Denver University Ethical Issues Article Worksheet

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Ethical Issues of Interviewing
In: Doing Interviews
By: Steinar Kvale
Pub. Date: 2011
Access Date: January 3, 2020
Publishing Company: SAGE Publications, Ltd
City: London
Print ISBN: 9780761949770
Online ISBN: 9781849208963
Print pages: 24-32
© 2007 SAGE Publications, Ltd All Rights Reserved.
This PDF has been generated from SAGE Research Methods. Please note that the pagination of the
online version will vary from the pagination of the print book.
SAGE Research Methods
2007 SAGE Publications, Ltd. All Rights Reserved.
Ethical Issues of Interviewing
• Interviewing as a moral inquiry 23
• Ethical issues throughout an interview inquiry 24
• Ethical guidelines 25
• Micro – and macro-ethics in interview studies 30
Chapter objectives
After reading this chapter, you should understand
• how interviewing for research purposes involves moral concerns;
• how ethical issues go beyond the live interview situation and are embedded in all stages of an
interview inquiry;
• ethical guidelines for social research and the importance of informed consent, confidentiality,
consequences and the researcher role; and
• how moral issues of interviewing go beyond the micro-ethics of an interview project to include the
macro-ethics of the broader social effects of the interview-produced knowledge.
Interviewing as a moral inquiry
An interview inquiry is a moral enterprise. Moral issues concern the means as well as the ends of an interview
inquiry. The human interaction in the interview affects the interviewees and the knowledge produced by
an interview inquiry affects our understanding of the human condition. Consequently, interview research is
saturated with moral and ethical issues. Ethical problems in interview research arise particularly because of
the complexities of ‘researching private lives and placing accounts in the public arena’ (Mauthner et al., 2002,
p. 1).
The undertaking of a research project raises questions as to the value of the knowledge produced, what
will be the social contributions of the study. Social science research should serve scientific and human
interests. The preamble to the American Psychological Association’s ethical principles thus emphasized that
psychologists are committed to increasing knowledge of human behaviour and of people’s understanding of
themselves and others, and to utilizing this knowledge for the promotion of human welfare, thus: ‘The decision
to undertake research rests upon a considered judgment by the individual psychologist about how best to
contribute to psychological science and human welfare’ (APA, 1981, p. 637).
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Box 3.1 Ethical issues at seven research stages
Thematizing. The purpose of an interview study should, beyond the scientific value of the
knowledge sought, also be considered with regard to improvement of the human situation
Designing. Ethical issues of design involve obtaining the subjects’ informed consent
to participate in the study, securing confidentiality, and considering the possible
consequences of the study for the subjects.
Interview situation. The consequences of the interview interaction for the subjects need
to be taken into account, such as stress during the interview and changes in selfunderstanding.
Transcription. The confidentiality of the interviewees needs to be protected and there is
also the question of whether a transcribed text is loyal to the interviewee’s oral statements.
Analysis. Ethical issues in analysis involve the question of how penetratingly the interviews
can be analyzed and of whether the subjects should have a say in how their statements
are interpreted.
Verification. It is the researcher’s ethical responsibility to report knowledge that is as
secured and verified as possible. This involves the issue of how critically an interviewee
may be questioned.
Reporting. There is again the issue of confidentiality when reporting private interviews
in public, and of consequences of the published report for the interviewees and for the
groups they belong to.
Ethical issues throughout an interview inquiry
Ethical issues go through the entire process of an interview investigation, and potential ethical concerns
should be taken into consideration from the very start of an investigation and up to the final report. Some
of the ethical concerns that can arise throughout the seven stages of an interview inquiry are depicted in
Box 3.1. These stages will be treated in more detail in the following Chapter 4 on designing an investigation.
Ethical issues such as those presented above need be considered when preparing an ethical protocol for
an interview study. Within some fields, such as in the health sciences, it is mandatory to submit an interview
project to an ethical review board before the investigation may be undertaken. The researcher is thereby
required to think through in advance value issues and ethical dilemmas that may arise during an interview
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project, and perhaps also be encouraged to consult experienced members in the research community.
Even when not a formal requirement, it may be of value when planning an interview inquiry to also
draft a parallel ethical protocol treating ethical issues that can be anticipated in an investigation. With a
foreknowledge of the moral issues that typically arise at the different stages of an interview investigation, the
researcher can make reflected choices while designing a study and be alert to critical and sensitive issues
that may turn up during the inquiry.
