My good old friend ethics (the world looks scary from inside my comfy box)

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.


About intelligencepluscharacter

I am currently a student at Bangor university, but home is in Maidenhead. I was born and raised in Suffolk and lived there till I was 17. I enjoy playing golf, and got a summer job behind the bar at a golf club (meaning free golf and driving range). Ultimate life plans involve something to do with planes.
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9 Responses to My good old friend ethics (the world looks scary from inside my comfy box)

  1. laf1993 says:

    Intresting topic and not one I had really considered as a stand-alone discussion. Think you could of discussed more each approriate individual ethical concern and taken examples from the paper instead of having to read it all the way through, though it was quite intresting (but this is the first blog I’ve read today :)) Maybe you could have considered ethical concerns such as harm and distress. Being interivewed about some topics are sure to bring about often negative emotions, or even if they bring about posiitve emotions you are still altering mood which is still technically unethical. But good blog. Love the scrubs quote 🙂

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  3. psychrsjb says:

    Very interesting read however you say there are a minefield of do’s and don’t’s but how does its ethical basis hold up to its counterpart quantitative method design. Quantitative method as Im sure you know well uses numbers and scales to gather data. When using this it is often the case that the participant doesn’t really fully know what the researchers aims are and so the stress caused to the participant is minimal and one question is not overly related to the rest. This means that the content of the study never really overwhelms participates. However surely qualitative has to potential to be more unethical due to the stress put on the participate. For example in an interview as you said the research will think of questions on the spot that leads from the last and so the intensity of recall especially in a sensitive topic is greater because its more apparent to the participant what the researcher is trying to discover. This isn’t only an ethical issue but a validity one as well. So despite the ethics being there in qualitative design if we are really concerned with the participants well being surely a quantitative method is the more favoured choice and so the only way to go.

  4. psuc1b says:

    Interesting point about informed consent for fluid, semi-structured interviews; definitely not one I’d considered before. You are right that in such a situation informed consent is nearly impossible; but if, as you also say, participants don’t tend to really read the consent forms, how can we ever get informed consent?
    Whenever the issue of informed consent comes up I always think that the researcher should take more responsibility. If a fluid interview did take an unexpected turn that was causing the participant serious distress then surely the researcher has a responsibility to end or suspend the interview? When we discussed Milgram’s study in class, there was a description of a man who was so distressed by the task that nearing the end of the experiment he was in obvious distress and was said to be on the edge of a nervous breakdown. I found it incredible that the researchers did not stop the experiment if his distress was so clearly severe.
    Just a thought anyway; should experimenters take more responsibility for their participants welfare during an experiment? Or is it up to the participant to stop the experiment if they feel distressed?

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  8. bloggenrolla says:

    Right well firstly qualitative research has a pretty chequered past when it comes to ethics, Zimbardo anyone? (

    Secondly, informed consent is, as I see it, hampering scientific research. Take a look at the famous Milgram experiment for example ( If Milgram had given the participants informed consent then there wouldn’t have been any findings. Deception was key to his findings and as we know, Milgram’s findings are very important in the understanding of people’s reactions to authority figures. If Milgram had been held back by informed consent then the effects he measured would be unknown to the world of science. I personally would much rather see more scientifically useful research than a ticked box saying the participant understands my study.

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