SuttaCentral

Advice needed for monastery protocol dealing with researchers/academics


#1

I’m part of a fairly large Buddhist monastic organization in a country that is seeing an upsurge in access for foreigners to visit. We recently had a university student approach one of our monks with the intention of studying our organization. I’m curious

  1. Do you have experience with an organizational policy dealing with researchers/academics?
  2. Do you have experience from the academic side, especially as supervisors for students?

I checked out this student’s program and it’s an undergrad study abroad programme based in India. So it’s all legit from that side.

Is it odd that he would not have tried to contact our organization officially rather than just showing up at one of our monasteries? It’s very easy to find us on line.

I have some concerns about the privacy of the monastics that may be approached. I’m also concerned about misinformation about the org being published on-line. It appears that in this case since it is just an undergrad project it won’t be published anywhere, but I did uni before the WWW, so I don’t have any idea about what current practices are.

Any thoughts? Would any “legitimate” academic have contacted us officially first? I don’t have all the details, but this didn’t seem to be just someone wanting to talk to a monk, but rather study our organization specifically. And would a legit researcher always identify themselves as such first?

Do you think our organization should have a a policy that monks should refer all researchers to the central office before talking to anyone? Is there a such thing as “talking on background” to academics like there would be for press? Can one agree to talk but request anonymity?

Is there an agreed upon set of ethical guidelines that researchers are bound to follow when in a foreign country?


#2

Your situation may be different but here are a few considerations. I’ve had a little to do with this, from both sides the organisational, Ive both been on placement and conducted research as a student, I’ve also supervised students, as well as being on a research ethics committee.

Where academic institutions require this kind of study, there is usually an accompanying set of guidelines, a proposal and formal agreements, depending on the nature or depth of study.

As part of an organisation, we would look at the degree of preparedness of the applicant. EG when I was part of a hospital, we had a committee that had to assess each application to conduct study, and a set of criteria against which they were assessed. At another NFP organisation, while there were no such formal processes, all such requests still had to go through program management level. Where student outcomes are dependent on input from staff, such as supervision, or resources from the organisation, then normally a formal agreement is entered upon between the academic institution and the ‘host’ organisation and allocated supervisors.

For what it is worth, it is unlikely that an undergrad program would expect this kind of rigour. It may just be worth asking the student if they have come up with the idea themselves, or to ask for an academic supervisor contact.

As a start, I’d expect a written proposal that addresses the purpose of the research, details of the methods to be used, what resources, the amount of time and/or type of access to staff/members of the organisation/monastery being requested, how the collected materials/data will be stored and how the findings will be used. From here you can actually start to discuss and evaluate it. The more in depth or complex the research, the more detailed the proposal and agreements would be. If it is something very small it may be a few paragraphs.


#3

I find it odd. At the university where I used to teach academics and graduate research students were required to submit all their planned research projects to the University Research Ethics Committee and this involved much form filling and strict protocols. Undergraduates had to comply with a simpler and faster process with their faculties which was still rigorous. The intention was that their work would be conducted ethically and they would be trained from the start to follow correct protocols. Even in the bad old days when I was a student there was the expectation that we would go somewhere armed with a letter of introduction from our academic supervisor.


#4

@Viveka and @Gillian, Thank you so much for this information. It’s exactly what I was after. I’m checking with the monk to see if the student offered any kind of letter.

I’m starting to think that in this case the study abroad programme just has this self study component to get the students out of a classroom. It probably doesn’t even rise to the level of calling it research. But I am curious about the situation in general.

What’s puzzling to me, though, is that the programme is based in Bodh Gaya for three months, and they actually send students to regional Buddhist countries. So I would have thought that they would be a bit more formal.

In any case if it turns out that the programme provided the student with no letter of introduction and there was no higher level contact with our org, I am absolutely going to contact the managers and see what’s going on.


#5

Did you contact the university? I’d think that would be a good way to see if he’s legit or not. If that checks out then checking his passport to see if he is who he’s claiming to be could help too.


#6

While contacting the university is a good idea, I can say from experience that demanding the visitor’s passport to prove their identity is not only rude, it doesn’t address the actual concern. The likelihood they’re lying about their identity is very low compared to the probability that they are incompetent. To assess that, you’ll be better served having a more casual relationship with the individual, which such open distrust as demanding a passport might sour.

My two cents, at least.


#7

I think you are right that seeing the passport is not necessary. However, travelling around I’m always surprised that some places demand to see it. Technically in this country foreigners are required to carry it on them on all times.


#8

It’s not uncommon that research institutions are interested in monastic communities. If the student is studying religion, philosophy, ethics or psychology, it makes sense that a monastery would seem like a good case study to them. Depending on the nature of his project, (which is unstated) it might not need to be exceptionally rigorous —its only an undergraduate project—and it might just be more general, or even personal.

It’s hard to tell from your post if the student was being deceptive and didn’t identify his academic interest? It seems more likely that he is just being a bit casual about it, and probably not malicious.

Monks still have human rights and personal freedom to express their views!!! They can talk to people if they want. They shouldn’t need to have permission to speak.

This seems unnecessarily fearful. Transparency, openness and willingness to be scrutinized is part of a religious community’s function, otherwise it would be like a secretive cult which has things to hide or fears criticism.

I have a conversation with someone from a university this week who just wants to get a better insight into Buddhism, religious identities and contemporary spirituality. I’ve had these conversations with others before from students and researchers. And strangers! I see it as part my role as a monk to help non-Buddhists understand us more, and it’s much better to engage in conversation willingly than presume the worst or get defensive or shut them out.


#9

Virtually all institutions of higher education have institutional review boards that approve research on human subjects to make sure that research subjects can give informed consent and are not exposed to physical or psychological harm.


#10

It might just come down to whether this individual is enquiring on his own behalf or on behalf of his institution. It’s reasonable to respond to individuals more informally than to institutions. But then an individual might reasonably feel they shouldn’t withhold their institutional affiliation, even if it is a loose one.

Also, are they enquiring about Buddhist beliefs in general, or is ‘the intention of studying our organization’ a serious, indepth, intrusive one. The two approaches might warrant different responses.


#11

Thanks to everyone for all the responses.

To clarify, I’m really asking about two different things.

First I wanted to get people’s take on the specific contact that has just been made. From people’s responses I am concluding that this person approaching us in this way is indeed flaky, however flaky is what to expect from undergrad work.

This person did indeed give us the name of the university and a link to the international programme they are doing. What I heard from the monk he approached was indeed that he “wanted to study our organization.” Of course if he said he just wanted to talk to a monk about Buddhism I would have never made this thread. But “study your organization” does sound intrusive.

I’m aware of the long history of “western” academics “studying” people from other cultures in an unethical way and so my immediate read of the flakyness was in the context of a history of negligence. In general I interpret flakyness as a moral failing, but that’s a deeper personal issue not suitable for this thread. :man_shrugging:t3:

The second thing that I was after was how we should approach inquiries that are indeed going to be more intrusive. From what folks have written, it sounds like if someone is ever going to be approaching us in that way, chances are that they would indeed be following standard protocol of making official contact and not just walking up to one of our monks and saying “I want to study your organization.” I mean, even the Martians say, “Take me to your leader” don’t they? :alien::question::question::question:

One thing that folks may not be aware of is that in the Asian culture I’m in now, for example, lay people rarely ask monks personal questions (what did you do in lay life?, why did you ordain?). However westerners tend to ask these questions immediately. So monks may not be accustomed to answering these questions and I would not be happy if someone was asking as part of some study or research without talking to our main office first.
Thanks for all the ideas! If you have anything else that might be helpful you could DM me.


closed #12