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Stop centring Western academic ethics: deidentification in social science research – Anna Denejkina0

 

This blog will provide a discussion of issues present in deidentifying marginalised research participants, or research participants who request to be identified, in the publication of qualitative research. As my research is mixed-method (quantitative and multi-method qualitative) it included several data collection techniques and analyses. For this discussion, I will specifically focus on the face-to-face and Skype interviews I conducted with participants in Russia and the United States.

My PhD study investigates intergenerational transmission of combat-related trauma from parent to child, focusing on the Soviet–Afghan war, 1979–89. This research includes interviews with Soviet veterans and family members of veterans; it was these interviews that raised questions of participant erasure and agency. From 12 face-to-face and Skype interview participants, one participant requested complete deidentification; one requested that their real name not be used but their location and other identifying details remain; two participants requested that only their first names be used and their location and other identifying details remain; the eight remaining participants requested that they be fully identified, with some participants sending me photographs of them and their families for inclusion in research publications. Given the social and political sensitivity that persists in Eastern Europe around the discussion of the Soviet invasion into Afghanistan, I had to consider and discuss with participants that requested they be identified the issue of their safety.

My research participants are marginalized participants by virtue of the topic of my research, the Soviet–Afghan war, and the ongoing silencing treatment they’ve received during and following the war by the state:

To take just two examples: in the hope of obscuring the true impact of the war, some local authorities refused to allow special areas in cemeteries to be set apart for the graves of soldiers killed in Afghanistan; while others forbade the cause and place of death to be stated on gravestones or memorial shields. (Aleksievich, Whitby & Whitby 1992, p.5–6)

Given academic broad-stroke standards of deidentifying research participants, we must review the ethics of this practice as it can promote and perpetuate erasure of marginalised participants and the silencing of their voices. Some textbooks on the topic of ethics in the social sciences approach anonymity and deidentification of participants from the angle that anonymity is part of the basic expectations of a research participant, without elaborating that anonymity is not always desirable nor ethical (see for example Ransome 2013), essentially replicating the medical model of human research ethics developed for the regulation of biomedical research in the United States (Dingwall 2016, p.25). Such an approach does not address the issues of presenting anonymity as a status-quo in social research, and makes a sweeping – and a Western academic – generalisation that anonymity is one of the vital assurances researchers must give to their participants to keep within their duty of care (that is, that researchers have at least some obligation to care for their research participants).

This approach to research ethics negates participant agency, particularly those participants that request they be identified in research. Furthermore, forced anonymity can be an act of disrespecting participants (Mattingly 2005, p.455–456) who may have already experienced invisibility and who are then further erased through anonymity by researchers (Scarth & Schafer 2016, p.86); for example, “in some Australian and, in particular, some Indigenous cultures, failing to name sources is both a mark of disrespect and a sign of poor research practice” (Israel, Allen & Thomson 2016, p.296).

As researchers, we must also question if presenting this approach as a vital tenet of social research can become a damaging rule-of-thumb for new researchers who might, therefore, not question the potential undermining of participant agency, and use deidentification unethically as a sweeping regulation within their research without consideration for the individual situations of their research participants. This is part of the issue created by applying a medical model of ethics assessment processes to the social sciences, in which the prevailing interpretation is that deidentification is also required within social research, whereas the reality is that specific agreements between the researcher and the research participant must be honoured.

The ethical dilemma, therefore is: can researchers ethically deidentify participants at the expense of the participants’ agency, potentially perpetuating the historical and symbolic erasure of their voices and experiences? I argue that, based on research design and data collection methods, this decision-making process is an ‘ethics in practice’ and must be approached in context, individually for each study, and for each individual participant.
As scholars, we want to minimise or eradicate harm that might come to our participants through our research. While we think “in advance about how to protect those who are brought into the study” (Tolich 2016, p.30) this must be a continual process throughout our project, in which we “work out the meaning of what constitutes ethical research and human rights in a particular context” (Breckenridge, James & Jops 2016, p.169; also see Ntseane 2009). This is important to note, because protection does not only refer to participants but also to others connected to them. For example, the use of a real name at the request of a participant may expose their family member(s) who were not part of the research.

