Exercise 1: Evaluating research plans in terms of ethical considerations

In this exercise, you are presented with three vignettes which describe plans for qualitative research studies developed by you or another researcher. You are invited to think about these plans in ethical terms and to identify ways in which the research could proceed in as ethical a way as possible.

To help you assess the research plans in ethical terms, consider the four basic principles specified in the British Psychological Society’s (2014) Code of Human Research Ethics:

  • Respect for the autonomy, privacy and dignity of individuals and communities
  • Scientific integrity
  • Social responsibility
  • Maximizing benefit and minimizing harm

You can also download the The British Psychological Society’s (2014) Code of Human Research Ethics.

See also the section in Chapter 3 entitled ‘Ethical considerations for fieldwork in qualitative research.’ You might also wish to consult Table 3.1 in that chapter which identifies a range of ethical issues and how they can be addressed.

Vignette 1

You are intending to conduct a qualitative study with a group of people who hear voices (that others around them aren’t hearing). In this study, you want to obtain people’s accounts of their experiences of hearing voices in order to get a sense of the meanings they attribute to their voices, the problems that the voices have created for them (if any) and the strategies that they have used to deal with or manage their voices and any resultant problems. You are considering approaching the Hearing Voices Network (a small national UK charity for more information about voice-hearing and about the charity’s work) to see if they could help you recruit participants. However, you are concerned that this might only give you access to people who can articulate their experiences fairly readily and that it might give an overly positive impression of the experiences and implications of voice hearing. Ideally you would prefer to have a more mixed group of participants, including people for whom hearing voices has been extremely disruptive and problematic.

  • What are the ethical issues to be considered as you think about sampling?
  • How might you address these issues?

For an example of a qualitative study that examined the experience of hearing voices, see:

Knudson, B. and Coyle, A. (2002) ‘The experience of hearing voices: An interpretative phenomenological analysis’, Existential Analysis, 13(1): 117–34. 

Vignette 2

You are intending to conduct a qualitative study with a group of gay men with intellectual disabilities. In this study, you want to interview about 10 self-identified gay men who have been officially classed as having an intellectual disability in order to examine their accounts of the process of sexual identity development (and explore points of overlap between and difference from existing accounts from gay men without intellectual disabilities). You intend to focus particularly on information management, the processes of accessing gay contexts, and social support and the possibility of dual stigmatization (on the basis of sexuality and intellectual disability).

  • What are the ethical issues to be considered as you think about sampling?
  • How might you address these issues?

For an example of a qualitative study on the sexual identity experiences of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people with intellectual disabilities, see:

Dinwoodie, R., Greenhill, B. and Cookson, A. (2016) ‘“Them two things are what collide together”: Understanding the sexual identity experiences of lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans people labelled with intellectual disability’, Journal of Applied Research in Intellectual Disabilities, 33(1): 3–16. 

Vignette 3

A student wishes to conduct research that investigates the practice of ‘360-degree appraisal’ within organizations. 360-degree appraisal involves obtaining feedback from all around a staff member – from those they manage, peers and supervisors. It also includes a self-assessment and sometimes feedback from external sources such as customers and suppliers or other interested stakeholders. It may be contrasted with traditional performance appraisal, where staff members are usually reviewed only by their managers.

The student first became interested in this when she worked for two years in a company that practised 360-degree appraisal. She fared pretty well when it was applied to her but she became suspicious about it and she always wondered about the way in which it operated. It seemed to her to be like a ‘Big Brother’ surveillance instrument, with the organization checking on staff from all sorts of perspectives. Hence, she now wants to explore it further for her dissertation research to find out how employers and employees evaluate it, to see how it works in practice and to ask some critical questions about it.

The student hopes to gain access to an organization in which her partner is employed and where 360-degree appraisal was introduced three years ago. She would like to interview staff members from senior and middle management and some junior staff too, asking them about their experiences of 360-degree appraisal as an appraisee and, where relevant, as an appraiser; what they understand as its aims; and how effectively they believe it achieves those aims. She also wants to audio-record three 360-degree appraisals to complement the interview data with information about what actually happens in these appraisals.

She intends to analyse her data using a form of discourse analysis (see Chapter 15 in the book) which asks critical questions of textual data and allows the researcher to inquire into the functions of speech and the agendas that are being pursued through speech. This is quite a complex mode of analysis and so she does not intend to try to explain it to research participants. Instead she will just say that the data will be analysed to gain insights into their views and experiences of 360-degree appraisal.

  • What do you think are the main ethical issues raised by this research plan?
  • Is there anything here that causes you concern?
  • If so, how might the student effectively address these concerns?

For an example of discourse analytic research in which there appeared to be a mismatch in understandings between the researcher and a participant, see:

Harper, D.J. (1994) ‘The professional construction of “paranoia” and the discursive use of diagnostic criteria’, British Journal of Medical Psychology, 67(2): 131–43. 

Garety, P.A. ‘Construction of “paranoia”: Does Harper enable voices other than his own to be heard?British Journal of Medical Psychology, 67(2): 145–6. 

See also Harper’s subsequent reflections upon the ethical and other issues raised by that study:

Harper, D. (2003) ‘Developing a critically reflexive position using discourse analysis’, in L. Finlay and B. Gough (eds), Reflexivity: A Practical Guide for Researchers in Health and Social Sciences. Oxford: Blackwell Science. pp. 78–92.