Respect in research: navigating our cultural and ethical differences

University of Leeds
University of Leeds
4 min readMay 17, 2024

Professor Azwihangwisi Mavhandu-Mudzusi, Professor and Director of the School of Social Sciences at the College of Human Sciences, University of South Africa, explores the differences between their upbringing and Western academic ethics, emphasising the need for researchers to understand and respect the cultural practices of the communities they study.

A photograph of girls in traditional dress lined up outside and going through their initiation.
Girls from the Venda community at their initiation.

I was born into a polygamous royal family in a rural community in South Africa. My mother was the third wife of my father and slightly younger than his first born, yet all three of his wives lived harmoniously.

My father, Jim Muraga Mavhandu, was a headman, similar to a junior chief, in his sub-village. Our daily life involved community interactions, with visitors bringing African beer. In the afternoon, the village elders would gather and drink together. We learned early on how to show respect to members of the community and we were taught how to greet people and acknowledge our elders in an appropriate way.

Life in a communal setting

In our culture, all my father’s wives were considered our mothers, and we, the children, were siblings regardless of sharing the same mother or not. In Western culture they would be considered half-sisters because we do not share the same mother; however in our culture, we belong to one family. We lived a communal life that I enjoyed with my sisters. We communicated freely with each other.

A photograph of the author and her three sisters outside.
Professor Mavhandu-Mudzusi (second from the left) and her three sisters.

Transitioning to academia

When I joined the academic world and became a researcher, I encountered a different set of ethical principles. I learnt about the ethics of research which focuses on respecting the individual. These frequently used principles are based on the Declaration of Helsinki, which include respect for autonomy, non-maleficence, beneficence, justice and fairness — emphasising a Western notion of individual respect. I was trained in a formal sitting position which focused on maintaining eye contact, sitting squarely and facing the participant, and being relaxed without folding my arms. It contrasted sharply with my upbringing.

My academic training has made me forget what I learnt as a young child. Growing up, I was taught that showing respect meant not looking an elderly person directly in the eye and lowering your neck. I also forgot what I had learnt at traditional initiation school where I was taught to fold my arms when talking to anyone older than me and to kneel to show respect.

A wake up call

Real life in rural communities appears to contradict academic expectations and I had a wake up call when I visited a rural village to conduct a study.

I was expected to seek permission from the chief, which involved adhering to cultural rituals. This included providing a goat for 200 rands as a ‘gate opener’ token to grant me entrance to the chief’s residence, and a cow for 500 rands as a ‘mouth opener’ token for the chief to speak to me. Additionally, I was expected to buy a bucket of African beer and a case of Coca Cola to address members of the community about my study. I was also expected to dress in an acceptable way for the community.

Finally, they assigned an elderly woman to accompany me when conducting interviews and I was expected to sit with the participants on a reed mat, as I had when meeting the chief and addressing the community.

From a Western perspective, it seemed as if I had broken almost all the principles of research. However, these actions showed deep respect for the community’s customs, which was crucial for gaining their trust and cooperation.

(AUTHOR NAME) and women of the Vhavenda community bowing to show respect as members of the community sit behind them.

Bridging cultural divides

This difference in world views, often causes academics to misinterpret the behaviour of participants and results in them reaching conclusions and making recommendations that do not add value to the community. These conclusions usually undermine the values of the community and perpetuate colonial attitudes. That is why I now advocate for cultural relevant and congruent ethical principles.

Before conducting a study, the researcher should first understand the cultural practices of the community. Respecting cultural practices will enable, researchers to gain trust and yield more authentic results.

Respecting cultural norms in research is not just about adhering to ethical guidelines but about truly understanding and valuing the people involved. This approach not only enhances the quality of research but also ensures that it contributes meaningfully to the communities we study.