies, where the definition of a "small businessman" in one society might mean a newspaper seller or kiosk owner and in another a suited executive, and when individuals may hold several, very different jobs (very common in transient societies). Even concepts such as "representative sample" can mean little when large-scale population movements following famines, war or other social upheavals makes assessing population demographics difficult, and where the definition of where a culture begins and ends becomes highly problematic.

Access problems also pose interesting challenges in cross-cultural settings. Once you have found your research location (not always easy in transient societies where street names and even town and city names may change rapidly), important research "gatekeepers" (factory managers, local government officials etc.) may request small "gifts of appreciation" to allow you access to your participants. Such requests often put the researcher in a difficult position - not only is there a problem of who funds such "gifts" (research councils rarely allow such expenses!), but each researcher then helps raise expectations about payments for his/her colleagues in the future, sometimes leading to a "bidding war" in the most interesting / desirable research locations. Certain official agencies (or indeed, academics) then have a vested interest in keeping their role as "official research brokers" but, almost by definition, such brokers are usually highly placed members of the official hierarchy, and rarely representative of the wider population. And, of course, research participants themselves may be highly suspicious of researchers - perhaps particularly when these "official brokers" are used to organise local access. In some countries, simply completing a questionnaire can be seen by authority figures as tantamount to espionage, and the process of highly respectable, intelligent people asking lower status people for their opinions may seem to be a strange pursuit (Rogoff & Chavajay, 1995). Indeed, of course, answering abstract questions on seven-point scales ("how often in the last four weeks have you felt X: very often, quite often ...." etc) can seem an odd enterprise even to Western respondents relatively familiar with such linguistic games. Unfortunately, our own certainties over the fascination of a particular research question might fail to excite confused, suspicious respondents who may feel they have little to gain from participating in research co-ordinated in a distant country.

One traditional way of motivating respondents is to pay them for their participation in your work. However, such payments are rarely straightforward in cross-cultural work. One obvious issue is the appropriate rate at which to pay respondents: U$5, for example, can seem to be a great deal of money in a country where monthly wages are less than U$25 and can cause resentment amongst those not chosen to participate, whilst the same sum is very little to business people earning many hundreds of dollars an hour, whose pride may be offended by such an offering. Sometimes, the "side effects" of payments are complex: in some of our recent work with street children in the Former Soviet Union, for example, we were prevented by hostel owners from paying our respondents for fear that the money paid would be used for purchasing drugs. Other payments to children in schools were also complex: participants required parental permission to take part in our work but were strongly motivated to "sign on their parent's behalf" in order to obtain the payment, leading the researchers to undertake an extended process of permission gathering (permission slips were given to the children who had them signed by their parents - parents were then telephoned to ensure that they really had given their permissions). There is no easy solution to this issue: "small tokens of appreciation" (pens, mugs etc), often offered as alternative payment, are probably even more inappropriate when given to poor participants who desperately need simple cash. As is so often the case in cross-cultural research, the only solution here is to work closely with trusted local research collaborators, and to request their expertise in assessing the appropriate means of recruiting and rewarding participants.

Research Questions and Procedures

A number of readings in this project deal with issues of translating questions and ensuring the appropriateness of questions asked. Here I would just add that research in cross-cultural psychology often best progresses by using broad and relatively "flexible" theoretical guidelines that allow for the employment of a number of methods relevant to different cultural contexts. In our work we have found social representations theory useful as it permits us to combine "standard" questionnaire procedures with more open-ended questionnaires, media analyses and focus group methods; but of course a range of other broad theoretical perspectives are available, offering additional methods (Fielding and Fielding, 1986). Other colleagues have used participant observations, the analysis of fairy tales, diary techniques, free association tests, and laboratory experiments, as well as making considerable use of existing data archives such as the Human Relations Area Files (Barry, 1980) and official statistics. This triangulation of techniques is of course useful for confirmatory reasons (e.g. when using diaries to check that respondesnts who claim healthy social lives in their questionnaires really do have some social contacts). Perhaps even more important, however, such a variety of methods can help "unpack" some of the many awkward and puzzling findings that are almost inevitable in cross-cultural research. For example, the finding that social group X is highly stressed in one culture but has low stress levels in another might be revealed in more unstructured interviews where the differing social reputations of these groups across cultures becomes evident. Similarly, the adaptive value of a particular personality trait in one culture (but not another) may only emerge in focus group conversations or participant observations.

