Ethics of Qualitative Research


Qualitative research ethics are more complex than biomedical research ethics. Qualitative research’s starting point is not found in implied informed consent and ethical assurances that limit a researcher/subject relationship to the few moments beyond completing a survey. Quite the opposite: when subjects agree to participate in a qualitative research project, either by signing a consent form or by consenting orally, they establish a convoluted set of ethical assurances that are not fleeting. By signing a consent form to take part in a qualitative research project, the subject accepts a set of ethical assurances offered by the researcher that are enduring; these assurances are diverse and technique-specific, each with their own variant of ethical issues. Two of the most common techniques qualitative researchers use are one-to-one unstructured interviews and focus groups. Both techniques ask open-ended questions and often collect data via audio recording, yet their ethical practice is dissimilar. Whereas one-on-one interviews can offer strong ethical assurances since the interviewee has opportunities to withdraw remarks during the interview, focus group participants’ opinions are made in public and cannot be unsaid. Qualitative research’s unique emergent research design and diversity of practice (e.g., photovoice, autoethnography, narrative) are so individualised they prove problematic for how institutional review boards appraise them, evaluating only the procedural ethical considerations of a project, not its emergent ethics in practice. The immersive nature of their research requires emotional, political and personal responsiveness often expressed by the exhortation to “reflexivity.”

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