The difficulty of specifying in advance the topics of interview studies, which are often exploratory, as well as of
describing in advance the specific questions to be posed in a flexible non-standardized interview, constitutes,
however, a potential problem with some ethical review boards. Some boards may want to approve every
interview question in advance, which may be feasible for the predetermined questions in a questionnaire,
whereas open research interviews involve on-the-spot decisions about following up unanticipated leads from
the subjects with questions that cannot be determined in advance.
Parker (2005) has criticized ethics committees in the United Kingdom for favouring quantitative over
qualitative approaches, indirectly preventing new forms of research that have not been described in the code,
and for being bureaucratic in their use of checklists, often with the result that researchers spend their time
trying to get through the review process instead of engaging in serious thought about ethics. In the United
States, the institutional review boards (IRBs) and their ethical guidelines for human subjects research have
likewise been criticized for serving a new methodological conservatism constraining participatory qualitative
research (Lincoln, 2005). Developed for experimentation in biomedical research, these guidelines have been
extrapolated to the social sciences, where to a large extent they are incongruent with interpretative and
interactive qualitative research methods such as interviewing, field research and participatory action research.
While fully informed consent is highly pertinent in high-risk medical experiments, it is less relevant and
feasible in low-risk field studies and interviews. Lincoln further argues that with the reconfigured relationships
of qualitative research as cooperative, mutual, democratic and open-ended, key issues of common ethical
guidelines become non-issues in a feminist communitarian ethics.
Ethical guidelines
Professional ethical codes serve as contexts for reflection on the specific ethical decisions throughout an
interview inquiry. Philosophical ethical theories provide frames for more extended ethical reflection; key
positions are here a Kantian ethics of duty, a utilitarian ethics of consequences and Aristotle’s virtue ethics
(Kimmel, 1988), and, more recently a caring communitarian ethics (Lincoln 2005). Such conceptual contexts
seldom provide definite answers to the normative choices to be made during a research project; they are more
like texts to be interpreted with respect to their relevance to specific situations. Examples and case studies
may serve as aids for the transition from general principles to specific practices. The ethical skills embodied in
local professional communities further represent an important extension of the written ethical principles, rules
and examples.
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Box 3.2 Ethical questions at the start of an interview study
What are the beneficial consequences of the study?
How can the study contribute to enhancing the situation of the participating subject? Of the
group they represent? Of the human condition?
How can the informed consent of the participating subjects be obtained?
How much information about the study needs to be given in advance, and what can wait
until a debriefing after the interviews?
Who should give the consent – the subjects or their superiors?
How can the confidentiality of the interview subjects be protected?
How important is it that the subjects remain anonymous?
How can the identity of the subjects be disguised?
Who will have access to the interviews?
Can legal problems concerning protection of the subjects’ anonymity be expected?
What are the consequences of the study for the participating subjects?
Will any potential harm to the subjects be outweighed by potential benefits?
Will the interviews approximate therapeutic relationships, and if so, what
precautions can be taken? When publishing the study, what consequences may be
anticipated for the subjects and for the groups they represent?
How will the researcher’s role affect the study?
How can a researcher avoid co-option from the funding of a project or over-identification
with his or her subjects, thereby losing critical perspective on the knowledge produced?
Ethical guidelines for social science research commonly concern the subjects’ informed consent to participate
in the study, confidentiality of the subjects, consequences of participation in the research project and the
researcher’s role in the study (cf. Guidelines for the Protection of Human Subjects, 1992). Box 3.2 outlines
issues raised by these ethical guidelines in the form of questions, which interviewers may ask themselves
before embarking on an interview journey.
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Informed consent
Informed consent entails informing the research subjects about the overall purpose of the investigation and
the main features of the design, as well as of possible risks and benefits from participation in the research
project. This raises the issue of how informed consent can be handled in exploratory interview studies where
the investigators themselves will have little advance knowledge of how the interviews will proceed. Informed
consent further involves obtaining the voluntary participation of subjects and informing them about their right
to withdraw from the study at any time.
Through briefing and debriefing, the interviewees should be informed about the purpose and the procedure
of the interview. This may include information about confidentiality and who will have access to the interview;
the researcher’s right to publish the whole interview or parts of it; and the interviewee’s possible access to
the transcription and the analyses of the interviews. In most cases such issues may not matter much to the
subjects. If, however, it is likely that the investigation may treat or instigate issues of conflict, particularly
within institutional settings, a written agreement may serve as a protection for both the interviewees and the
researcher. In particular, when it comes to later use of the interview it may be preferable to have a written
agreement on the informed consent of the interviewee to participate in the study and the future use of the
interviews, signed by both interviewer and subject (see Yow, 1994, for examples of letters of agreement with
Issues about who should give the consent may arise with interviews in institutions, where a superior’s consent
to a study may imply a more or less subtle pressure on employees to participate. With school children, the
question comes up about who should give the consent – the children themselves, their parents, the teacher,
the school superintendent or the school board?