Consequentialist approaches to ethics suggest that “an action can be considered morally right or obligatory if it will produce the greater possible balance of good over evil” (Israel, 2015: 10; also see Reynolds, 1979). This is an approach we could take to issues around deidentification; however, this also means that researchers must know what is good or bad. In studies like mine, this would mean knowing (or making an attempt, or an assumption to know) what is good or bad for my research participants. This action is infantilising, and places the researcher above the research participant by making the final call ourselves, which is to remove participant agency – if we can assume participants are autonomous during the research consent process, we must also assume that they are autonomous in making decisions with respect to their identification (Said 2016, p.212). Additionally, this action may be culturally insensitive given that Western human research ethics committees follow Western cultural guidelines, centring the dominance of Western academia.

The ethical issues I faced during my PhD research highlight why researchers cannot take a sweeping approach to deidentification in qualitative research – not even for a single study. ‘Ethics in practice’ means that each participant’s situation is analysed individually, and issues around erasure, safety, and their agency weighed against each other to reach a conclusion. I propose that if this conclusion is at odds with the preference of the participant, that it must then be taken back to the participant for further discussion. Not implementing this aspect of ‘ethics in practice’ goes against social science ethics, that we must avoid doing long-term and systemic harm, both of which come through erasure and silencing. We must also remember that “any research project has the potential to further disenfranchise vulnerable groups” (Breckenridge, James & Jops 2016, p.169), and ignoring the wishes of participants regarding their identification due to a Western model of ethics can cause further damage to these groups.

References:
Aleksievich, S., Whitby, J. & Whitby, R. 1992, Zinky Boys: Soviet voices from a forgotten war, Chatto & Windus, London.

Breckenridge, J., James, K. & Jops, P. 2016, ‘Rights, relationship and reciprocity: Ethical research practice with refugee women from Burma and New Delhi, India’, in K. Nakray, M. Alston & K. Whittenbury (eds), Social Sciences Research Ethics for a Globalizing World: Interdisciplinary and Cross-Cultural Perspectives, Routledge, New York, pp. 167–186.

Dingwall, R. 2016, ‘The social costs of ethics regulation’, in W.C. van den Hoonaard & A. Hamilton (eds),The Ethics Rupture, University of Toronto Press, Toronto, pp. 25–42.

Israel, M., Allen, G. & Thomson, C. 2016, ‘Australian research ethics governance: Plotting the demise of the adversarial culture’, in W.C. van der Hoonaard & A. Hamilton (eds),The Ethics Rupture, University of Toronto Press, Toronto, pp. 285–216.

Mattingly, C. 2005, ‘Toward a vulnerable ethics of research practice’, Health: An Inderdisciplinary Journal for the Social Study of Health, Illness and Medicine, vol. 9, no. 4, pp. 453–471.

Ntseane, P.G. 2009, ‘The ethics of the researcher-subject relationship: Experiences from the field’, in D.M. Mertens & P.E. Ginsberg (eds), The Handbook of Social Research Ethics, 1st edn, Sage, Thousand Oaks, pp. 295–307.
Ransome, P. 2013, ‘Social research and professional codes of ethics’, Ethics and Values in Social Research, Palgrave Macmillan, Basingstoke, pp. 24–53.

Said, D.G. 2016, ‘Transforming the lens of vulnerability: Human agency as an ethical consideration in research with refugees’, in K. Nakray, M. Alston & K. Whittenbury (eds),Social Sciences Research Ethics for a Globalizing World: Interdisciplinary and Cross-Cultural Perspectives, Routledge, New York, pp. 208–222.

Scarth, B. & Schafer, C. 2016, ‘Resilient Vulnerabilities: Bereaved Persons Discuss Their Experience of Participating in Thanatology Research’, in M. Tolich (ed.), Qualitative Ethics in Practice, Left Coast Press, Walnut Creek, CA, pp. 85–98.

‘Tolich, M. 2016, ‘Contemporary Ethical Dilemmas in Qualitative Research’, in M. Tolich (ed.), Qualitative Ethics in Practice, Left Coast Press, Walnut Creek, CA, pp. 25–32.

Statement of interest
No interests to declare.

