Before my fieldwork could begin I had to get ethical approval from the University and that process has had a deeper impact on my thinking than just working out the correct box to tick on the forms! It has really made me question how I understand ethics and what that means for my work as a researcher.
The University is, quite rightly, concerned with good research practice and its policies are designed to ensure that the principles of ethical behaviour accepted by fellow academic institutions are upheld by its research staff and students. Underlying these principles are an acceptance that researchers should be aware of, and minimise, risk so that research ‘does no harm’; that participants must be fully informed about the nature of the research and be able to voluntarily consent to take part; and that having given their consent the confidentiality and anonymity of participants is respected by the researcher.
The mechanism for achieving this is a series of forms.
Application forms for the University detailing the potential risks I have identified, information sheets for participants to inform them about my research project and what I will be doing with any information they give me, and a consent form for us both to sign to prove that I have given them the information sheet, that they have read it, that they are consenting to take part, and that I agree to respect their confidentiality and anonymity.
Looking at the stack of information sheets and consent forms sitting on my desk as I start planning my fieldwork it would be easy to think that ethics is merely a boring bureaucratic exercise in box ticking, or a kind of insurance policy against future accusations of misrepresentation. Yet while I understand the need for the paperwork, and the language of ethics policies, I would argue that alone they do not address the issue at the heart of ethical research.
For me the fundamental issue raised by the question of how to carry out ethical research is the nature of the relationship between the researcher, the participant, and the research project.
Thinking of research as a relationship – something which is reciprocal, ongoing and evolving – suggests a different view of ethics. Instead of a bureaucratic exercise in defining and documenting consent, ethics becomes part of this relationship. An ethical approach to research then becomes about establishing a set of guiding principles as to how the relationship is conducted, in applying those principles the researcher must be responsive, respectful and sensitive to changing circumstances. Carrying out research ethically is about taking care of this relationship, it is not something that stops once the forms have been signed and filed away. This is ethics as praxis.
My own research practice, the ethical considerations that underpin the relationship I have with my project, and I hope to develop with my participants, are informed by my theoretical interests, particularly my ongoing engagement with the work of Mikhail Bakhtin.
In my next post I’ll offer a brief introduction to Bakhtin’s work, and explain why his ideas have been so important to my understanding and my approach to this project.