Informed consent also involves the question of how much information should be given and when. Full
information about design and purpose counteracts deception of the subjects. Providing information about a
study involves a careful balance between detailed over-information and leaving out aspects of the design
that may be significant to the subjects. In some interview investigations, such as those using funnelshaped techniques (Chapter 5), the specific purposes of a study are initially withheld in order to obtain the
interviewees’ spontaneous views on a topic and to avoid leading them to specific answers. In such cases full
information should be given in a debriefing after the interview.
Confidentiality in research implies that private data identifying the subjects will not be reported. If a study
does publish information potentially recognizable to others, the subjects need to agree on the release of
identifiable information. The principle of the research subjects’ right to privacy is not without ethical and
scientific dilemmas. Thus there is a concern about what information should be available to whom. Should, for
example, interviews with children be available to their parents and teachers? In studies where several parties
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are involved, such as by individual interviews within organizations, or with married or divorced couples, it
should be made clear before the interviewing who will later have access to the interviews. In extreme cases,
protecting confidentiality can raise serious legal problems, for example if a researcher – through the promise
of confidentiality and the trust of the relationship – has obtained knowledge of mistreatment, malpractice, child
abuse, the use of drugs or other criminal behaviour either on the part of the interviewee or others.
The qualitative research interview involves different ethical issues from those of a questionnaire survey,
where confidentiality is assured by the computed averages of survey responses. In a qualitative study where
subjects’ statements from a private interview setting may be published in public reports, precautions need to
be taken to protect the subjects’ privacy. Here there may be an intrinsic conflict between ethical demands
for confidentiality and basic principles of scientific research, such as providing the necessary information for
inter-subjective control and for repeating a study. We should also note that in some cases interviewees, who
have spent their time and provided valuable information to the researcher, may want, as is usual in journalistic
interviews, to be credited with their full name. Parker (2005) has argued that anonymity of the subjects may
actually serve to protect the researcher, denying the subjects a voice in the research project. The subjects’
anonymity may serve as an alibi for the researcher in retaining the privilege of controlling and disseminating
the information about the study. Parker thus advocates discussing openly with those who take part in research
whether or not they might actually prefer to be named and to speak openly for themselves.
The consequences of an interview study need to be addressed with respect to possible harm to the subjects
as well as to the expected benefits of participating in the study. The ethical principle of beneficence means
that the risk of harm to a subject should be the least possible. From a utilitarian ethical perspective, the sum of
potential benefits to a subject and the importance of the knowledge gained should outweigh the risk of harm
to the subject and thus warrant a decision to carry out the study (Guidelines, 1992, p. 15). This involves a
researcher’s responsibility to reflect on the possible consequences not only for the persons taking part in the
study, but for the larger group they belong to as well.
An interviewer should take into account that the openness and intimacy of the interview may be seductive
and can lead subjects to disclose information they may later regret. A research interviewer’s ability to
listen attentively may also in some cases lead to quasi-therapeutic relationships, for which most research
interviewers are not trained; compare here the challenges to the therapeutic interviewer reported in Box 2.3.
In particular, long and repeated interviews on personal topics may lead to quasi-therapeutic relations. The
personal closeness of the interview relation puts strong demands on the ethical sensitivity and respect of the
interviewer regarding how far to go in his or her questioning.
The integrity of the researcher
The researcher as a person is critical for the quality of the scientific knowledge and for the soundness of
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ethical decisions in an interview inquiry. Moral research behaviour involves more than ethical knowledge and
cognitive choices; it encompasses the moral integrity of the researcher, his or her sensitivity and commitment
to moral issues and action. By interviewing, the importance of the researcher as a person is magnified
because the interviewer is the main instrument for obtaining knowledge. Being familiar with value issues,
ethical guidelines and ethical theories may help in choices that weigh ethical versus scientific concerns in a
study. In the end, however, the integrity of the researcher – his or her knowledge, experience, honesty and
fairness – is the decisive factor. With the dependence on the ethical judgements of the researcher, it becomes
important to foster the ethical skills of interview researchers. These may be promoted by the study of ethically
complex cases of interview research, and by conversations with peers and representatives of the subjects
studied (Brinkmann and Kvale, 2005).