Contributor
Anna Denejkina | Casual Academic and PhD  candidate in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, researching intergenerational trauma transmission UTS | Staff profileAnna.Denejkina@uts.edu.au

This post may be cited as:
Denejkina A. (24 May 2018) Stop centring Western academic ethics: deidentification in social science research. Research Ethics Monthly. Retrieved from: https://ahrecs.com/human-research-ethics/stop-centring-western-academic-ethics-deidentification-in-social-science-research-anna-denejkina

On the Problem of “Worldlessness”. Do The Declaration of Helsinki and the Council for International Organizations of Medical Science Guidelines Protect the Stateless in the Research Context?0

 

Associate Professor Deborah Zion
Chair, Victoria University, HREC.
deborah.zion@vu.edu.au

Can these bones live? Ezekiel, 37:3.

The Declaration of Helsinki has considerable guidance on working with vulnerable research participants, and vulnerability in research is the focus of the Council for International Organizations of Medical Science (CIOMS) guidance document. Both of these documents have undergone recent revisions[1]. However, a broader question remains about these and other national guidelines; namely, how can we translate them into practice? When conducting research with one of the world’s most vulnerable populations, namely those seeking asylum, guidelines must be operationalised with creativity so that the research imperative can be fulfilled.

For Hannah Arendt, the refugee was the archetypical figure that revealed the contradiction between universal rights and national sovereignty. For her it was the loss of rights which was, and remains, the defining attribute of the refugee. She insists that the fundamental deprivation of human rights is manifested first and above all in the deprivation of a place in the world.

In Australia the vulnerability experienced by statelessness is further exacerbated by such persons being incarcerated in offshore detention centres on Nauru and in Papua New Guinea, shut away from the oversight of human rights institutions. Nonetheless, there is an imperative to conduct research about this population, in order to record the conditions of detention and to bear witness, as an act of solidarity, the egregious human rights violations suffered by those detained.

What then do the guidelines say about vulnerable populations, and how can we translate this into research with refugees and asylum seekers?

Clause 19 of The Declaration of Helsinki, states that

Some groups and individuals are particularly vulnerable and may have an increased likelihood of being wronged or of incurring additional harm. All vulnerable groups and individuals should receive specifically considered protection[2].

CIOMS Guideline 15 and the accompanying commentary state that

When vulnerable individuals and groups are considered for recruitment in research, researchers and research ethics committees must ensure that specific protections are in place to safeguard the rights and welfare of these individuals and groups in the conduct of the research.

The account of vulnerability in this Guideline seeks to avoid considering members of entire classes of individuals as vulnerable. However, it is useful to look at the specific characteristics that may render individuals vulnerable, as this can aid in identifying the special protections needed for persons who may have an increased likelihood of being wronged or of incurring additional harm as participants in research. Different characteristics may also co-exist, making some individuals more vulnerable than others. This is highly dependent on the context. For example, persons who are illiterate, marginalized by virtue of their social status or behaviour, or living in an authoritarian environment, may have multiple factors that make them vulnerable [3].

In Australia, The National Statement on Ethical Conduct in Human Research[4] specifically mentions refugees in Chapter 4.3, as persons likely to be in dependent and unequal relationships, thus indicating the complexity inherent in working with disempowered populations.

It is the case that asylum seekers have multiple layers of vulnerability, based upon rights’ deprivation, age, previous experience of torture, sexual violence, gender and family separation. These guidelines set some broad perimeters that are certainly worthy of consideration and, as a framework, they are indeed useful. There is, however, no detail about how we might translate from theory to practice[5].

In particular, they do not help us resolve the conflict between on the one hand obtaining informed consent from those detained, where access is limited, conditions constrain autonomy, and we cannot check for understanding and competence, and on the other the imperative to conduct research. CIOMS guidelines 9 and 10 give explicit direction concerning informed consent and, consistent with many other guidelines, prohibit research without consent unless the benefit is very great and the potential risk very small. On this basis, direct research involving asylum seekers in detention cannot be carried out.

More particularly, Calvin Ho suggests the guidelines do not go far enough in addressing situational and structural contributions to vulnerability[6]. These leave researchers working in situations where there is great structural as well as personal vulnerability for participants to find creative ways to uncover, record and analyse injustices that might otherwise be hidden from public view, and from mechanisms of accountability. We encourage researchers to find ways of creating and utilising all forms of data, such as published reports, newspaper articles, and interviews with those who have knowledge but are less vulnerable, without ever compromising the importance of informed consent.

How should both researchers and those engaged in ethics review think about these complex issues? The first issue relates to informed consent, especially when asylum seekers are incarcerated, and speaks to whether or not powerless people, even when fully competent, can give informed consent. We also encourage researchers to find a way to fulfil research imperatives that promote justice for highly vulnerable populations wherever possible, through gathering data in ways that do not compromise those who are already highly vulnerable[7].