One particular dilemma arises when dealing with highly sensitive questions that might appear to threaten existing religious, cultural or political beliefs or interests. Unfortunately, such questions are frequently the very questions of greatest interest to the applied cross-cultural research. Questions concerning ethnic identity can be seen to threaten landowners and powerful corporate groups; items about the prevalence of sexual disease can upset religious authorities and tourist agencies; questions investigating democratic beliefs can affront significant politicians and interior ministries, and so on. For any cross-cultural research, on any topic, the greatest resource the researcher owns is their research contacts in the country(ies) they are exploring. The researcher asking delicate questions is likely to need a great deal of guile and sensitivity, several "strategic alliances" within a society, and a certain honesty and humility in appreciating that the answers obtained may at best be "filtered" by interested individuals and agencies.

Ethical Concerns

In most Western societies, researchers are presented with an elaborate ethics form to complete by their sponsors or research departments, which they are required to satisfactorily complete prior to conducting their research (see for example the Code of Conduct, Ethical Principles & Guidelines form issued by the British Psychological Society, available at Whilst these procedures are often far from perfect, the whole procedure of ethical clearing can mean little to researchers in countries where such procedures or ethical committees are unknown. Paradoxically, this presents an even greater responsibility on the investigator concerned, as it is now his or her responsibility to decide how respondents are best protected from unethical practices. This often requires the researcher to conduct a fair amount of exploration with his/her research colleagues in each country about how respondents might be influenced by the research procedures employed. At times this can also mean further ethics checks by the lead researcher, applying the same principles as would be expected in their own culture. This is most likely to apply where there is a clear status (or perhaps affluence) imbalance in the research teams: colleagues in some cultures may naturally be keen to accede to original research plans so as not to "obstruct" the research project, even when these research plans may not quite meet rigorous ethical demands.

Above I have mentioned some of the suspicion with which research participants can be viewed by the "higher" authorities in a country, and some concerns over the reinforcing of stereotypes or denigration of a group that may arise from the inappropriate use of research findings. A further, but rarely considered, issue is the impact of the research process on the research teams in each country, particularly in countries where resources are very limited. The assumed "privilege" of participating in Western-led cross-cultural collaboration is often far less of an honour than is assumed by the affluent, tenured research professors leading the research. Even for comparative student studies, basic resources (paper, photocopying facilities) may be unavailable or prohibitively expensive, and the "reward" of seeing yourself as 24th author on a lengthy list of collaborators can be of little compensation. Others not chosen to participate in a research project often overestimate the finances obtained by their colleagues' "foreign friends", and may operate to reduce facilities of these colleagues or block their promotion in an often unwarranted jealousy. Highly skilled researchers may feel denigrated by the research co-ordinator because of their lack of experience with the latest "trendy" statistical package or technique. Also unappreciated can be the implications of strong social norms that demand "hidden costs" in the form of extensive hospitality for visiting colleagues - it is not unknown, for example, for Georgian hosts to spend several months salary on a special meal for a visiting scholar. All this means that there is an ethical duty for researchers to see a research opportunity in one culture less as an opportunity for an "interesting expedition" than as a real commitment to a genuine and democratic research relationship with colleagues who may make real sacrifices for our research ideas. It can require a real need by the more affluent researcher to educate research councils as to the real costs of conducting cross-cultural research not covered on the standard finance forms in situations where, for example, the researchers may have to pay for their own e-mail usage. Such a commitment, of course, can mean more than just a full discussion of research plans and inclusion into publications, but a genuine long-term strategy to obtain realistic funding for our research collaborators.

Concluding Comments

"One can learn a great deal about social and psychological phenomena by examining the problems one encounters in trying to study them" (Kohn, 1993, p.4).

Conducting cross-cultural research, particularly in countries in transition, often leads to a great number of surprises, not only for the "outside" research team but even for "well integrated" researchers from the host country, exploring the often changing identities and practices of their own culture. It can lead us to question our own readiness to use some of the best known inventories currently used in the field (which frequently are hard to defend even in the language in which they were devised!) . Many of the practicalities we face are closely related to the phenomenon under investigation - problems in asking about sexual behaviour or the questioning of hierarchies in the workplace, for example, can provide real insight into the broader social prohibitions operating in these societies. Hence the research process becomes a valuable informer about the topic being investigated in itself.

