Ethical Dilemmas in International Research

On Wednesday, April 19th, 2023, the Center for Ethics Education hosted a Zoom conversation on the topic of “Ethical Dilemmas in International Research” This was the second installment of the Center’s Spring 2023 Webinar Series. The invited speakers, Courtney Bonner, PhD, Research Clinical Psychologist and Adjunct Professor, Yerina Ranjit, PhD, Assistant Professor of Communication, and facilitator, Steven Swartzer, PhD, Associate Director of Academic Programs and Strategic Initiatives, engaged in a discussion on the international research where cultural sensitivity and foreign laws emerge as complex factors to navigate when working with vulnerable populations, amongst other issues that arise in this context, followed by a Q&A. 

Dr. Courtney Bonner

Dr. Courtney Bonner is a research clinical psychologist in RTI’s Substance Use, Gender, and Applied Research Program and an Adjunct Assistant Professor in the Department of Maternal and Child Health at the University of North Carolina, School of Global Public Health. Dr. Bonner’s experience includes conducting community-based participatory research to examine health disparities among vulnerabilities. Currently, her research seeks to understand the impact of the intersection of gender-based violence, substance use, and mental health on sexual risk behavior to reduce health disparities among vulnerable women and children. Dr. Bonner also specializes in developing cross-sector collaborations to develop structural and sustainable sexual health interventions.

Dr. Yerina Ranjit

Dr. Yerina Ranjit is an assistant professor at the department of communication at the University of Missouri, Columbia. Dr. Ranjit’s research program lies at the intersection of communication, digital technology and mHealth, HIV, and substance use. As a communication scholar, Dr. Ranjit focuses on behavior change communication. She is interested in the role of mediated communication in improving health in the underserved populations. Dr. Ranjit has been involved in designing experimental studies to test the effect of media messages on health behaviors; conducting surveys to understand the influences of media and interpersonal communication on risk perceptions, and behavioral outcomes; and creating communication interventions to improve health. Besides HIV, she has also focused on COVID-19 protection behaviors, mental health outcomes post-disasters, traffic accidents in the global south, and tobacco use among youth, to name a few.

Dr. Bonner began the webinar, presenting upon her issues that arose within her research regarding young women and adolescent girls with HIV, while at RETI. Her work is centralized to South Africa, which has one of the highest incidents of HIV among young women, ages 15-24, in the world. Currently, there is a significant amount of research focused on this population to develop interventions such as PREP for HIV prevention. Within these circumstances ethical difficulties arise between researchers and these populations, as well as respect for the country’s laws, and culture which emerge as a barrier to conducting effective inquiries. Dr. Bonner goes onto discuss the specific conditions under which minors are able to consent according to South African laws, and how this compares and contrasts to other consenting guidelines for minors in such research. She highlights the efforts from researchers to have strong community engagement, learning how to properly navigate who will be the representative of these minors, if not a parent, perhaps a community elder or some other trusted adult, and the ethical implications this may have.

Dr. Ranjit led the second half of the webinar sharing the types of issues that arose in her work, which is focused upon female sex workers in to understand their mobile use behavior, with the goal of developing health interventions centered around HIV and SDI prevention. Dr. Ranjit’s background in communication has shaped her research goals towards establishing mobile health interventions. She goes onto to discuss the cross culture shock that she experiences in Nepal where her work is centrally located, as a Nepali native herself, and how stigma and discrimination are prevalent. Such stigma is associated with a variety of other social factors that often times used against sex workers, such as low literacy levels, migrants from rural areas of Nepal, very little access to resources and little to no external support, where these women often become victims of violence, She is candid about the distance she feels between herself as a researcher and these vulnerable women, cautioning that often times in international research it can often become extracting and one-sided.

The Q&A portion of the webinar was led by Dr. Steven Swartzer, prompting an insightful discussion regarding how, as researchers, they were able to build trust with local communities, how crucial this mutuality was to the success of their research, and what other ways did they need to use cultural sensitivity, amongst other things. Both Bonner and Ranjit, in response to their respective questions, recognized how power relations manifest in these situations and how they, as outsiders looking in, came navigate and conduct ethical international research in the best way possible.

Dr. Steven Swartzer 

Dr. Steven Swartzer is the Associate Director for Academic Programs and Strategic Initiatives in Fordham University’s Center for Ethics Education. In this role, he directs Fordham’s interdisciplinary master’s degree Program in Ethics and Society, and interdisciplinary undergraduate Bioethics minor. He is also the coach and advisor for Fordham’s Intercollegiate Ethics Bowl team. He earned a B.A. from the University of Minnesota in Philosophy and Political Science, and a Ph.D. from the University of Nebraska in Philosophy. 

Please visit the Fordham University Center for Ethics Education’s Events Page for upcoming events and webinars. For questions on the series, please email Dr. Steven Swartzer, Associate Director of Academic Programs, at To watch the full webinar, click here.

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