The independence of research can be co-opted from ‘above’ as well as from ‘below’ by those funding a
project, as well as by its participants. Ties to either group may lead the researcher to ignore some findings
and emphasize others to the detriment of an investigation of the phenomena being as comprehensive and
unbiased as possible. Interviewing is interactive research; through close interpersonal interactions with their
subjects, interviewers may be particularly prone to attempts at coalition making by them. Interviewers may
identify with their subjects so closely that they do not maintain a professional distance, but instead report and
interpret everything from their subjects’ perspectives – in anthropological terms, ‘going native’.
The role of the interviewer can involve a tension between a professional distance and a personal friendship.
Thus in the context of a feminist, caring, committed ethic, the interviewer has been conceived as a friend,
as a warm and caring researcher. This early conception of the interviewer as a caring friend has later
been criticized from a feminist standpoint. Duncombe and Jessop (2002) argue that an interviewer’s show
of intimacy and empathy may involve a faking of friendship and commodification of rapport, sanitized of
any concern with broader ethical issues. When under pressure to deliver results, whether to a commercial
employer or to their own thesis, the interviewer’s show of empathy may become a means to circumvent the
subject’s informed consent and persuade interviewees to disclose experiences and emotions that they later
on might have preferred to keep to themselves or even ‘not know’. In the expression of a therapist researcher,
Fog (2004), an experienced interviewer’s knowledge of how to create rapport and to get through a subject’s
defences may serve as a ‘Trojan horse’ to get inside areas of a person’s life where they were not invited.
The use of such indirect techniques, which are ethically legitimate within the joint interest of a therapeutic
relationship, becomes ethically questionable when applied to research and commercial purposes.
Micro-and macro-ethics in interview studies
Ethical issues in interview research tend to be raised in relation to the personal implications for the subjects,
whereas the wider social consequences of the interviews have received less attention. In line with the
common treatments of research ethics, I have focused above on the micro-ethics of the interview situation
and of possible future consequences for the subjects involved. I shall now go on to draw in a macro-ethical
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perspective and address potential consequences of the knowledge produced by interviews in a broader
social situation (cf. Brinkmann and Kvale, 2005). By drawing upon the historical interview investigations
presented in Chapter 1, I shall point out potential conflicts between ethical demands from a micro-and a
Ethical issues may differ when viewed from a micro-and a macro-perspective. An interview situation may be
experienced positively by the subject, when a researcher with a professional authority shows a strong interest
in what he or she has to say. The wider social consequences of the knowledge produced in such interviews
may, however, be problematic in some cases. This concerns the Hawthorne studies by the management
of how to manage the workers more efficiently and increase their output, and today in particular when
interviewing for increased consumption. Consumer interviews as individual motivational interviews or as focus
groups may well follow standard ethical guidelines and also be enjoyable to the participants. On a macrolevel, however, the consequences are more questionable. Focus group interviews about teenager attitudes
to smoking may provide knowledge for improving advertisements to teenagers for smoking, or the knowledge
produced may be used in health campaigns to discourage smoking. In a capitalist consumer society it is likely
that there will be more capital available for producing and applying knowledge on smoking attitudes for the
tobacco industry’s advertisements to increase tobacco consumption than for public campaigns seeking to
reduce the use of tobacco.
Tensions of ethics on a micro-and a macro-level also arise in academic interview research. We may here
draw in a historic study on anti-Semitism – The Authoritarian Personality by Adorno et al. (1950). In the
wake of the Second World War the researchers investigated a possible relation of anti-Semitism to an
authoritarian upbringing. An important part of the study consisted of therapeutically inspired interviews, where
the researchers used therapeutic techniques to circumvent their subjects’ defences in order to learn about
their prejudices and authoritarian personality traits. On a micro-level this research clearly violated the ethical
principle of informed consent, whereas on a macro-level the knowledge obtained of the roots of anti-Semitism
was intended to have beneficial social and political consequences.
Ethical issues on a macro-level can ideally be approached by public discussion of the social consequences
and uses of the knowledge produced. We may here draw in an interview study by Bellah and co-workers
(1985) about individualism and commitment in America, to be discussed in Chapter 6. The researchers saw
the very aim of doing social science as a public philosophy, as engaging in debate with the public about the
goals and values of society: ‘When data from such interviews are well presented, they stimulate the reader to
enter the conversation, to argue with what is being said. Curiously, such interviews stimulate something that
could be called public opinion, opinion tested in the arena of open discussion’ (Bellah et al., 1985, p. 305).
Key points
• With the production of interview knowledge through the interaction of the interviewer and interviewee,
close attention needs to be given to the ethical implications of this personal interaction.
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• Ethical issues raised by an interview study go beyond the live interview situation itself, to encompass
all stages of an interview project.