Following ethical procedures can also be vital in conducting successful cross-cultural research: real ethics often simply means good research practice. Real ethical practices can involve genuine attempts to understand the participant's view of the research in which they are participating, and the implications of this viewpoint on the responses they produce. It can mean a real appreciation of the practicalities faced by the research teams, their often complex lives (in many transient cultures researchers hold three or more jobs simply to survive), and their own needs and priorities when confronted with an invitation to engage in research. Overall, it can mean a real sensitivity to the environment in which the research is taking place: a genuine attempt to be actively interested in the political and economic activities in a country, rather than just acting as a "detached" outsider (Kukla, 1988). Such a sensitivity not only makes good methodological and ethical sense, but is frequently essential in order to meaningfully interpret our findings across cultures.

Selected References

Barry, H. (1980). "Description and uses of the human relations area files". In H. Triandis & J. Berry (Eds.), Handbook of Cross-Cultural Psychology, volume 2. (pp. 445-478). Newbury Park: Sage.

Fielding, N., & Fielding, J. (1986). Linking Data. London: Sage.

Goodwin, R (1998). Invited programme overview: Personal relationships and social change: The "realpolitik" of cross-cultural research in transient cultures. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 15, 227-247.

Kohn, M.L. (1993). Doing social research under conditions of radical social change: The biography of an ongoing research project. Social Psychology Quarterly, 56, 4-20.

Kukla, A. (1988). Cross-cultural psychology in a post-empiricist era. In M. Bond (Ed), The Cross-Cultural Challenge to Social Psychology (pp. 141-52). Newbury Park: Sage.

Rogoff, B., & Chavajay, P. (1995). What's become of research on the cultural basis of cognitive development? American Psychologist, 50, 859-877.

Warwick, D. (1980). The politics and ethics of cross-cultural research, in H. Triandis (ed), Handbook of Cross-Cultural Psychology, vol. 1. (pp 319-71). Boston: Allyn & Bacon.

Questions for Discussion

1. If a major corporation offers you funding to conduct a cross-cultural study in an area of interest to you, should you accept their offer if they can control where (and whether) the results are published?
2. You want to try to understand the psychological impact of a dramatic social change in a culture (caused perhaps by a collapse of a political system, such as in the fall of Communism in the Former Soviet Union, or by large population movements following a civil war). Who would you choose as your participants?
3. You are eagerly trying to obtain access to a group of peoples living in a remote part of a country in which you have no established contacts. You find the only person who can guarantee you such access is a member of the ruling regime, who insists on accompanying you to each of your interviews. What should you do?
4. Imagine you are planning to conduct a cross-cultural research project involving five different cultures and local collaborators in each. List and discuss what you consider to be the most important ethical and logistical considerations.
5. You decide to "triangulate methods" and complement your questionnaire study with one that uses participant observation. However, you decide your questionnaire findings do not match the behaviours you have observed in your participant observation study. What should you do?
6. You are beginning research with a group of researchers in an unfamiliar culture. You ask them about the ethics procedures for their country and they look puzzled. Try to design a brief ethics form for the research that illustrates your main points of concern. Try not to base this simply on existing forms in your institution but aim to include some of the broader ethical issues mentioned in this chapter.
7. You come to "write up" your research findings, and these findings clearly suggest to you that members of one culture in your cross-cultural study performs significantly poorer on your measure of "interpersonal competence" than the other cultures in your sample. What would be your main concerns about reporting such a result? How might you wish to try to understand, and to present, this finding?

Related Websites

1. The author's homepage with some multi-lingual translations

2. The author's MSc in Cross-Cultural Psychology: A cordial welcome

About the Author

Dr. Robin Goodwin is Reader in Psychology in the Department of Human Sciences, Brunel University, West London. He specialises in the study of personal relationships across cultures, particularly during times of social transition, and has worked on this theme across Central and Eastern Europe, in Hong Kong and China, and amongst migrant populations across Europe. He convenes the MSc in Cross-Cultural Psychology at Brunel University, and was the Chair of the Scientific Committee for the 2001 IACCP European Conference in Winchester, England. He is the author of Personal Relationships Across Cultures (Routledge, 1999) and Inappropriate Relationships (with D. Cramer) (Lawrence Erlbaum, 2002) as well as chapters and articles in a wide range of books and journals. He is trying hard to learn Spanish to complement his stumbling attempts at dancing Salsa and Argentinean Tango.

Acknowledgements. I would like to thank Janice Spurgeon and Walt Lonner for their valuable comments on an earlier draft of this chapter.

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