Building ethics into the research design

Participatory approaches

‘No method is inherently participatory, it depends how a method is used’

(Ennew and Beazley, 2006 p 192)

According to Ennew and Beazley, the main principle of participatory approaches to research is that the people whose lives are being studied should:

  • be involved in defining the research questions; and
  • take an active role in both collecting and analysing the data.

In reality, very little research is wholly participatory, not least because research questions are almost always pre-defined - if not to secure funding, then because contact with participants is limited until research has been approved by an ethics committee (and so there is something of a Catch-22 situation).

One of the potential dangers of participatory research is that it can be tokenistic and can feel exploitative, if not done properly.  It raises a number of specific ethics considerations, as follows:

  • Often, vulnerable or relatively powerless communities or populations are involved, but without the participation of more powerful groups it is unlikely that the results of the research will have sufficient impact to achieve genuine change.  This can feel frustrating and disillusioning for the people involved.
  • Occasionally, the same groups are asked over and over again for their views in participatory activities, but very little change actually occurs.  This can again mean that people have their expectations raised, only to become disillusioned by research that promises much, but does not deliver.
  • Participatory approaches sometimes claim to ‘empower’ participants, but this raises questions about what ‘empowerment’ really means.  Can research genuinely shift the balance of power?  What are the implications of failing to do so?

In addition to these over-arching ethics tensions, participatory research raises a number of more practical ethics questions about how you work with and respect the expertise of people involved in the research.  These considerations are discussed in our sections on research led by service users and on involving participants in dissemination activities.