• Ethical guidelines for social science research emphasize the need to obtain the subjects’ informed
consent to participate in the study, to secure the confidentiality of the subjects, to consider the
consequences for the subjects of participation in the research project and to be attentive to the
researcher’s role in the study.
• Ethical requirements for research are mostly formulated in a general form. With few standard rules to
be followed, much is left to the judgement of the researcher. Thus an interviewer continually has to
make on-the-spot decisions about what implications of an answer to follow up, and what connotations
may be too sensitive for the interviewee to be followed up.
• With the person of the interviewer being the instrument of interview research, ethical decisions in an
interview project to a large extent come to rest on the integrity of the interviewer as a person.
• The ethical issues of an interview project go beyond the micro-ethics of protecting the interview
subjects to also encompass macro-ethics concerning the value of the interview-produced knowledge
in a larger social context.
Further reading
Ethical issues about and around doing interviews can be studied in reading the following
Edited by: Eisner, E.W. and Peshkin, A. (eds) (1990) Qualitative Inquiry in Education.
New York: Teachers College Press.
Guidelines for the Protection of Human Subjects(1992). Berkeley: University of California
Kimmel, A.J.(1988) Ethics and Values in Applied Social Science Research. Newbury
Park, CA: Sage.
Edited by: Mauthner, M., Birch, M., Jessop, J. and Miller, T. (eds) (2002) Ethics in
Qualitative Research. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
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Profession and Society
Ethics in Qualitative Research
Angelica Orb, Laurel Eisenhauer, Dianne Wynaden
Purpose: To critically examine ethical issues in qualitative research.
Organizing Construct: The ethical principles of autonomy, beneficence, and justice are guides
for researchers to address initial and ongoing tensions between the needs and goals of the
research and the rights of participants.
Methods: Research literature, ethics literature, and researcher experiences.
Conclusions: Ethical principles can be used to guide the research in addressing the initial and
ongoing issues arising from qualitative research in order to meet the goals of the research as
well as to maintain the rights of the research participants.
[Key words: qualitative research, ethics]
thical issues are present in any kind of research. The
research process creates tension between the aims of
research to make generalizations for the good of
others, and the rights of participants to maintain privacy.
Ethics pertains to doing good and avoiding harm. Harm can
be prevented or reduced through the application of
appropriate ethical principles. Thus, the protection of human
subjects or participants in any research study is imperative.
Violations of human rights in the name of scientific research
have been among the darkest events in history. From 19321972 more than 400 African American people who had
syphilis were deliberately left untreated to study the illness.
Although the Tuskegee syphilis study was sponsored by
United States Public Health Service, the disclosure of the 40year study caused public outrage (Caplan, 1992). Another
example of unethical research is the experiment conducted
between 1950-1952 in which more than 1,000 pregnant
women were given diethylstilbestrol to prevent miscarriages.
These women were subject to a double-blind study without
consent. Only 20 years later, when the children of these
women had high rates of cancer and other abnormalities did
the participants learn they were subjects of these experiments
(Capron, 1989).
The nature of ethical problems in qualitative research
studies is subtle and different compared to problems in
quantitative research. For example, potential ethical conflicts
exist in regard to how a researcher gains access to a
community group and in the effects the researcher may have
on participants. The literature provides few examples of
ethical issues in qualitative health research. Punch (1994)
claimed that one hardly ever hears of ethical failures in
qualitative research. However, Batchelor and Briggs (1994)
claimed that the failure of researchers to address ethical issues
has resulted in those researchers being ill-prepared to cope
with the unpredictable nature of qualitative research.
Qualitative researchers focus their research on exploring,
examining, and describing people and their natural
environments. Embedded in qualitative research are the
concepts of relationships and power between researchers and
participants. The desire to participate in a research study
depends upon a participant’s willingness to share his or her
experience. Nurse researchers have to balance research
principles as well as the well-being of clients (Ramos, 1989).
Qualitative health research is focused on the experiences
of people in relation to health and illness. Yet nurse
researchers may find that their roles as researchers and as
clinicians may be in conflict. Qualitative studies are frequently
conducted in settings involving the participation of people
in their everyday environments. Therefore, any research that
includes people requires an awareness of the ethical issues
that may be derived from such interactions. Ethics in health
research includes appropriateness of the research design, the
methodological design, and the funding sources, as well as
behaviors in reporting data. The purpose of this paper is to
show these and related ethical issues and ethical principles
to be used in qualitative research.
