Ethics in Qualitative Research: a reflection…
Research Center on Didactics and Technology in the Education of Trainers (CIDTFF), Department of Education and Psychology, University of Aveiro, Portugal ([email protected])
As a researcher and teacher of research methodology curricular units in the fields of Social Sciences and Humanities, namely Education Sciences, Teacher Education Supervision, Language Teaching Methodologies, Technologies in educational contexts, etc., the motto for this reflection stems from the ethical aspects that come from the investigative process, and that are central to any study, whether quantitative or qualitative.
As it is more vulnerable to subjectivity, qualitative research serves as a springboard for reflection.
Authorizations and / or consents to observe human behavior, whether in isolation, in complex contexts of socialization or in others of a different nature, access to personal, private, sensitive, reserved documentation, as well as the places where one intends to access those observations and contexts, imply that they are explicit and unassailable from the legal, moral and ethical point of view. On the other hand, what we report about the observed behaviors must always be followed by the scrutiny of who was observed. It is essential that what is reported is objectively validated by who is reported in terms of objectivity, interpretive correctness and relevance to the study, including aspects that may jeopardize the informant’s personal, professional or public integrity.
It is the researcher’s ethical duty to seek to ensure that the views of one’s interviewees, participants and / or research partners are reflected in the assertions produced according to these same alternative views, when properly framed in the precepts and objectives of the study.
This even includes the authorization to use the words of our informants, for example transcribed from video recording protocols or other types of record (namely field notes that report observations), which guarantee the veracity and fidelity of the record, the attributed interpretation and its contextual and co-textual relationship, preventing unauthorized distortions of our view of the observed.
This is where the need to progressively fine-tune the various stages of progress in the study’s report comes in, depending not only on its purpose but also on the public or audiences it addresses. An oral presentation, necessarily summarized, of a work that has been read with special attention and that is, at the moment, destined for examination before a panel of specialists in a public viva to obtain a degree, will not be made in the same tone or with the same degree of depth, as compared to a context of public disclosure of the same work, for example at a conference, in a periodical of the specialized journal, in a poster, in a text that aims at public dissemination of science. All these contexts, among others, always have ethical implications, whether academic or scientific, such as confidentiality and data protection. This does not mean, however, that the researcher is “tied-up” in relation to their right to make their work public – in fact, that is their deontological duty.
What is essential is to ensure that everyone involved in the study reviews the data, interpretations and reported results, and that they are not invasive or revealing of extraneous aspects that may denigrate the informants’ image. All the principles that underlie any study involving others must constitute a solid basis for mutual and informed agreement prior to the beginning of its undertaking.
And this agreement must remain alive and constant, with regular checks by those involved, that these principles are maintained throughout the investigation process, including the decision to make their dissemination public.
As with quantitative research, of an experimental, positivist nature, which relies on complex statistical models, how often aren’t we faced with the blatant “hammering” of data until more is taken out from what one wants to make others believe, than what the data actually reveal. On the other hand, as it happens in qualitative research, of an interpretive nature, and therefore more susceptible to biased views due to the subjectivity of the researcher, how many times do we not witness the “imposition” of preconceptions superimposed to the stripped, distanced and as objective as possible observation of ideas? Risks are everywhere, whether in SPSS or webQDA, in quantitative, qualitative or even mixed methods of data treatment, and researchers have to stay alert, avoiding shortcuts and questionable procedures, methods and data processing techniques, just because they have to comply with a deadline, because they are “fed up” with what they are investigating, or because they do not want to give in to the evidence that what they are studying, or the way they are doing it, will not lead to any productive outcome, even if unkind for the researcher.