Ethical issues in the research process
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Understanding ethical concerns and dilemmas in conducting research
Ethical issues arise throughout any piece of social research, and we would encourage you to include a discussion of ethical issues as and when they arise, throughout any training workshop using this manual. Ethical issues often shade into political ones, and there are also close links between ethical concerns and issues around participation. Ethical issues also shade into questions of trust: since 'the researcher is the research instrument' in some important ways, the reader and/or user of qualitative research needs to be able to trust the researcher to have followed the appropriate procedures. In each of the other sessions we have tried to highlight such concerns. But you may also want to devote a specific session to considering ethical issues. It would be easy to spend a half day on this topic, and not difficult to programme a full day's activities. Here we have restricted ourselves to an introduction to ethical issues in a relatively narrow sense, with suggestions for further readings later.
Time: 60-90 minutes
To introduce participants to key ethical concerns in the design or a piece of qualitative research, and in the processes of data collection, data management, data analysis and publication, with particular reference to:
- What is informed consent? When is it essential, and how should it be gathered?
- What are the benefits and costs of written consent forms, and when should they be used?
- How to avoid harm to respondents
- The uses of anonymising data and the maintenance of confidentiality
- Reciprocity in research relationships
- Reflexivity and ethics
By the end of this session, participants should have reflected on the various dilemmas that may be encountered in the field and how to manage them -- and be aware that for many of these dilemmas there is no 'right' or simple solution.
Handouts of all (or extracts from) relevant research council and professional association guidelines or ethical codes. Some examples are available on line: for example the British Sociological Association http://www.britsoc.co.uk/equality/Statement+Ethical+Practice.htm;
The Social Research Association http://www.the-sra.org.uk/ethical.htm;
National Committee for Ethics in Social Science Research in Health (NCESSRH), India http://www.cehat.org/publications/ethical2.html;
The use of written consent might not be appropriate in all research settings and contexts. You might find our handout on Taking Informed Consent and further readings useful for facilitating discussions about the limits and possibilities of consent forms and other approaches to seeking participant consent.
- Brainstorm (either in small groups or in full session) about the kinds of issues that people think are important with respect to ethics in social research generally. Then go through the list that emerges and ask which of these raise special concerns in qualitative social research (10 minutes).
- Hand out (or put up on a slide) examples of consent forms and ask people to reflect on their strengths and weaknesses for qualitative social research in your settings (10 minutes)
- (If this session is near the end of the workshop): Review the suggestions for anonymising household census, interview, focus group and fieldnote data, and for ensuring the confidentiality of data in hard copy and in electronic versions. (10 minutes)
- (If this session is near the beginning of the workshop): Raise the issues of how and when to anonymise data and how to ensure their security: (20 minutes)
- Brainstorm on the experience of participants about whether or not to 'pay' informants (10 minutes)
- Handout the Ethics of poverty research paper from the Chronic Poverty Research Consortium (or another relevant summary statement) and give people time to read it and discuss it in small groups (10 minutes). Then take 15 minutes to discuss as a whole group any further issues that arise.
The UK's main social science funding body, the Economic and Social Research Council, has a detailed statement on research ethics with a checklist of things to do: this can be found at http://www.esrc.ac.uk/ESRCInfoCentre/Images/ESRC_Re_Ethics_Frame_tcm6-11291.pdf
The Social Research Association web-site has a further discussion on ethical issues and current debates: http://www.the-sra.org.uk/ethical.htm
The Association of Social Anthropologists also has an active debate on ethical issues: see http://www.theasa.org/ethics.htm
For an example of an ethical review procedure that has been introduced in a British University, see http://www.sps.ed.ac.uk/admin/info_research/ethics
Further reading on ethical issues in social research:
- Creed-Kanashiro H, Oré B, Scurrah M, Gil A, and Penny M (2005) Conducting Research in Developing Countries: Experiences of the Informed Consent Process from Community Studies in Peru The Journal of Nutrition 135:925-928, April . Free-online access here: 
Abstract: This article discusses the process for obtaining genuine informed consent for the participation of human subjects in research in developing countries. We discuss the consent process in the light of recently published guidelines, the experience of nutrition and health research projects, and the ethics review process of the Instituto de Investigación Nutricional with peri-urban and rural populations in Peru. We discuss the cultural context in relation to (i) who should be involved in the decision for participation, especially for research in children and in community settings; (ii) when to use written or verbal consent; (iii) the format and presentation of the consent form to ensure understanding by the target population; and (iv) the process of how and by whom information is given and consent is obtained. Common concerns of participants with regard to their involvement in research studies are presented, as well as aspects that participants find difficult to understand. Some specific concerns of conducting research with Indigenous Peoples are discussed. We recommend future research to further understand and implement informed consent processes to assure genuine and voluntary consent in different developing country contexts.