Angelica Orb, RN, PhD, MACE, Alpha Chi, Senior Lecturer, School of Nursing,
Curtin University of Technology, Perth, Western Australia. Laurel Eisenhauer,
RN, PhD, FAAN, Alpha Chi, Professor and Associate Dean for Graduate Programs,
School of Nursing, Boston College, Chestnut Hill, MA. Dianne Wynaden, RN,
RMHN, MSc (HSc), Lecturer, School of Nursing, Curtin University of Technology,
Perth, Western Australia, and Clinical Nurse Consultant, Directorate of Mental
Health Services, Fremantle Hospital and Health Service, Fremantle, Western
Australia. Correspondence to Dr. Orb, School of Nursing, Curtin University of
Technology, GPO Box 1987, Perth, Western Australia 6845. E-mail:
Accepted for publication June 12, 2000.
Journal of Nursing Scholarship
First Quarter 2001
Ethics in Qualitative Research
Issues in Qualitative Research
Although ethical review boards scrutinize most nursing
research proposals, the researchers are ultimately responsible
for protecting the participants. Dresser (1998) said that the
administrative burden of ethical reviews and procedures is
balanced by the protection of participants. She suggested close
monitoring of high-risk studies. In qualitative studies,
researchers rely heavily on collecting data through interviews,
observations, written materials, and audiovisual material.
While in the field, researchers should negotiate access to
participants to collect data; thus the quality of social
interactions between researchers and the participants may
facilitate or inhibit access to information. Once access to the
field has been granted and the first steps of data collection
are taken, researchers may experience ethical dilemmas that
may not have been anticipated in the research plan (Field &
Morse, 1992).
Ramos (1989) described three types of problems that may
affect qualitative studies: the researcher/participant
relationship, the researcher’s subjective interpretations of
data, and the design itself. For example, a researcher’s
deception or disclosure of damaging information can occur.
Humphrey’s study of homosexuals is one example (Punch,
1994). His controversial research method of participant
observation using deception shocked American academics
who wanted to revoke the researcher’s doctoral degree. He
observed men in a public bathroom and followed them to
their homes under the guise of working on a different project
(Punch, 1994). Clarke (1996) used deception in a forensic
unit, claiming that this approach was necessary to obtain
“uncontaminated” data. She used participant observation
over a period of 6 weeks while working as a nursing auxiliary.
Clarke did not disclose her role as researcher. She retreated
to the restroom to take notes or to speak into a small
dictaphone. Clarke justified this method stating that some
degree of deception is permissible when “dealing with
sensitive aspects of subjects’ behaviour” (p. 38).
When preparing research protocols, nurse researchers
should consider the potential ethical issues that can be
anticipated in the study, such as informed consent,
confidentiality, data generation and analysis, researcher/
participant relationships, and reporting of final outcomes.
The Process of Data Collection
The purpose of qualitative studies is to describe a
phenomenon from the participants’ points of view through
interviews and observations. The intention of the researcher
is to listen to the voice of participants or observe them in
their natural environments. The researcher’s interpretation
of these experiences is usually described as an emic perspective
(Field & Morse, 1992). The acceptance of this statement
means that researchers recognise that participants are
autonomous people who will share information willingly. A
balanced research relationship will encourage disclosure,
trust, and awareness of potential ethical issues. Kvale (1996)
considered an interview to be a moral endeavour, claiming
First Quarter 2001
Journal of Nursing Scholarship
that the participant’s response is affected by the interview,
and that the knowledge gained through the interview affects
our understanding of the human experience. The personal
interaction between researchers and participants is crucial
in data gathering by keeping in mind the research focus and
being clear about the role of researchers. The researchers’
perceptions of field situations are determined by personality
and the nature of the interactions (Punch, 1994).
Although qualitative research methods make it difficult to
predict how data will be collected through interviews or
observation (Streubert & Carpenter, 1999), researchers have
the obligation to anticipate the possible outcomes of an
interview and to weigh both benefits and potential harm.
For example, in the case of interviewing victims of violence,
the interview may trigger painful experiences and the
participant may become distressed during the interview. In
this case, the researcher is confronted with an ethical
dilemma—to continue with the interview and gain more
insight about the topic under study or to stop the interview
and give advice or refer the participant to an appropriate
treatment or counseling service. Deciding to continue would
indicate that the researcher considers that the value of the
data obtained from the distressing experience outweighs the
participant’s distress. Smith (1999) wrote about the potential
therapeutic benefits of participants’ reviving unpleasant
memories and also the importance of seeking ongoing
consent. Hutchinson, Wilson, and Wilson (1994) identified
the benefits of qualitative interviews as catharsis, selfacknowledgment, sense of purpose, self-awareness,
empowerment, healing, and providing a voice for the
disenfranchised. Stopping the interview and searching for
possible solutions for the participants’ distress indicates that
researchers are aware of the vulnerability of participants and
their rights. The moral obligation of researchers is to refer
participants to counseling or ensure that they have regained
control of the situation by talking. In some cases, a followup phone call or visit may be appropriate.
