Ethical Gifts?: An Analysis of Soap-for-data Transactions in Malawian Survey Research Worlds

An LSAM fieldworker checks a survey near a sample household


In 2008, thousands of Malawians received soap from an American research project as a gift for survey participation. Soap was deemed an ethical, non‐coercive gift by researchers and ethics boards, but took on meanings that expressed recipients’ grievances and aspirations. Research participants reframed soap and research benefits as “rights” they are entitled to, wages for “work,” and a symbol of exploitation. Enlisting the perspectives of Malawi’s ethics board, demographers, Malawian fieldworkers, and research participants, I describe how soap is spoken about and operates in research worlds. I suggest that neither a prescriptive nor a situated frame for ethics—with their investments in standardization and attention to context, respectively—provides answers about how to compensate Malawian research participants. The conclusion gestures toward a reparative framework for thinking ethics that is responsive not just to project‐based parameters but also to the histories and political economy in which projects (and ethics) are situated.