Becoming an ethical researcher
Becoming an ethical researcher

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Becoming an ethical researcher

4 Respecting relationship and power differentials

Whatever your discipline or area of interest, research with people involves identifying and taking into account differences in power. This is relevant whether you are researching people you know or don’t know. Power goes beyond obvious characteristics associated with age, gender, socio-economic status and cognitive capacity and may relate to wider cultural assumptions and expectations.

In the next two activities, you will have an opportunity to reflect on situations where power differentials need to be carefully considered.

Activity 8 Research and power in the workplace

Timing: Allow approximately 10 minutes

Reflect back on Case study 3.2 [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] and imagine you are one of the leaders in the school who wanted to carry out research about assessment practices. This would involve interviewing teachers – including those you line manage – to find out more about their views.

Think about:

  • whether you believe this study is justifiable
  • what the teachers might be concerned about
  • what you might need to discuss with the teachers to reassure them
  • the advantages and disadvantages of you carrying out the interviews
  • the other options you might have to meet the same research aims.
Described image
Figure 7 Portage is a practice in which visiting adults need to show respect to the families they support: those with young children with disabilities

Activity 9 Research on portage home visits

Timing: Allow approximately 5 minutes for Part A, 10 minutes for Part B and 5 minutes for Part C

Part A

To help you appreciate the kind of activities undertaken between home workers and children, watch this clip about Harry, a young child with Down’s syndrome.

Download this video clip.Video player: ee831_1_wk4_act9_part_a.mp4
Interactive feature not available in single page view (see it in standard view).

In the introduction to the clip, an IEP is referred to. This means an ‘individual educational plan’, which is an action-planning document used to target and review interventions with children needing additional support.

Reflect on whose permissions would need to be considered before this filming could have taken place in a home setting and be shared on a public website.

Part B

Now listen to Jonty Rix introducing how he became involved with this topic and his reflections on having some personal involvement as both a parent and a researcher.