For our own part, over 14 years we collected a considerable number of interviews from healthcare providers, including rich descriptive accounts of detention life and the way in which the right to health was, and continues to be undermined. These were matched with every other source available. We have built up a very complex picture of life in onshore detention as well as on Manus Island and Nauru. While things continue to deteriorate, it is not possible for people to pretend these events did not take place.

There were two other important outcomes. The first was that healthcare providers could utilise our work when making decisions about whether to work in asylum seeker detention and, if so, the ethical implications of their choice. The second was that those who spoke to us became witnesses to the suffering they had seen. Their participation therefore became an act of solidarity for those who could not speak for themselves. As David Robertson et al. state:

[Witnessing] entails being with people who are victims of injustice or violence and thereby showing that they have not been abandoned… it entails testifying to the outside world about the injustice or violence observed, and advocating that the world community bring about change. Bearing witness can thus facilitate and fuel human solidarity in the face of tragedy, and contribute to focussing international attention.[8]

Notes

[1] CIOMS, International ethical guidelines for health-related research involving humans, 2016. https://cioms.ch/wp-content/uploads/2017/01/WEB-CIOMS-EthicalGuidelines.pdf

World Medical Association, Declaration of Helsinki – Ethical Principles for Medical Research Involving Human Subjects,2018.https://www.wma.net/policies-post/wma-declaration-of-helsinki-ethical-principles-for-medical-research-involving-human-subjects/\

[2]  World Medical Association, ibid.

 

[3] CIOMS, ibid.

 

[4] NHMRC, The National Statement on Ethical Conduct in Human Research, 2007. Updated 2015. https://www.nhmrc.gov.au/_files_nhmrc/publications/attachments/e72_national_statement_may_2015_150514_a.pdf

 

[5] Such guidance is provided elsewhere, for example by the European Commission in its Guidance Note on Research on refugees, asylum seekers and migrants. See http://ec.europa.eu/research/participants/data/ref/h2020/other/hi/guide_research-refugees-migrants_en.pdf

 

[6] Calvin Ho, CIOMS guidelines remain conservative about vulnerability and social justice, Indian Journal of Medical Ethics, June, 2017.

 

[7] Such strategies might be included in submissions to the NHMRC’s consultation on the National Statement Part 4. See https://ahrecs.com/resources/nhmrc-invitation-to-provide-feedback-to-inform-a-review-of-section-4-of-the-national-statement-on-ethical-conduct-in-human-research

 

[8] David Robertson et al. What kind of evidence do we need to justify humanitarian medical aid? The Lancet, 360, no.9329, 2002, pp.330- 333. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1016/S0140-6736(02)09558-2

 

Disclosure of interest
I declare I have no conflict of interest.

Contributor
See above

This post may be cited as:
Zion D. (30 March 2018) On the Problem of “Wordlessness”. Do The Declaration of Helsinki and the Council for International Organizations of Medical Science Guidelines Protect the Stateless in the Research Context?. Research Ethics Monthly. Retrieved from: https://ahrecs.com/human-research-ethics/on-the-problem-of-wordlessness-do-the-declaration-of-helsinki-and-the-council-for-international-organizations-of-medical-science-guidelines-protect-the-stateless-in-the-research-con

Disaster Research and its Ethical Review1

 

Disaster research ethics is a growing area of interest within the research ethics field. Given the lack of a universal definition of disasters, it should not be a surprise that disaster research ethics is defined in various ways. Early approaches focused on ethical issues in conducting research in the acute phase of disasters (O’Mathúna 2010). Given the similarities of some of the ethical issues, it came to include humanitarian crises and emergencies. A recent review combined mental health research in natural disasters, armed conflicts and the associated refugee and internally displaced persons (IDP) settings (Chiumento et al. 2017). Each of these settings raises distinct ethical issues, as well as practical challenges for those ethically reviewing disaster research. The 2016 revision of the Council for International Organizations of Medical Sciences (CIOMS) research ethics guidelines included a section on disaster research (https://cioms.ch/wp-content/uploads/2017/01/WEB-CIOMS-EthicalGuidelines.pdf). This blog will highlight a few of the practical challenges and note some efforts to respond to these.

