Ethics in fieldwork: reflections on the unexpected

Palmer, Jane and Fam, Dena and Smith, Tanzi and Kilham, Sarina (2014) Ethics in fieldwork: reflections on the unexpected. Qualitative Report, 19 (28). pp. 1-13. ISSN 1052-0147

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Research involving fieldwork can present the researcher with ethical dilemmas not anticipated in institutional ethics approval processes. Ethical dilemmas can present both profound personal and methodological challenges. Decisions made in response to these dilemmas have the potential to affect both the validity of data collected and its analysis at later stages of the research project. They may also generate feelings such as discomfort, uncertainty and guilt for the researcher. The authors’ experiences of conducting qualitative fieldwork in four distinctly different contexts illustrate some of these unexpected consequences and ethical dilemmas. Issues encountered included: compromised relationships with informants which develop in unforeseen ways; engagement with traumatized informants which lead to unexpected roles for the researcher such as confidante, dealing with new information that is critical to informants’ futures but could undermine the research project, and the implications of ethical decisions for research design and analysis. Through joint reflection on the researchers’ experiences and decisions, the four case studies in this paper provide a basis for examining anticipatory rather than reactive ways of dealing with ethical dilemmas. In acknowledging that one needs to expect the unexpected during field work, preparation and critical reflection were found to be key tools in relating to field informants, dealing with the personal challenges of undertaking field work and developing useful research outcomes after returning home. This paper concludes with some suggestions for field researchers regarding ethical and fieldwork design issues to consider in addition to the concerns addressed in a standard university ethics approval process.

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Item Type: Article (Commonwealth Reporting Category C)
Refereed: Yes
Item Status: Live Archive
Additional Information: Access to published version in accordance with the copyright policy of the publisher.
Faculty/School / Institute/Centre: Current - Institute for Resilient Regions
Faculty/School / Institute/Centre: Current - Institute for Resilient Regions
Date Deposited: 08 Feb 2016 05:52
Last Modified: 09 Feb 2016 06:10
Uncontrolled Keywords: fieldwork, qualitative research, research ethics, university ethics guidelines, fieldwork design
Fields of Research (2008): 22 Philosophy and Religious Studies > 2201 Applied Ethics > 220199 Applied Ethics not elsewhere classified
13 Education > 1301 Education Systems > 130103 Higher Education
13 Education > 1303 Specialist Studies in Education > 130302 Comparative and Cross-Cultural Education
22 Philosophy and Religious Studies > 2201 Applied Ethics > 220101 Bioethics (human and animal)
Socio-Economic Objectives (2008): C Society > 95 Cultural Understanding > 9599 Other Cultural Understanding > 959999 Cultural Understanding not elsewhere classified
E Expanding Knowledge > 97 Expanding Knowledge > 970113 Expanding Knowledge in Education
C Society > 93 Education and Training > 9399 Other Education and Training > 939999 Education and Training not elsewhere classified
C Society > 95 Cultural Understanding > 9504 Religion and Ethics > 950401 Bioethics

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