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Australasian Human Research Ethics Consultancy Services Pty Ltd (AHRECS)

Intuitive Research Ethics Training for Novices


The pedagogy of teaching research methods, let alone research ethics, is an under-researched field. In this blog entry, two postgraduate students reflect on their classroom experience where our lecturer engaged his students in a qualitative research ethics course, using two novice ethnographers’ candid empirical studies as the basis for discussion. While it is more usual for students to be schooled in ethics via lectures and seminars, what was unusual in this course was assigning the readings without first introducing the students to ethical concepts such as autonomy, do no harm, respect for participants or beneficence.

After Rachel and Louisa introduced ourselves to the other three members of the course, the lecturer placed his audio recorder on the table and activated the red light before introducing the course. In the midst of the awkward silence, we remember looking over to the other students, feeling confused and uneasy. Little did we realise at the time that our lecturer was reproducing the Asch conformity experiment. As the lecturer outlined the course goals and the assessment, none of us were listening, still blinded by the red glare and feeling unusually perturbed. Finally, after a few minutes one of us broke the ice asking the obvious question, “is that ethical?” The lecturer seemed perplexed. Another student translated, “she means do you need our consent for the audio recorder?” “What do you mean by consent?” he asked. Thus began a very different way of learning about research ethics. The lecturer didn’t instruct us on ethics, he believed each person’s moral compass was their guide. His role was provocateur, the class’s role was to locate ethical dilemmas in the readings presented, allowing us to solve them in situ. By asking the question “is this ethical” we had passed his first test. With our permission, the weekly classroom discussions were recorded, and our actual process of consent was part of learning by doing. The raw data for the co-authored journal article Teaching research ethics as active learning details our journey.

Our next substantive task asked us to review a newspaper article describing a situation where a researcher posed as a visiting academic and interviewed staff about their working conditions without informing them that he was their next Vice Chancellor (Lynley 2016).

Lynley, B. (2016, February 3). Lincoln University horrified after undercover encounter with new boss – Education – NZ Herald News. New Zealand Herald.

We remember thinking, “he should have told them that he was the preferred candidate for VC”. Concerned that this researcher failed to declare his prospective identity, we classified this act as a conflict of interest. It is only at that moment we realised the intentions of the lecturer in the opening moments of the class, he had tried to capitalise on a power differential implicit within our group between lecturer and students. The key learning here was to establish “power” as the primary ethical dilemma of research ethics for sociologists. We knew that had any member of our class objected to the recording of our discussions, the audio recorder would have been removed. Whereas with the scenario depicted above, the future Vice Chancellor failed to extend such an opportunity to his participants. In this way, our learning in this Qualitative Research Ethics class was incremental.

The lecturer then asked us to take the perspective of a resident in a community that both Venkatesh and Goffman describe and then share with the class any moments where we felt an unease with the relationship between researcher and researched.

Goffman, A. (2014) On the run: Fugitive life in an American city. Picador, New York.

Venkatesh, S. (2008). Gang Leader for a Day: A Rogue Sociologist Takes to the Streets. New York: Penguin.

Our responses, our learning are detailed in our article:

Tolich, M., Choe, L., Doesburg, A., Foster, A., Shaw, R. and Wither, D., 2017. Teaching research ethics as active learning: reading Venkatesh and Goffman as curriculum resources. International Journal of Social Research Methodology, pp.1-11.

The lecturer had two other unstated learning objectives. First, he wanted to illustrate the importance of formal ethics review as integral to the research process. Neither Goffman nor Venkatesh had sought formal ethics review and the class concluded each would have benefited from doing so. However, the ethics review process would have missed many of the “big ethical moments” that emerged while doing research in the field. The lecturer’s second objective was to encourage students to write about their big ethical moments, reflexively, and we did.

Looking back at our first day of graduate school, the presence of an active audio recorder succeeded in providing us with the framework necessary for learning qualitative ethics. The materials selected for this ethics class, mainly Venkatesh’s and Goffman’s work allowed us to take our gut feelings one step further, to discuss and debate the ethical dilemmas presented until we were able to reflexively understand that these social science researchers could improve on their practices. We were therefore able to move from ‘Ah! There is something wrong with this’ to the reasons why it was wrong and how it could have been done better. The critical thinking skills we established as ethics students not only allowed us to dissect the works we read, but helped us to apply these concepts to our own research practices.


Louisa Choe holds a PhD scholarship in sociology at the University of Otago conducting a mixed methods analysis of “Do the poor pay more?”

Rachel Shaw holds a MA scholarship in gender studies at the University of Otago conducting an oral history of the experiences of lesbians during the 1970s and 1980s in New Zealand.

This post may be cited as:
Choe L, and Shaw R. (2017, 16 March) Intuitive Research Ethics Training for Novices. Research Ethics Monthly. Retrieved from:

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