Ethics and epistemic injustice in the Global South: A response to Hopman’s human rights exceptionalism as justification for covert research

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This article investigates the risk of epistemic injustice in conducting sociolegal research in Global South contexts. Diving into the ethical imperatives of honouring knowledge, agency, and voice, we challenge extractive research practices and reframe participants as active, legitimate bearers of knowledge.

Covert research is a highly controversial research practice which bypasses the right to informed consent of participants. Marieke Hopman’s article titled ‘Covert Qualitative Research as a Method to Study Human Rights Under Authoritarian Regimes’ advocates for covert research in the field of human rights, provided this covert research passes her proposed ‘ethical test’. We argue that this test permits and requires practices of knowledge-making which unjustly silence, undervalue, and exclude the capacity of systematically marginalised communities to produce knowledge claims.

Hopman’s ethical test requires researchers to translate participants’ testimonies and situated knowledge into a doctrinal human rights framework, which comes with certain onto-epistemological assumptions which may not be shared by participants. Her approach frustrates research participants’ agency in choosing their own epistemic projects. Finally, her test exacerbates structural inequalities between the Global North and Global South by reinforcing unequal power relations.

We advocate for a situated ethics approach to mitigate epistemic injustice in socio-legal research in the Global South. Cross-cultural ethical dialogue between western and non-hegemonic ethics on a non-hierarchical and equal basis can contribute to building ‘intercultural ethics’. Reflexivity – where researchers critically examine their worldviews and social position throughout the research process – can ensure greater accountability and integrity. Reciprocity – building mutual research relationships and producing research useful to the researched – can help shift the power imbalance between the researcher and researched.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)347-373
Number of pages27
JournalJournal of Human Rights Practice
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - Jul 2023


  • Covert Research
  • Epistemic Injustice
  • Ethics
  • Global South
  • Decoloniality


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