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Becoming an ethical researcher
Becoming an ethical researcher

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2.1 Sensitive topics and contexts

Described image
Figure 4 A child’s response to being asked to build a room using clay. They created a room with three walls, a floor and two figures seated on chairs (the child – female – and their younger brother) in front of two windows, a fire and behind a coffee table, with a cat in the foreground (which the parents explained had recently died) (Souter-Anderson, 2019)

The ethics of choosing a research topic in a particular context involves thinking through the potential risks and benefits. If no-one asks about the experience of cancer or COVID-19 or dementia, we won’t know about people’s experiences. If no-one asks about the psychosocial impact on young people and children of living through war or bullying or genital mutilation, then those suffering will be invisible forever. One key benefit of rigorous research is dissemination; sharing knowledge and potentially making a difference to policy, practice and experience in society.

Although it is complex to research sensitive topics or work alongside vulnerable groups, it is possible to do so in an ethical way.

Now read Case study 1.2. You will discuss this in the forum in Activity 5.

Case study 1.2 Inclusive practice in sub-Saharan Africa: research on children orphaned by HIV

Imagine you are an international volunteer. You are going to use your experience as an inclusive practice teacher to develop training on inclusive practice in an unnamed country in sub-Saharan Africa with a high HIV death rate and a large number of orphaned children.

You find data on HIV infection rates, orphaned children, school drop outs and estimates of the number of child carers. You find literature on child trauma and attachment theory. Colleagues at teacher training college have anecdotes about young orphaned children as family carers in the communities they know.

You note a gap in the literature about this country’s context so you decide to design some research to find out more about the lived experience of orphaned children and the impact on schooling, which you want to feed into the training.

You are a first-time visitor in the country and do not speak any of the local languages or understand social cues about politeness.

Activity 4 Weighing up risks and benefits in a research proposal

Timing: Allow approximately 20 minutes

Reflect on Case study 1.2 and complete this mapping exercise to help you decide whether you should or shouldn’t research the topic.

  1. On a piece of paper, draw a circle in the middle and split the page into two halves.
  2. Title one side of the paper ‘risks’ and list the risks you can imagine.
  3. Title the other side ‘benefits’, listing all the benefits you can imagine.
  4. Decide whether you think the benefits outweigh the risks (or vice versa).
  5. In the central circle, draw a see-saw which indicates your judgment as to whether the research proposal is justifiable or not. Point the end of the see-saw to whichever side represents your decision.

You can then take a photograph of your diagram (see Taking screenshots [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)]   for help with this) and upload the image to the course forum thread, which will mean you can see other learners’ ideas and opinions.

Note: In this forum post you may want to use an image, for advice on how to upload images to forum review our advice page.

It may not be appropriate, practical or ethical for you to conduct sensitive research yourself, but you can still build on other research in a worthwhile way. For example, it may not be appropriate for you to interview teenage mothers, but you can review previously published studies to draw conclusions about what is already known, evaluate the evidence available and propose new areas worthy of research.

If your studies take you to masters level, you will need to generate a dissertation topic that is practical, small-scale and, above all, ethical. This might involve carrying out desk, rather than field, based research. You will also be looking closely at published literature in your area of interest and identifying ideas for new research proposals. As a postgraduate student, you will be encouraged to analyse how ethics, research design and methodology are summarised by other researchers in presentations and reports.

Whatever discipline you are interested in, and whether your research plans with people might involve sensitive topics or not, you must be aware of how to act ethically and how your presence as a researcher impacts on others. That is why you need to be aware of who you are as a researcher, and your position in relation to other people.