Ethical dilemmas that may rise from an interview are
difficult to predict but the researcher needs to be aware of
sensitive issues and potential conflicts of interest. An interview
is usually equated with confidentiality, informed consent, and
privacy, but also by recurrence of “old wounds” and sharing
of secrets. The interview opens new risks to both researchers
and participants. Researchers may be required by law to
report information about child or elder abuse, drug traffic,
or crimes. Courts for domestic and criminal proceedings may
subpoena researchers’ records. In some studies in the US,
researchers may wish to consider obtaining a Certificate of
Confidentiality from the Department of Health and Human
Services (Lutz, Shelton, Robrecht, Hatton, & Beckett, 2000).
The following example is one of those ethical dilemmas
that are silent in qualitative health research literature. During
an interview, a participant revealed to a graduate student
doing the interview that she was involved in drug dealings;
the student was advised by one of the supervisors to delete
such interviews. A year later the participant’s spouse was
dead from drug abuse. Researchers who are doing qualitative
Ethics in Qualitative Research
health research must be aware not only of the promise to
maintain confidentiality but to search vigorously for ways
to deal with the ethical and legal issues they may encounter.
Ethical codes and guidelines for research projects do not
have answers to all of the ethical issues that may arise during
research. Subsequently, ethical dilemmas that are not part of
the study may arise (Field & Morse, 1992) during an
observation in a clinical area. A novice researcher observed the
following event. An elderly woman asked to be taken to the
toilet; a nursing staff member said that was not a convenient
time and moved along to the next patient. In this situation the
researcher is witnessing an unethical behaviour. In this case,
Codes of Ethics indicate the rights of patients but do not indicate
to the researcher how to respond to this situation. Such
situations require careful examination of the moral
responsibility of researchers. For example, based on his past
experience, Patton (1990) recommended full disclosure of the
purpose of the study when doing participant observation. He
claimed that false or partial explanations are too risky and add
unnecessary stress. Qualitative researchers are expected to
describe the research experience in an authentic manner, often
contrary to their own aims (Munhall, 1988). The research
protocol also should provide enough information ensuring
protection of human subjects. Moreover, such protocols must
give details of the manner in which the study will be conducted,
followed by details of access to participants, informed consent,
and access and storage of data.
Ethical Principles
The difficulties inherent in qualitative research can be
alleviated by awareness and use of well-established ethical
principles, specifically autonomy, beneficence, and justice.
Several authors have claimed that the protection of human
rights is a mandate in health care research (Dresser, 1998;
Kvale, 1996; Munhall, 1988; Raudonis, 1992). Capron
(1989) said that any kind of research should be guided by
the principles of respect for people, beneficence, and justice.
He considered that respect for people is the recognition of
participants’ rights, including the right to be informed about
the study, the right to freely decide whether to participate in
a study, and the right to withdraw at any time without penalty.
In a qualitative research study this principle is honored by
informed consent, which means making a reasonable balance
between over-informing and under-informing (Kvale, 1996).
It also means that participants exercise their rights as
autonomous persons to voluntarily accept or refuse to
participate in the study. Consent has been referred to as a
negotiation of trust, and it requires continuous renegotiation
(Field & Morse, 1992; Kvale, 1996; Munhall, 1988).
Informed consent is dynamic, for example, in studying
responses of family caregivers to caring for chronic patients,
determining who needs to give informed consent may be
necessary. For example, it may pertain only to caregivers or
consent from patients or other family members may also be
A second ethical principle closely linked with research is
beneficence—doing good for others and preventing harm.
Beneficence in some situations may be taken to the extreme as
paternalism. A paternalistic approach indicates the denial of
autonomy and freedom of choice. For example, the researcher
may want to study the problem of violence among elderly
women but may decide not to include them because they may
be too vulnerable. In this case, the researcher is not giving elderly
women the opportunity to decide for themselves and for their
experiences to be heard.
Research strategies used to collect data and selection criteria
also have ethical implications. For example, Raudonis (1992)
indicated that considerable thought was given to inclusion
criteria during the recruitment of potential participants for a
nursing study of hospice patients’ perspectives of empathy.
