Building ethics into the research design

Excluded groups

Every study has to exclude many issues in order to concentrate on specific questions and to create a clear research focus. Deciding how wide a research area should be can be thought of as a bit like positioning a camera lens and choosing what will be inside and outside the frame of the photograph. But social research also has to take into account the broader context.

Studies may inadvertently, or deliberately, exclude certain categories of people, such as those who speak little English, or who have speech or learning difficulties. These studies therefore are likely to produce an incomplete picture, and thus misleading findings. The opposite, ethical approach is to make every process throughout the study as inclusive as possible. The study methods can reinforce the conclusions that inclusion is possible and can work very well.   

You need to consider whether your sample is defined theoretically or thematically (that is, you are sampling a particular category in the population because of your research focus or hypotheses), or whether your sample excludes certain categories of people just because it is less convenient or more challenging to include them.  If the latter, think about whether (and how) that can be addressed.  Ask yourself the following questions:

  • Will any categories of participants be excluded from your sample?
  • Can you justify that?  What are your reasons for deciding to include or exclude these groups? 
  • Either way, is this fair and respectful to the groups you have excluded?
  • Will your research design produce valid evidence without including those groups?  What are the implications for what you can conclude from your research?

An example: research with young children

Researchers studying childhood often sample children aged 8-17 years only.  Reasons that are given to support this practice might include: children aged under 8 years do not have clear views; they are not able to express views clearly; they cannot be relied on to provide valid evidence; they are too vulnerable to be included in research studies. Yet increasingly researchers and practitioners find that young and even preverbal children provide valuable data through their talk and behaviour, and that ignoring their views can unhelpfully distort research findings, policy and practice.