One issue is how some disasters happen suddenly, while research ethics review takes time. The 2016 CIOMS guidelines call for innovative approaches to research ethics review, including ways to pre-assess protocols so that they can be reviewed rapidly once a relevant disaster occurs. As committees develop ways to adapt to disaster research, other review practices can be examined to identify innovative approaches to the challenges.

A key ethical issue to address with disaster research is whether a particular project should be conducted at this time with these particular participants. In the most immediate phase of an acute disaster, resources and energy should be focused on search and rescue. Researchers could hinder this, or divert scarce resources. At the same time, data should be collected as soon as possible to contribute to the evidence based for first responders. Ethics review committees should ensure justifications are provided for why a project needs to be done during the acute phase. Questions also need to be asked about whether disaster survivors have more important needs than to participate in research. For example, some have questioned whether children who survive war should be asked to participate in research when there are few resources available to help them with the mental health challenges of surviving war (Euwema et al. 2008).

With the move towards a more evidence-based approach to humanitarian work, international and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) are increasingly engaging in research and other evaluation programmes. Some of these organisations may have little experience with research or research ethics, and hence need additional support in developing and conducting projects. Much debate has occurred over what ‘counts’ as research and is therefore required to undergo formal research ethics approval. Rather than asking if a project is research or not, it is more important to identify the ethical issues in the project and ensure they are being addressed as carefully and thoroughly as possible (Chiumento et al. 2017). Needs assessments, projects that monitor or evaluate programmes, public health surveillance, and many other activities raise ethical issues whether or not they are formal academic research studies. At the same time, every project does not need to submit the same sort of detailed research ethics application as a randomised control trial of an experimental drug. Some sort of ethical evaluation should be conducted, and here again there is an opportunity to be innovative. Different formal and informal review mechanisms could be developed to support groups conducting different types of projects. The key concern should be that the ethical issues are being examined and addressed.

Also key here is that people in the communities from which participants will be sought are involved from the design of the project (O’Mathúna 2018). Too many ‘parachute projects’ have been conducted (some with ethical approval) whereby the project is designed completely by outsiders. Once everything has been decided, the team approaches the community only to identify a lack of interest in participating or that certain ethical challenges have been overlooked. Research in other cultures, especially in the midst of armed conflicts, is especially prone to such challenges. Review committees may need to encourage exploratory discussions between researchers and participant communities, or seek evidence of how such discussions have gone.

Unexpected ethical issues often arise in disaster research given the instability and complexity of its settings (O’Mathúna & Siriwardhana 2017). An approach where ethics review bodies give approval to projects and then have little or no engagement other than an annual report is especially inadequate in disasters. Researchers may be forced to make changes in fluid settings, or may encounter unexpected issues. Submitting amendments may not be practical or fast enough, when what is needed is advice and direction from those with research ethics expertise. Thus, initiatives are being developed to provide “on call” ethics advice.

This points to how disaster research often requires additional support and protection for researchers than other types of research. Researchers may enter danger zones (natural or violent) and may see or learn of horrors and atrocities. Researchers can be subjected to physical dangers or traumatised psychologically.. In addition to the normal stresses of conducting research, these additional factors can lead to mistakes and even ethical corner-cutting. Therefore, review committees need to carefully investigate how the physical and mental well-being of researchers will be protected and supported.

These are some examples of how research ethics needs to go beyond approval processes to mechanisms that promote ethical decision-making and personal integrity during research. One such project in which I am involved is seeking insight from humanitarian researchers into the ethical issues experienced in the field (http://PREAportal.org). We are also conducting a systematic review of such issues and collecting case studies from researchers. The goal is to produce a practical tool to facilitate learning lessons from disaster researchers and promote ethical decision-making within teams.

The world is increasingly experiencing disasters and conflicts and huge amounts of resources are put into responses. Some of these resources are put towards evaluating disaster responses, and developing evidence to support disaster responders. We can expect disaster research to increase and to be increasingly seen by research ethics committees. It is therefore important that ethics committees prepare themselves to respond to the ethical challenges that disaster research raises.

References

Chiumento, A., Rahman, A., Frith, L., Snider, L., & Tol, W. A. (2017). Ethical standards for mental health and psychosocial support research in emergencies: Review of literature and current debates. Globalization and Health 13(8). doi 10.1186/s12992-017-0231-y

Euwema, M., de Graaff, D., de Jager, A., & Kalksma-Van Lith, B. (2008). Research with children in war-affected areas. In: Research with Children, Perspectives and Practices, 2nd edition. Eds. Christensen, P. & James, A. Abingdon, UK: Routledge; 189-204.

