Reflexivity, controversy and ethics are all a big part of a research. But how does an academic decide what is right and what is wrong? What are the ethical issues that a researcher faces during the course of their research? Is it considered okay for an individual to cross boundaries of morals and principles in the name of research? And who decides if a certain research practice is ethical or otherwise?
Qualitative research, broadly defined, is the kind of research where data is produced with the researcher in close contact with the participants. This may be a long-term or a short-term relationship and may involve interviews, observation or analysis of unstructured data (Hammersley & Traianou 2012). The need of ethos in qualitative researcher is given a lot of importance due to the bond shared by the researcher and participants. Having said that, it is important to note that ethical research is not only confined to qualitative methods of analysis. It is also not confined to research that involves only humans. “Ethical issues are equally pertinent in clinical trials that are primarily quantitative, in research that involves animals rather than humans, in research that involves humans only indirectly and even in nonempirical research where the indirect or long-term consequences can be significant” (Guillemin & Gillam 2004: 262). However, given the nature of my dissertation topic I am to use a qualitative method of analysis; and in order to gain perspective on the probable ethical tension that may (or may not) arise during the course of my research I plan to focus on the said method of analysis.
Hammersley & Traianou (2012: 1) indicate that there is a common tendency to examine research ethics largely on how researchers behave with the people they study “often being conceptualised in terms of protecting rights and interests” for example respecting and protecting their privacy. Research – particularly qualitative research – requires great levels of involvement from the researcher as well the participants. And though I understand the need to associate research ethics to the participants well-being, I wonder if researchers are given any acknowledgement since they are required to “pursue research in ways that answer worthwhile questions to the required level of likely validity” (Hammersley & Traianou 2012: 2). I believe that ethics should not be limited to the mere process since it is also extensively related to the researchers’ personal learnings.
The concern for research ethics has been a hot topic for methodological reflection for many years. But along with technology this concern has also risen. Today, research methods may include analysis of data such as digital photography, virtual materials, digital forums like Reddit etc. Because of the possible immateriality of such data there have been increasing concerns on how researchers use, re-use and archive this data.
Ethics in qualitative research has different elements attached to it. One of them is Procedural Ethics. This is the kind of ethics that usually exists in the early stages of the research process and involves the completion of an application form which is then reviewed by a research ethics committee (Guillemin & Gillam 2004). For a researcher this is usually a uninteresting process and is treated as a mere formality. As an academic I can see why this would be considered as a boring and bureaucratic step; however it’s importance can not understated. By completing an ethics form a researcher receives credibility and validity. As an MA student I too was asked to fill out an ethics form prior to collecting and analyzing visual materials. It gave my work sincerity and integrity. In a parallel universe where procedural ethics do not exist there are probably people standing in the middle of the street trying to survey random bystanders.
Procedural ethics – though crucial – fail to anticipate ethical dilemmas that an academic may face during the course of his/ her research. It isn’t possible to predict such situations and this is one of the limitations of procedural ethics. Another dimension to ethics in qualitative research is Ethics in Practice. These are pertinent to ethical issues that may arise between the researcher and participants and relate to issues like confidentiality and privacy. “These are issues about the ethical obligations a researcher has toward a research participant in terms of interacting with him or her in a humane, nonexploitative way while at the same time being mindful of one’s role as a researcher” (Guillemin & Gillam 2004: 264).
Guillemin & Gillam (2004: 265) further illustrate how ethics in practice have certain “ethically important moments” i.e. situations where a researcher may take a relatively insensitive approach whilst ignoring the ethical consequences involved. I believe that a researchers’ behaviour towards such ethically important moments directly link back to his/ her personal ethics.
An individuals personal ethics form their subjectivity. The approach taken by a researcher in a testing situation of ethics in practice is largely associated with their education, ethnicity, upbringing and identity. “A researcher’s willingness to acknowledge the ethical dimension of research practice, his or her ability to actually recognise this ethical dimension when it comes to play, and his or her ability to think through ethical issues and respond appropriately” (Guillemin & Gillam (2004: 269) are embedded into their subjectivity.
As I mentioned earlier my understanding of the necessity of ethical research is related to learning, more so than process. An understanding of a research process as a whole has a lot to do with reflexivity. For a researcher being reflexive involves reflecting upon one’s own ideas and values while simultaneously considering how these might affect their research (Pillow 2003). This process is parallel to the reflexive process itself, in the approach and validity of the subject of research. “The goal of being reflexive in this sense has to do with improving the quality and validity of the research and recognising the limitations of the knowledge that is produced, thus leading to a more rigorous research” (Guillemin & Gillam 2004: 275).
Reflexivity does not necessarily define what a researcher should read, write, feel or state. Instead, it acts as a sentient bed and makes a researchers work surreal.
- Guillemin, M. and Gillam, L. (2004) Ethics, Reflexivity and Ethically Important Moments in Research. Qualitative Inquiry 10 (2), 261-280
- Hammersley, M. and Traianou, A. (2012) Ethics in Qualitative Research. London: Sage Publications
- Pillow, W. (2003) ‘Confession, Catharsis or Cure? Rethinking the use of Reflexivity as Methodological Power in Qualitative Research’. International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education 16 (2), 175-196