Those patients who were unable to give consent or unable to
participate in open-ended interviews were not asked to
If researchers are maintaining the principle of beneficence,
overseeing the potential consequences of revealing participants’
identities is a moral obligation. The use of pseudonyms is
recommended. However, this strategy may not be sufficient if
the study is conducted in a small community where participants
could be easily recognised. In such cases, circulation of the
study may need to be restricted, for instance, reports of a study
conducted with a group of Aboriginal nursing students may be
restricted until the participants graduate from the nursing
program. Such a group is small and can be easily recognised by
the nursing community. Protection of participants’ identities
also applies to publications. Participants should be told how
results will be published. Quotations or other data from the
participants, even though anonymous, could reveal their
identity. Ideally, participants would approve the use of
quotations used in publications.
Confidentiality and anonymity can be breached by legal
requirements such as when researchers’ data are subpoenaed
for legal purposes. If legal reporting is required, such as cases
of child or elder abuse, participants should be informed that
this information would be excluded from confidentiality and
anonymity. Despite the need for confidentiality, qualitative
research requires confirmability, that is, documentation of all
activities included in a research study. This audit trail is there
for other researchers to follow (Streubert & Carpenter, 1999).
This process may create an ethical dilemma regarding
confidentiality and anonymity. In some cases, participants may
need to know that other researchers may review the process
and the data.
The principle of justice refers to equal share and fairness.
One of the crucial and distinctive features of this principle is
avoiding exploitation and abuse of participants. The
researcher’s understanding and application of the principle of
Journal of Nursing Scholarship
First Quarter 2001
Ethics in Qualitative Research
justice in qualitative research studies is demonstrated by
recognising vulnerability of the participants and their
contributions to the study. For example, if researchers during
analysis of the data consider that a concept or a heading of the
report will be based on the contribution of a particular
participant, ethically the researcher should request permission
to use such a concept or at least discuss the issues with the
participant. In this way, the contributions of that participant
are acknowledged. Another way of implementing the principle
of justice is listening to the voices of the minority and
disadvantaged groups as well as protecting those who are most
vulnerable, such as children, prisoners, the mentally ill, and
the elderly.
Capron (1989) said that practical problems arise when
researchers try to implement the principle of justice. For
instance, the implementation of the principle of justice should
not further burden the already burdened vulnerable group of
participants. An example was the situation in which the consent
forms for a group of Ethiopians for a rabies vaccine trial were
not translated to the local language (News in Brief, 1999). A
similar case also was reported in a malaria project with children
from Zambia and Malawi, in which parents were not informed
about the experimental nature of the trial. Unfortunately in
these cases, like in many others (Capron, 1989), the participants
were among the most powerless people in society.
Implications for Researchers
Having these ethical principles in mind, those researchers
who are also clinicians should reflect on their roles as researchers
and in comparison to their previous roles as clinicians. At times,
however, researchers have to revert rapidly to their roles as
clinicians. The separation of these two roles is not easy.
Clinicians usually advise and treat clients for their complaints.
Clinicians, in this new role of researchers, should listen to
participants about what they want to say or to observe without
interfering. For someone who has been used to being in charge
or helping, this apparent passivity may cause discomfort and
some level of stress.
Moreover, conducting qualitative research in an area in which
the researcher works or is already known raises several issues
and ethical considerations. The clinician/researcher may get
better results because of knowing the situation and having the
trust of participants. However, the known researcher may get
less information. Patients and staff may feel coerced to
participate and may limit the information they give. According
to Field and Morse (1992) conducting research in one’s work
area creates problems related to the validity, reliability, and
meaningfulness of the data. Conducting research in another
setting may mean that researchers have to spend more time
and effort establishing rapport and learning the new setting.
But, this change may result in more objective observations.
Negotiation of the researcher’s role on a clinical unit is
important. If the role of the researcher is clearly identified
by the group and the purposes of the study are discussed, the
researcher will be regarded as such and not as someone who
is doing something dubious. It also will reduce the group’s
false expectations. Perceiving the researcher as another pair
First Quarter 2001
Journal of Nursing Scholarship
of hands who can be used during busy periods is an attractive
idea. The negotiation of the role will also promote a clear
understanding of the researcher’s role during data collection.
Gaining the trust of the group and their willingness to support
the researcher’s role is a step in the right direction, but it is
the recognition of the relevance of ethical principles that must
guide any research study.
In this paper, we have examined the common ethical
concerns that qualitative health researchers confront and have
highlighted the ethical principles that can guide research and
researchers. These principles cannot ensure ethical research
but they can contribute to an understanding that ethical
responsibility in qualitative research is an ongoing process.
Qualitative researchers should report the incidents and ethical
issues encountered in their studies to ensure discussion,
analysis, and prevention of future mistakes. Nurse researchers
must always respect the mandate of maintaining ethical
principles as an issue of protection of human rights, important
in both patient care and research. JNS
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