O’Mathúna, D.  (2010). Conducting research in the aftermath of disasters: Ethical considerations. Journal of Evidence-Based Medicine 3(2):65-75.

O’Mathúna, D. (2018). The dual imperative in disaster research ethics. In: SAGE Handbook of Qualitative Research Ethics. Eds. Iphofen, R. & Tolich M. London: SAGE; 441-454.

O’Mathúna, D., & Siriwardhana, C. (2017). Research ethics and evidence for humanitarian health. Lancet 390(10109):2228-9.

Declaration of interests

Dónal O’Mathúna has been involved in research ethics for over twenty years. He was chair of the Research Ethics Committee at Dublin City University (DCU) for six years. In addition to his joint position at DCU and The Ohio State University, he is Visiting Professor of Ethics in the European Master in Disaster Medicine, Università del Piemonte Orientale, Italy. His research interests focus on ethical issues in disasters, in particular disaster research ethics. He was Chair of the EU-funded COST Action (2012-2016) on Disaster Bioethics (http://DisasterBioethics.eu) and is the Principal Investigator on the R2HC-funded research project, Post-Research Ethics Analysis (http://PREAportal.org).

Contributor
Dónal O’Mathúna, PhD
Associate Professor, School of Nursing & Human Sciences, Dublin City University, Ireland
Associate Professor, College of Nursing, The Ohio State University, Columbus, Ohio, USA
Dónal’s DCU profiledonal.omathuna@dcu.ie
Twitter: @domathuna
http://BioethicsIreland.ie

This post may be cited as:
O’Mathúna D. (2018, 26 February 2018) ‘Disaster Research and its Ethical Review’. Research Ethics Monthly. Retrieved from https://ahrecs.com/human-research-ethics/disaster-research-ethical-review

‘Don’t mention the c word: Covert research and the stifling ethics regime in the social sciences’0

 

Covert research is associated with deliberate deception in social research and equated with harm and risk to the researcher, the researched, the institution and the field. It is a controversial and emotive tradition that runs counter to and violates the received orthodoxy and professional mantra of informed consent enshrined in various ethical committees, institutional review boards and professional codes of practice. It is a methodological pariah and last resort position that is frowned upon, submerged, marginalized, stigmatized and effectively demonized (Calvey, 2017) in the social sciences. Indeed, to some in that community, to even contemplate a covert move is a belligerent step too far, which displays a cavalier attitude and belligerent lack of ethics. This view of deliberate misrepresentation (Erikson, 1967) accurately represents the received tone of much of the debate around covert research for a lengthy period of time. For many, despite the growing critical literature on informed consent as ideologically idealistic and disconnected from field realities, this derogatory and simplistic characterization of covert research has not altered.

I call for a fairer reading of the covert tradition and, hopefully in turn, a greater appreciation and recognition of the disruptive and invigorating role that covert research has brought to the social sciences. By using covert research, one enters into an ethical labyrinth and moral minefield, saturated in ethical dilemmas and puzzles, but it does not automatically follow that covert researchers have no ethical conscience. Often what are displayed are complex ethical self-regulations and guilt syndromes. Ethics then becomes a situated matter of application as well as a textbook understanding. What is partly called for is a broader and more nuanced way of understanding research ethics in practice.

From my own covert ethnography of bouncers in the night-time economy of Manchester, I experienced a series of ethical moments around witnessing violence and gaining deviant knowledge, that I managed in the field. Part of my sustained passing in the setting was accepting and not altering their moral code and sensibility about events, even though I might have a different personal interpretation. After my lived experience of six months as a covert nomadic bouncer doing different doors in the city, I felt that I had a richer appreciation of their subcultural values and cultural realities. Part of my investigation was in debunking the moral panics and stigma around bouncing being by one of them from the inside.