Download this audio clip.Audio player: e822_2020j_aug003ab.mp3
Skip transcript


My name is Alison Fox and I am very much looking forward to talking with Jonathan Rix on the phone, about his studies with young children and their families.
So welcome Jonty. Could you tell us a little about the context for the study we are going to talk about please?
This started as a personal journey in many ways. I am a parent of a child with Down’s Syndrome, and I was someone who undertook Portage home visiting, which means that you have someone who comes to your house.
And from a very early age, my son, very early age in relation to my son. And you undertake activities that you build into your daily routine, that are developmentally focused. So they are around speech and language and physiotherapy and, and so forth.
And we had a colleague at the University called Alice Paige-Smith, and Alice used to hassle me in, in the kitchen saying, ‘you’ve got to write about this experience’, when I would talk to her about it. So this became the, the starting point for exploring the experiences of, of children of families in early intervention programmes.
Right, so that was where you sort of, came up with a focus for a piece of research. So can you talk us through the purpose of the study that you developed?
Well I was very, very resistant to undertaking the research, or to put my voice in there. I felt that I couldn’t represent any parent’s view any more than any other parent could.
But Alice was very, very persistent and she kept coming back to this conversation in the kitchen, and in the end, we sort of like started to work out a way in which my voice could be part of a number of different voices.
And we decided that the best thing to do would be to interview a variety of parents who were engaged in early intervention process, so that became our starting point.
We undertook an initial study with a group of parents where we interviewed them, and what emerged was that there was a real tension in all the parents’ experiences of
early intervention for their children.
And that there were certain activities and things which their children, to put it bluntly, hated doing. And that really the children only engaged in activities that they enjoyed, or that they found easy to do. But that they were expected to undertake activities that they didn’t enjoy, and they didn’t find easy to do, and that that created problems and tensions for them.
And so this then led us to, to thinking, well, we would like to explore this in more detail, and we came up with a proposal to undertake research in the homes of people who were involved in early intervention programmes.
And we got funding from the British Academy to undertake an ethnographic study with two families in the centre of London as it turned out, to explore their experiences.
That’s really interesting. So who did you think that the study was going to be able to benefit?
Well one hopes that it is going to benefit all those who are involved in the early intervention programme, and we are trying to answer the question about what were the experiences of these interventions, and where were the tensions and the learning opportunities in these experiences.
And so, that knowledge that emerged from that could have a positive impact for practitioners involved in early intervention, which includes Portage home visitors. It includes the speech and language therapists. It includes the physiotherapists, the occupational therapists but it also can include the families themselves, because they are clearly very much a part of this.
And we didn’t envisage it necessarily being of positive benefit in, within the research process itself, although that emerged to be the case. But there was certainly hope that it would inform future practise, and that that would therefore benefit the families who are involved in early intervention programmes.
I think one of the key bits for the whole experience though, was that I was an insider to the whole project, and so I was looking at how it would have impacted upon my own experiences as a, as a parent undertaking early intervention.
And my relationships with practitioners, but I was also a researcher so I was an outsider and I had another researcher working with me, Alice. Alice Paige-Smith, who was also an outsider, and so we were able to take this inside/outside position looking at the experiences of the families.
And we were hoping that that would be able to give a voice, an original voice that would be of use to both practitioners and to families, and hopefully to the children themselves.
That’s great Jonty. It would be really interesting Jonty, to hear how you decided on the research design for the study, and how it was designed to help you address the research focus.
Well, so often research design emerges in a, an iterative process that you move backwards and forwards. And we, we came up with one proposal originally that we submitted that didn’t get funding for, and that set us back to, to re-thinking about how we, we might frame it.
And we came to a place where we recognised the value of the Mosaic approach, which was something that was being developed by Alison Clarke. And the Mosaic approach uses photographs and map-making.
And Alice was particularly interested in this. I was particularly interested in, in narrative. I have a background in creative writing. And, and Alice was interested in some narrative assessment systems, that were used in places like Australia and New Zealand and so forth.
And so this led us to start to think about how we could use narrative interviews with the parents, interviews with key professionals, and we could start to use things like map-making and photography but actually within our, our proposal, in our second proposal, what we said was that we were going to develop the research methodology.
So rather than, than say exactly what it was we were going to do, so we left ourselves a slightly open-ended opportunity, when we got into the research context itself.
Okay, great. So can you tell us a bit more about what happened when you started getting into the context, to really try and work out what would work best as a design to address your research question?
Well we had a clear idea. We had an idea that we would, we were going to sit down, we were going to do narrative observations, we were going to write about what it was that was happening around us, that we were experiencing and that we were going to take photographs, and we were going to share the photographs with the family, and we were going to try and explore using that with the children, and that we were going to find the ways that these things would work best.
And then we would work with the children to maybe explore, and the families to explore spaces that they used to undertake early intervention. So we had these kind of ideas in our, in our head, but I sat down on the first morning in, in someone’s flat just outside Holborn Station, and I suddenly thought, as I was making my notes, what the hell am I doing here? What am I observing? What is it that I am looking at? What am I looking for?
And as I was thinking this and making my notes and observing what I was, a mother, sorry, a father and a son and a Portage home visitor undertaking early intervention. I, I suddenly found myself shifting and my narrative started to become the narrative of the child, and I started to write as ‘I’, and I started to write as if I was the child.
And it was like a light bulb moment. I suddenly found it a very different experience to writing in the third person about the child. When I was writing in the third person about the child, I was taking into consideration what it was that, the relationships between the adults in the room, the space itself, what was happening around.
Whereas when I wrote about ‘I’, I suddenly just focused in on what it was that I saw the child was experiencing and undertaking and involved in, and focused on.
I had a chat with Alice about this afterwards because we, part of our process was to constantly review and reflect on what it was that we had been undertaking earlier on that day. And she told me that I just shouldn’t do this.
That it was, it was ethically inappropriate to put, suggest that you could put yourself in the position of, of the child. And, and reflect, you know, repeat their experience.
And I explained that I wasn’t doing this, and this conversation and I have still got the notes, I have got the transcript of this conversation with Alice. She agrees that she will give it a go, and then she came back and she said she had the same experience.
And so this then, first person narrative became part of this method. And we had a similar kind of developmental approach in relation to the, the use of pictures. Where we would work with the children with pictures, and we tried using switches which are kind of like large versions of a mouse, where you hit buttons, so that the child can control the pictures.
We used books with photographs in that the child could, could flick through. We had printed versions of pictures. We had pictures on telephones. So we, we presented the pictures in different ways, to try and engage with the, with the child.
And we also experienced the different places and spaces in which we could interview. So we interviewed the parents in coffee shops. We interviewed them out for walks in the park. We interviewed them sat at the dining room table. We had formal interviews where we, where we said, ‘we are now going to be speaking to you in, in these different places’.
And so these then became part of the process, the research methodology, which was underpinned from this, this, a socio-cultural understanding of learning, rooted in, right back at the distance beginning, in, in a Mosaic approach starting point.
Okay, thanks Jonty. To what extent do you think your study would be considered ethnographic?
In retrospect it was ethnographic, in that we were engaged in, in people’s lives. We were gathering data within, as part of people’s experiences of activities that they undertook on a regular basis as a part of their day-to-day routine.
That’s the fundamental nature of the approach, the early intervention approach that is practised in England and the UK.
And we were exploring those experiences, but at the outset in our original proposals, we weren’t, we weren’t talking about it as ethnographic. Neither of us particularly thought of ourselves as being ethnographers.
What we were much more interested in doing was drawing on multiple voices, multiple perspectives. We were interested in situating this insider/outsider position of myself as the, as the insider, as the parent of a disabled child who had undertaken early intervention, and as an outsider, which is a researcher. And as Alice as the outsider, and we were much more interested in, in getting the voices of all the, the different practitioners who work with the child, the child’s voice was absolutely key to it, the parent’s voice, the people around the family more generally.
We were interested in those multiple voices, and the way that that emerged was something that, we came to understand retrospectively, was ethnographic. We can put our hands on our hearts and say it was an ethnographic study, but that wasn’t necessarily, that wasn’t what we wrote in the original application for funding.
Okay, that’s great.
End transcript
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Part C

For each of the following relationships Jonty, as the researcher, needed to plan for, choose two possible actions he could take to minimise the reduce the impact of power differences during his ethnographic fieldwork for each relationship.

Relationships between:

  • A.the researcher and the child
  • B.the researcher and parents
  • C.the researcher and home visitors
  • D.the parents and their child 

Possible actions:

  1. show that nobody is being judged or evaluated
  2. plan several visits to build up trust
  3. show listening skills
  4. only observe or visit at agreed times and do not overstay agreed arrangements
  5. give information on the benefits of the research
  6. be observed to have comfortable presence with parents, increasing likelihood that you will be trusted by the child
  7. stop observations/recording if you feel that tensions are high, and parents or child become upset in a way that feels private (checking afterwards that this was appropriate behaviour)
  8. refer to your own experiences where relevant, of how a researcher can show their credibility and why they have the right to be conducting the research.


The following are possible answers you could have chosen; some of the actions might have been relevant for other relationships, too.

Relationships Actions
A. the researcher and the child 6, 2
B. the researcher and parents 3, 8
C. the researcher and home visitors 1, 5
D. the parents and their child 4, 7

For further information, please see the National Portage Association website (make sure to open this link in a new tab/window so you can easily return to this page).


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