Funded PhDs: Energy Ethics

The Department of Social Anthropology at the University of St Andrews (UK) is advertising 2 PhD scholarships (4 years, full time, 100% UK/EU fee waiver with maintenance stipend of approx. £14,296/year (equivalent to a RCUK stipend) and conference/research expenses) to participate in an ERC-funded research project on the ethics of oil. The start date is September 2017. Deadline for application: 16 January 2017

This project entitled "The Ethics of Oil: Finance Moralities and Environmental Politics in the Global Oil Economy (ENERGYETHICS)" offers an exciting opportunity for 2 outstanding graduates to join a major anthropological research project funded by the European Research Council - as part of the conventional track for a PhD in Social Anthropology at University of St Andrews. The project is a comparative study of how people in positions of influence within the global oil economy make financial and ethical valuations of oil. Ethnographic fieldwork will be carried out with oil companies in the US and Norway, energy analysts in the UK and the US, and fossil fuel divestment movements in Germany and the UK. Taking our starting point in people's own perceptions of and direct involvement in the oil economy, we aim to understand the relationship between oil, money and climate change. We will ask: What is the value of oil? How do such valuations, understood as both financial and ethical, intersect and inform the making of the global energy economy in oil? To what extent can oil be an important industrial resource, a profit-yielding investment opportunity and an undesired pollutant that brings about irreversible climate impacts?

We are seeking prospective candidates with an existing interest in fields such as economic life, morality and ethics, energy and climate change, corporations and organisations. Applicants are encouraged to contribute their own provisional research ideas in the form of a proposal as part of their application. Projects will have ethnographic fieldwork at their core, but may also draw on other methodologies, including archival and visual media work.

Successful candidate 1 will explore convergences of oil production with national welfare agendas and climate change concerns in Norway. The research will involve 15 months of fieldwork and the candidate must be able to/willing to learn Norwegian. Successful candidate 2 will examine how divestment projects in Germany and the UK intersect with oil industry vulnerability and visions for the future. The research will involve 15 months of fieldwork and the candidate must be able to/willing to learn German.

Prospective candidates are encouraged to contact the Principal Investigator Dr Mette M. High.

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New Publication: Land Grabbing & Human Rights

Cochrane, L. (2016) Land Grabbing. In Encyclopedia of Food and Agricultural Ethics, 2nd Edition, edited by P. Thompson and D. Kaplan.


  • The application of force to coerce individuals to illegally give up their land or the otherwise illegal dispossession of land, a process known as "land grabbing," is a violation of human rights – the arbitrary deprivation of property outlined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Article 17). Land grabbing is the most legally and ethically problematic form of large-scale land acquisitions. However, if direct or indirect force is not applied in the process of large-scale land acquisitions nor any laws broken, and the individuals involved receive sufficient benefit in exchange for their land, are the exchanges necessarily ethical? Based upon a human rights-based perspective, this chapter argues that human rights cannot be analyzed in isolation, but must be evaluated in totality in order to contextualize the vulnerability and duress experienced by those transferring their land. In doing so, it expands our conceptualization of what is considered "land grabbing" and what is not. Over the last decade, the majority of large-scale land acquisitions have taken place in countries where human rights are violated. In order for large-scale land acquisitions to be ethical, human rights must be met and protected to ensure that choices are truly free and fair. This is not a practical argument, made to improve the process, but an ethical argument based upon protecting the lives and livelihoods of smallholder farmers and pastoralists, ensuring their choices are truly free and fair, not simply the product of a lack of options made from a position of vulnerability.
The full article is gated. Abstract and further publication details available via the link above. If you would like a copy of the article, send me an email.
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Moral History of the 20th Century

Jonathan Glovers' (1999) Humanity: A Moral History of the 20th Century explores why atrocities occurred – from World War I to the Rwandan genocide – and insight on how we can learn from this history to prevent similar events from occurring again. This "thought provoker" post presents a limited selection of those insights; those interested in conflict studies as well as ethics ought to add this to their essential reading list:

On Nietzsche:

  • "For Nietzsche, this is all misguided… The idea of loving your neighbour is a disguise mediocrity. People too weak to override others disguise weakness as moral virtue, though this may be a necessary stage on the way to something higher: he says that the 'bad conscience is an illness, there is no doubt about that', but goes on to say that it is an illness as a pregnancy is an illness. The man Nietzsche admires will overcome bad conscience, which is the mark of slave morality, and will want to dominate others." (p.14-15)
  • "Some of us drawn to those ideas may feel aghast at where they took Nietzsche. Struggle, egoism, dominance, slavery, the majority having no right to existence, peoples that are failures, hardness, the festival of cruelty, the replacement of compassion for the weak with by their destruction. If such a world is really the result of Nietzsche's thought, it seems a nightmare." (p. 17)

On escalation and the prisoner's dilemma:

  • "It was assumed that countries pursued their national interests and that war was legitimate in support of vital interests. On these assumptions, each country had to plan against being attacked. Although most governments did not want war, they were in a prisoners' dilemma, where individual pursuit of national self-interest made it hard for them collectively to avoid the worst outcome." (p. 193)

On (mis)information:

