The ethics of researching practice

Background: this is a short assignment for a compulsory subject, Qualitative Methods in Regulation and Governance.  I’m sharing it here because I’d love to hear your thoughts about what you would want from a researcher who was observing the development of a resource, campaign, or policy initiative involving your organisation or community.  I don’t have HREC approval yet so I’m asking out of personal curiosity rather than as research.

Reflective practice

Section One of the National Statement on Ethical Conduct in Human Research (NHMRC 2007, ch. 1) sets out values that govern research with human participants, including respect for human beings, research merit and integrity, justice and beneficence. The assignment question asks about more pragmatic issues, such as sensitivities and conflicting interests, relationships of power, and conducting research in a way that is respectful and sensitive to participants. I understand these as the critical and practical dimensions of research conduct which, if managed badly during my project, may set the scene for the more fundamental values conflicts contemplated in the National Statement.

My project aims to undertake ethnographic study of the development of two campaigns in public health. This will include interviews and observations of public health practitioners in settings that include their own stakeholders, such as funders, policy-makers, colleagues from other organisations and, potentially, members of communities they are engaging with. Working within the ethics of care approach advocated by feminist thinker Carol Gilligan, which sees participants not just as isolated autonomous subjects but as interdependent – embedded in networks of personal and professional relationships that matter to them, and vulnerable to the consequences of my own choices, both in ways that may not be easily (or at all) visible to me. This is internally consistent with my research methodology of multi-sited ethnography, which sets out to trace the associations and connections within and between multiple research sites.

The practical recommendation of Gilligan’s theory is to attend closely to the details of the context or situation in order to understand how to protect the interests of those involved in it.  A particular challenge in my project will be the presence of multiple stakeholders who have agendas, power relations and interests that may be at odds with each other. Gilligan suggests that problems of this nature “require for (their) resolution a mode of thinking that is contextual and narrative rather than formal and abstract” (Liu, 1995). Since every narrative is multivocal, this invites consultation with my participants on how to manage the reputational risks and ethical concerns that arise.

However, my project does have an agenda: to identify opportunities where campaign development can more fully consider issues of stigma and health inequities. Being ‘sensitive and respectful’ runs the risk of shading into deception, if I conceal the extent to which I am listening for the purposes of later criticism. As a critical reflexive practitioner, I have often encountered the argument that criticism is ‘unfair’. As Adrianna Kezar (2003) argues, elite interviews have transformative potential – they can make participants aware of the gap between their ideals and their practice. Respect for my own participants may not mean protecting them from this awareness (e.g. ‘being sensitive’), but rather leaving them the power to decide what to do about it. From a practical standpoint this lets me report on successful resolutions of potential concerns, and demonstrates that my change project is achievable.