The classic covert exemplars of Cressey and his study of sex work, Festinger et al and their study of religious cults, Goffman’s study of Asylums, Milgram’s torture and pain experiments, Humphreys’ study of  public sexual deviance and Rosenhan’s pseudo-patient study of psychiatric diagnoses are found in most ethics textbooks and are clearly seminal and instructive work with a significant ongoing scholarship about them, which tend to conventionally frame the field of covert research. However, these classics, or what I call usual suspects, can also limit and narrow our understanding of the covert diaspora, with many other covert gems staying submerged. Also, some might erroneously draw the conclusion that covert research is an older tradition that is not conducted anymore. Indeed, the contemporary covert diaspora, on further investigation, is very diverse in the social sciences and spans several topics and fields including, and not definitively, crime, education, health, leisure, politics, religion and work.

On further granulation, these covert studies are rarely purist and employ more mixed strategies involving gate-keeping and key informants. Some studies, moreover, involve more unwitting types of concealment, rather than being designed deceptively. The diaspora then is more akin to a continuum rather than a fixed state of deception. Because the field of covert research is not incremental, integrated, or cross-fertilized, some of the studies have a stand-alone status in their respective fields. This is also compounded by the dearth of dedicated literature on covert research.

There has been a revival of sorts in covert research, although it is ultimately still likely to remain a relatively niche position. This revival, in part, comes from the significant rise in popularity of autoethnography and cyber ethnography, particularly forms of online lurking. A significant amount of them have covert dimensions, both witting and unwitting. A diverse range of sensitive and controversial topics has been explored by both methods.

The classic ethical question of do the means justify the ends often trades on an ideal-type view of informed consentand an inflated and exaggerated view of the potential harm, risk, and danger of covert research.

The hyper-alarmist response to covert research is partly based on a caricatured picture of covert research as heroic. Related to this, the image of the covert researcher is also tied up with versions of undercover research from popular culture in the sense of filmic and television sources, which can give an overly romanticized and glamorized view of the field. Covert research has also been a long accepted and normalized investigatory strategy for a range of practitioners and professionals, particularly in the police, the military and investigative journalism. Some of these covert investigations have had significant impact and influenced reform and change.

Covert research thus becomes a convenient scapegoat for those ethicists who quickly and strictly oppose it in any format, even if it could be used in a complementary way as part of a mixed or multiple methods approach. Covert work can be justified by providing a different type of insider insight, particularly in secretive settings and with illicit topics.

That is not to say that covert research can be zealously seen as a panacea. Nor is it the case that we no longer need robust ethical review processes and that ethical boards and committees are thus rejected and redundant. Such processes and organizations are useful and necessary but they need to refine, connect and adapt their policy sensibilities and mentalities to the messy nature of fieldwork realities.

In the current increasingly corporate climate of research, there has been what Hammersley (2010) cogently describes as creeping ethical regulation and the strangling of research, with covert research being particularly stifled. Miller (1995) described covert participation as the least used method and called for its reconsideration. Roulet et al (2017), in their more recent reconsideration of the value of covert research, argue that it has had a profound role in shaping the social sciences. Covert research can be a creative way, and certainly not the only way, to positively disrupt how we think about applied ethics. It offers an alternative way of doing situated ethics rather than being utterly devoid of them. Covert research is not to everyone’s taste, and will probably continue to offend some, but it should, nevertheless, be considered. Covert research will no doubt remain an object of both fear and fascination.

References

Calvey, D. (2017) Covert Research: The Art, Ethics and Politics of Undercover Fieldwork, London: Sage.

Erikson, K. T. (1967) ‘A comment on disguised observation in sociology’, Social Problems, 14 (4): 366–373.

Hammersley, M. (2010) ‘Creeping Ethical Regulation and the Strangling of Research’, Sociological Research Online, 15 (4) 16.

Miller, M. (1995) ‘Covert Participant Observation: Reconsidering the least used method’, Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice, 11 (2): 97-105.

Roulet, T. J., Gill, M. J., Stenger, S and Gill, D. J. (2017) ‘Reconsidering the Value of Covert Research: The Role of Ambiguous Consent in Participant Observation’, Organizational Research Methods, 20 (3): 487-517.

Contributor
Dr David Calvey
Senior Lecturer | Manchester Metropolitan University | Staff profile | d.calvey@mmu.ac.uk

This post may be cited as:
Calvey D. (2017, 6 February 2018) ‘Don’t mention the c word: Covert research and the stifling ethics regime in the social sciences’. Research Ethics Monthly. Retrieved from https://ahrecs.com/human-research-ethics/dont-mention-c-word-covert-research-stifling-ethics-regime-social-sciences

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