- Upvall, M (2001) Negotiating the informed-consent process in developing countries: a comparison of Swaziland and Pakistan International Nursing Review 8(3):188-192, September
Abstract: Protecting the rights of research participants when conducting studies within an international context presents many challenges. The purpose of this article was to compare and contrast the process of obtaining informed consent in two very different countries - Swaziland and Pakistan. Major aspects of the informed-consent process presented included identification of gatekeepers, seeking permission from officials, negotiating with these officials and Institutional Review Board (IRB) committees in regard to the type of data to be collected, and explaining informed consent to participants in the field. Data for this article is based upon qualitative research of collaboration between nurses and healers in Swaziland and from a variety of studies completed in Pakistan. These studies demonstrate the inadequacy and complexity of applying western-based concepts of informed consent to developing countries.
- Riessman, C (2005) Exporting ethics: a narrative about narrative research in South India Health Vol. 9, No. 4, 473-490
Abstract: The article notes some problems with the prepositional discourse of research ethics that is dominant in the West, and joins the call for an ethics-in-context approach in the human sciences. Using detailed examples from my fieldwork in South India to develop a narrative about ethical conflicts, I explore the problematics of informed consent, confidentiality and other concepts central to research ethics in the USA. The article underscores the inherent and practical risks associated with ethical universalism - applying ‘universal’ moral principles that have been constructed (that is, derived) in one cultural context and exporting them, without modifications, to another. The personal narrative includes my emotions in the field; they do moral work. The article draws theoretically from Bakhtin, Rabinow and feminist scholars of the Indian diaspora.
- Rashad A M, MacVane Phipps F, and Haith-Cooper M, (2004) Obtaining Informed Consent in an Egyptian Research Study Nursing Ethics Vol. 11, No. 4, 394-399
Abstract: This article explores the concept of internationally acceptable codes of ethics within the context of an Egyptian nurse’s PhD studies. Theoretical work, including gaining ethical approval for the project, took place in the UK, while the data collection phase of the study was done in Egypt. This highlighted areas where the Arab Muslim interpretation of some ethical principles, especially around the issue of gaining informed consent, differed from that currently accepted in British research ethics. The authors argue that it may not be possible, or even desirable, to standardize codes of ethics globally in areas such as academic research. Ethical principles develop from a unique mix of culture and religion. It may be more important to develop cultural competence that includes the ability to understand and respect the way in which ethical principles are interpreted by various societies.
- Nama, N & Swartz, L (2002) 'Ethical and social dilemmas in community-based controlled trials in situations of poverty: A view from a South African project' Journal of community & applied social psychology vol. 12, no.4, pp. 286-297
Abstract: All psychological and social research presents ethical dilemmas, many of which centre around the difficulties which flow from the power imbalances between those conducting the research and the research respondents or participants. Issues of power are magnified in research undertaken in contexts of poverty, and there is a burgeoning literature on ethical issues in research in developing countries. In this article, we augment the existing literature by focusing on the experiences of an assessor working in a controlled trial of a mother-infant intervention in a poor South African community. We consider issues of community expectations, the presentation to our project of physical health problems, the issue of HIV/AIDS, cultural beliefs which impact on the research, child protection issues, and the tensions between research assessment and ubuntu-a cultural norm which requires helpful engagement with others. We suggest that our experiences may assist with the development of further research.
- Bray, R., & Gooskens, I. (2006) ‘Ethics and the everyday: Reconsidering approaches to research involving children and young people’, Anthropology Southern Africa vol.29 no.1, pp45-55.
available online: []
Abstract: Guidelines on ethical practice in research with children tend to focus on ways to protect children from potential economic and emotional exploitation. While such concerns deserve attention, we argue that they represent only a portion of the moral framework in which researchers and participants operate. Through an analysis of children’s engagement in a long term ethnographic study, where their participation involved both providing and gathering data, we show the interconnections between so-called ‘research activities’ and young people’s everyday decision-making. Children’s participation in research takes place within existing and emerging relationships. Decision-making based on values – on the part of both children and adults – is part and parcel of these relationships. This paper demonstrates the need to engage with children’s moral worlds seriously while planning and conducting social research.
- Lynch, K. (1999) ‘Equality studies, the academy and the role of research in emancipatory social change’, The Economic and Social Review, 30(1), 41-69
Available Online: []
Abstract: This paper analyses the role of research in relation to social change. It explores, in particular, the implications of utilising an emancipatory research methodology in the study of issues of equality and social justice. While recognising the difficulties involved in developing an emancipatory approach to research, it is argued that such an approach is analytically, politically, and ethically essential if research with marginalised and socially excluded groups is to have a transformative impact.
Singal, N., and Jeffery, R. (2008). Qualitative Research Skills Workshop: A Facilitator's Reference Manual, http://oer.educ.cam.ac.uk/wiki/RECOUP, Cambridge: RECOUP (Research Consortium on Educational Outcomes and Poverty, http://recoup.educ.cam.ac.uk/). CC BY-NC-SA 4.0. (original page)