I think by now everyone must be sick of talking about ethics for experiments and quantitative research, as it has pretty much been beaten to death. But the world of ethics in qualitative research is a whole different beast! Whilst ethics for quantitative research may be fairly blatant on the face of it (i.e. if you are jamming electrodes into the eyes of your participants whilst they are strapped to a chair writhing in pain, something has probably gone wrong somewhere), ethics for qualitative research is much more subtle, especially as methods use, such as interviews, involve just talking to someone, and I mean how much harm can talking do? Well, to quote JD off scrubs “sticks and stones will break my bones but words will hurt forever”. This article (Ethics of Qualitative Research) outlines the fact that ethics in qualitative research are seldom talked about and offers a possible explanation; basically it is assumed that no harm to participants comes from qualitative research. But this cannot be right. Surely it is naïve and dangerous, let alone unscientific, to not even consider ethical concerns before conducting studies.
I must point you to the BPS Code of Ethics and Conduct (yes, I’m sorry it comes up in practically every one of my blogs, but hey, it’s flippin’ important), in particular 1.3 on page 12; The Standard of Informed Consent. This basically says that participants must be given the opportunity to be informed about the study before taking part. However this raises issues in qualitative research, particularly with interviews. Interviews can be considered living breathing creatures that, whilst remaining goal orientated, can be very fluid (pretty sure Tracey talked about this on Monday). This means that you may have the opportunity to ask questions that are not on your plan. So how can you give informed consent if the researcher may not even know some of the questions being asked? This Link identifies the fluid nature of interviews, and also poses solutions. Highly trained interviewers must be used, and these people can use their skilled judgement to protect the participants. The link also highlights potential problems with the interview technique; whilst trained interviewers are good, it takes a lot of time and effort to train them to the appropriate level. At the end of the day though, whilst informed consent is important for research to remain ethical, it seems that a lot of people’s hard work goes to waste. This article shows that basically people just read through consent forms willy nilly and just tick the yes box. This again shows the age old issue of are we too focused on ethics … blah blah blah
One area where qualitative researchers must be particularly careful is with bias in interpreting results. As we know, analysis of qualitative data such as Content Analyses require interpretation by the marker, and this brings in problems with reliability and such. One way to guard against bias is to use Inter-rater Reliability. If two or more researchers get significantly similar results, then you can be pretty sure that your measure is reliable. Whilst personal bias may play a small part still, it is greatly reduced and you can be more confident in your results.
Overall, qualitative research methods may appear to have not many ethical issues, and this article used above shows that many people just disregard ethics anyway. But when you delve deeper, it is actually a minefield of do’s and don’ts.