  • "Governments also want to keep their own public committed to the war. In Britain in the First World War this was the main function of the newly created Ministry of Information. In a document published in 1918 about its work, this was accepted: 'Propaganda is task of creating and directing public opinion. In other wars this work has not been the function of government.' But 'in a struggle which was not of armies but of nations, and which tended to affect every people on the globe, this aloofness could not be maintained.' Sometimes leaders know that an informed public would see the human cost of war as too great, so the facts are carefully filtered." (p. 167)

On "tribalism":

  • "The common view is that real tribes are in Africa, where the same tribal hatreds have been fought out in battles since the Stone Age. Calling the conflict in Northern Ireland is a kind of rebuke: you are behaving like primitive tribes in Africa. But this picture is wrong. These other conflicts are tribal in more than metaphor: in Ireland, Yugoslavia and elsewhere they are literal enactments of tribal hostility as those in Africa. The picture in Africa is wrong too. Some of the tribal divisions are recent creations. The origins of African tribal war and massacre are more complex than the 'ancient hatreds' account allows." (p. 119) 
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Conducting Research in Ethiopia? Read this.

Received ethics approval from your home institution or organization to conduct your research overseas? Great. However, that is insufficient. Authorities in the country where you plan to conduct research have a legal and ethical right to approve the research you plan to conduct in their country. In addition to abiding by legal requirements, researchers ought to respect peoples' right to be protected from unethical research, for whom your home institution or organization has very little practical legal responsibility. If you are a graduate student conducting research, or a professor approving students to conduct research overseas, obtaining ethics consent from national authorities is highly recommended, and should be mandatory. If this is not a standard requirement at your home institution, you should advocate that it become so. The process can slower than ideal. And, it can be frustrating. That, however, does not mean ethics approval from national authorities is not important.

Many academics in my network who have conducted research in Ethiopia have not obtained approval from national authorities. One of the biggest challenges they face is not knowing who to ask and what to do (as well as relying on approval from their home institution as being sufficient). Here is a brief overview of the processes I used to obtain ethics consent from the Government of Ethiopia.

Based on my experience in Ethiopia, there are three ways to obtain ethics consent, each of which have unique requirements. In brief: (1) via the Federal authorities, (2) via the respective regional-state authority, and (3) via an Ethiopian university. Each will be explored below, as it related to my own research (however you may need to interact with different ethical bodies depending on the focus of your research):

  • 1. Federal Approval: For many research projects ethics approval is obtained from the Ethiopian Public Health Institute (EPHI), which has a Scientific and Ethical Review Committee (SERC). There are other federal authorities, although it seems most proposals go via EPHI. You must obtain the research proposal format and prepare your proposal accordingly. Although the form appears brief, the SERC wants a detailed research proposal, something similar to what you would submit to an ethics board at your home institution (i.e. 40-60 pages). When you submit, they want five printed copies for the members of the SERC to review. When the proposal is submitted, there will be an internal review, after which you will be required to give a presentation to the SERC, which will also be open to EPHI staff to attend. Following the presentation, the SERC will provide feedback and most likely request that some revisions / clarifications be made. When SERC is content with your revised proposal, you will be required to print five new copies and submit final versions to EPHI. Members of the SERC committee will approve and sign, as will the Deputy Director. The proposal will be archived at EPHI after being approved and your approval is given. The timeframe of this process greatly depends on the ethical complexity of your research.
  • 2. Regional Authority: This is only applicable if your research is limited to one regional-state of Ethiopia. The process tends to be faster than the federal process. If you opt for this route, the authority you will most likely want to start with is the ethics approval body within the Regional Health Bureau (the exact names of these bodies and where they are located differ by regional-state). However, certain research proposals cannot be submitted to regional authorities. As far as I have been told, all graduate research proposals cannot be approved at the regional-state level, these proposals must be approved at the federal level. These regulations are subject to change and it is best to ask for updates when you engage in the process.
  • 3. Ethiopian University: Ethics approval can be obtained via an Ethiopian university. This, however, often requires university-to-university partnerships and/or memorandums of understanding. For large-scale projects this may be a viable option, for graduate students and smaller projects this is most likely not a practical avenue to pursue.

A few additional notes:

  • Just because you are volunteering with an organization in Ethiopia, or have an agreement with an organization working in Ethiopia, that does not mean you have ethics approval from national authorities to conduct research. There is a grey area for those working within/for organizations obtaining ethics approval. For the most part, organizational activities are approved by Government of Ethiopia authorities that monitor and regulate (I)NGO activity. As a volunteer or quasi-partner of that organization, your research activities may or may not fall within those government-approved activities.
  • It is highly recommended that you obtain ethics approval, not only for the legality of it, but also because this will enhance your research engagement with other governmental authorities, who will be far more likely to support your research when they know it has been approved by federal and regional authorities (i.e. the responsibility is no longer on their shoulders for having research conducted in their area of responsibility, but upon the one that approved it). Having federal or regional support almost always improves relations at the district (woreda) and sub-district (kebele) government levels.
  • If you are conducting research that you feel the government would never approve, and requires some clandestine research activity, due recall that in many countries this is not only breaking laws, but can be considered espionage (or terrorist-supporting activity). Arrests have been made for activity of this sort in Ethiopia, and those thinking of heading down roads such as these may research the topic further to understand the gravity of the risks involved.
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Logan Cochrane

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