Bailey, C. A. (2007). A Guide to Qualitative Field Research 2nd Edition
Chapter 2, Ethical Issues in Qualitative Field Research
Ethical considerations pervade every aspect of the filed research process. To guide the ethical difficulties researchers face, professional organizations have established codes to guide the process of making ethical decisions. There are three major ethical concerns that field researchers face: informed consent, deception, and confidentiality.
In many research contexts, ethical research on human subjects requires informed consent of the participants in the research. The ASA Code of Ethics discusses this concept in detail. Researchers “do not involve a human being as a subject in research without the informed consent of the subject or the subject’s legally authorized representative.” (American Sociological Association, 1999, p. 12). Moreover, the code states that informed consent is required of research subjects if the “data are collected from research participants through any form of communication, interaction, or intervention” (American Sociological Association, 1999, p. 12).
The obtain informed consent, the researcher must make potential participants aware of 11 pieces of information regarding the research and making sure to use language that is understandable to the participants:
- that they are participating in research
- the purpose of the research
- the procedures used during the research
- the risks and benefits of the research
- the voluntary nature of the research participation
- their right to stop the research at any time
- the procedures used to protect confidentiality
- their right to have all their questions answered at any time
- other information relevant to the participants
- what is required of them if they consent to participate
- that refusal to participate or withdraw at any time will lead to no foreseeable consequences (American Sociological Association, 1999, p. 13).
For research requiring a great deal of involvement form the participants, such as multiple interviews, and prolonged observations, Institutional Review Boards suggest that they be told about their involvement well in advanced of starting the research.
However, not so clear cut is when the researcher does not have to obtain informed consent if the “research involves no more than minimal risk for research participants” and “the research could not practically be carried out were informed consent to be required” (American Sociological Association, 1999, p. 12). Another exemption involves research conducted in public places.
Deception results when people are not told they are participating in a study, are misled about the purpose or details of the research, or are not aware of the correct identity or status of the researcher. Gans (1962) expressed his view, “If the researcher is completely honest with people about his activities, they will try to hide actions and attitudes they consider undesirable, and so will be dishonest. Consequently, the researcher must be dishonest to get honest data (p. 42). For example, covert researchis conducted without those in the setting being aware of the researcher’s dual roles—participant and researcher. If the members in the setting are aware of the dual roles, the research is classified as overt research.
Referring to deception, the ASA states “[S]ociologists do not use deceptive techniques”…“Sociologists never deceive research participants about significant aspects of the research that would affect their willingness to participate, such as physical risks, discomfort, or unpleasant emotional experiences”. However, deception can be considered ethical if: (a) the deception will not harm the participants; (b) the deception is justified by the study’s value; (c) alternative procedures are not possible, and; (d) the research has the approval of an Institutional Review Board. If these conditions are met and deception deemed a needed feature of the research design, the code requires that researchers, “attempt to correct any misconceptions that research participants may have no later than at the conclusion of the research” (American Sociological Association, 1999, p. 14).
The final ethical consideration regarding research directly interacting with subjects is confidentiality of subjects and protecting their anonymity. This is when the researcher does not identify the participants in the study. However, maintaining confidentiality becomes particularly problematic when authorities think the researcher has knowledge that a law has been violated. The code states that the researcher should either (a) not do the research or (b) indicate clearly on the informed consent and discuss thoroughly with participants that if faced with legal threat, you will break confidentiality.
1) Review the scenario on pages 26 and 27 regarding Van Maanen. Should have Van Maanen reported the incident or not? Explain your response, citing the ASA code.
2) Regarding a sample field research idea, state the topic of research and answer the following questions:
a. Is informed consent required?
b. If so, who in the setting with receive the informed consent?
c. What will be included in the informed consent?
d. Will the research be covert and include the deception to prevent reactivity?
e. How will the confidentiality of the participants in the setting be protected?