(Bailey) A Guide to Qualitative Field Research. Chapters 2-4 [Lisa]

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). 

Informed Consent

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:

  1. that they are participating in research
  2. the purpose of the research
  3. the procedures used during the research
  4. the risks and benefits of the research
  5. the voluntary nature of the research participation
  6. their right to stop the research at any time
  7. the procedures used to protect confidentiality
  8. their right to have all their questions answered at any time
  9. other information relevant to the participants
  10. what is required of them if they consent to participate
  11. 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.

Discussion Questions:

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?


12 thoughts on “(Bailey) A Guide to Qualitative Field Research. Chapters 2-4 [Lisa]

  1. Informed consent is not neccesary if “research involves minimal risk for research participants” and “the research could not practically be carried out were informed consent would be required.” Who makes this decision?

    • Lurena, I would guess that the institution’s IRB would make this determination (if there is one available). For instance, my campus does not have one. We just recently instituted an Institutional Research and Effectiveness committee. It is that committee’s responsibility and charge to create policies around this area.

  2. 1) According to ASA Code of Ethics, researchers must ensure the confidentiality and the rights of the participants (ASA, 1999). Based on these ethics and the fact that prior to the study the participants were not given a limited confidentiality contract to sign, Van Maanen is faced with a difficult decision. Personally I feel that moral obligations outweigh the confidentiality of the participants in study, and the grossly negligent and corrupt behavior of the police officers should have been reported. In Van Maanen’s case however, I am not entirely sure based on this brief description of the incident that I would have said anything. Out of context the author is making the cops to seem like they have abused their power, but without knowing the entire situation I would have to withhold judgement. Were the cops lives ever in danger, or was it just an abuse of power? If this is a case that these two police officers were just abusing their power, then yes I believe I would not protect their innocence because I promised to be confidential.
    2) A church where members handle snakes as part of their religious rituals
    a. Is informed consent required?
    yes, participants must agree that they are volunteering in this “ritual” and that they understand the risks of engaging in this activity as well as their ability to stop with the activity at any time.
    b. If so, who in the setting will receive the informed consent?
    Any member participating, or observing in the activity should be required to give their consent, due to the physical and psychological effects it may have on the participants and the “true” focus of the research.
    c. What will be included in the informed consent?
    A good informed consent will not only include the highlighted 11 key criteria, but explain to those consenting to the research that the confidentiality of the participants could be removed if there is potential legal action or the children’s lives are put into danger.
    d. Will the research be covert and include the deception to prevent reactivity?
    Depending on the questions that are to be answered in the research would determine if the research will be done covertly or overtly. I would anticipate that this religious ritual and its true purpose would be some sort of a mystery, and covert observations would be needed to see what is truly occurring during the ritual.
    e. How will the confidentiality of the participants in the setting be protected?
    If full-confidentiality is given by the researchers, than observations of illegal actions being performed on the participants by person with social power and control could not be used to testify against the participants. This follows many of the examples in the chapter where clear violations of people’s rights were not protected because of confidentiality technicalities.

  3. It’s a very interesting dilemma. I would like to know more about the purpose of studying the police department. Was the purpose to research and chronicle police brutality? If so, not reporting the incident as part of the research defeats the purpose of the study.

    On the other hand, if the purpose of the study was to focus on something more mechanical such as time responding to incidents and writing tickets, then perhaps the scenario on pages 26 and 27 (regarding Van Maanen) may not something to report. Still, I would also need to know: 1. if the person posed a threat to the officers; 2. if force was needed to subdue the person; 3. if the person survived; 4. the risks and benefits of the research; and 5. the procedures agreed upon and listed to protect confidentiality.

  4. I think the very notion of “covert research” or “deception” as a necessary part of any study is in no way consistent with any conception of ethical research. Participants in any study should have a precise understanding of the relationship they have with the researcher and the institution they represent. Establishing a precedent where “deception is ethical” if participants will not suffer physical harm, is “justified,” and where alternatives are not possible is nonsensical. The second and third criterions will inevitably lead to the researchers to the doorstep of the logical fallacy “begging the question” in order to get past IRB!

    • I’m not sure I agree with you Daniel, the book we looked at this week, My Freshman Year, does have some form of deception in it. The author/ethnographer was not in reality a freshman student. She did have to have some form of deception – she did not tell people she was a university professor or someone with advanced degrees. While she tried to be as honest as possible and did have to share her true identity a few times, no one knew who she really was as far as the observations of her ethnography went. She did do the official process for the few interviews that she conducted. So I think perhaps there is room for some type of deception under the right conditions.

      • The negative connotation of “deception” might be leading some people to reject the possibility of a scenario in field research where some type of covert research is indeed necessary. The ability to deceive in essence is to intentionally “trick” or mislead subjects from the truth which in turn feels like the antithesis of the the lofty goal of discovering truth via research. It’s an interesting quandary. Do the means justify the ends? This is an important topic of debate and reflection.

    • I don’t necessarily agree; I think deception can be justified in many cases where no harm is involved. When drugs are field tested, there is always a group who gets the fancy sugar pill. This is a form of deception, but is accepted as a part of standard practice to test new drugs. A friend of mine conducted a lengthy sociological study where she went to many tea party events. This same friend’s political views can roughly be described as somewhere around Trotsky’s. Was the fact that she didn’t disclose her personal views deception, even though doing so would have put subjects on their guard when she interacted with them?

  5. Conducting a study that involves patients to watch short snippets of comedies and video tape tape their facial expressions.
    a. Is informed consent required?
    Yes- they may be subject to fould language and content that may be offensive. Plus, informing them they can withdraw at any point.
    b. If so, who in the setting with receive the informed consent?
    All paricipants viewing the short snippets and any observer.
    c. What will be included in the informed consent?
    Criteria and confidentiality of results. Assistance with counseling and psychological services if content has any adverse effects on them.
    d. Will the research be covert and include the deception to prevent reactivity?
    Covert activity in order to get true responses to the movie clips.
    e. How will the confidentiality of the participants in the setting be protected? Full confidntiality as to protect the participants

  6. Although I understand where you’re coming from, Daniel, I agree with Donna. I think that there is a place for, under certain circumstances, when covert research is necessary in order to obtain the kind of insight that is needed to answer your research question(s).

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