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Therapeutic research in low-income countries: studying trial communities
  1. Susan Reynolds Whyte
  1. Correspondence to Dr Susan Reynolds Whyte, Department of Anthropology, University of Copenhagen, Oester Farimagsgade 5, Copenhagen DK-1353, Denmark; susan.reynolds.whyte{at}


Social scientists undertaking studies of transnational medical research in developing countries focus on ‘trial communities’: networks of funders, institutions, researchers, clinical staff, fieldworkers and study participants. They relate these to the political economy that brings powerful research resources to poor settings. Whereas bioethicists tend to consider universal ethical requirements, social scientists examine how ethics are practiced in given situations in the light of the concerns and interests held by different parties involved in medical research. In conditions of poverty, high morbidity and weak public health services, research subjects are heavily induced by the prospect of high quality medical care and other benefits that researchers seem to offer. Studies of medical research undertaken by well-established internationally funded institutions in Africa show that parents are keen to have their children ‘join’ projects at these organisations. They assess benefits and risks less in terms of specific research projects and more in terms of their overall trust in the care these institutions are known to have provided previously for others in the community. Bioethics should widen its scope beyond concern with protecting individual subjects from the risks of specific research projects. It should recognise that clinical and research functions are indistinguishable for many participants, who want information on results of clinical investigations and sustained support for improving the health of their children.

  • community child health
  • ethics
  • patient perspective
  • qualitative research

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