Building ethics into the research design

Practitioner research and dual roles

Researchers have sometimes taken on social roles, in order to fit into the world they are researching.  Often this approach is used when behaviours are secretive, or when groups of people or their activities are stigmatised in some way. 

At other times, researchers may wish to study organisations, or other groups of which they are already a part - such as their workplace.

These assumed or dual roles raise particular ethics questions.  For example:

How far is it appropriate to use your professional position - or your position as an ‘insider’ - to gain access to information or people that you would not otherwise have access to? 

Think about the range of bureaucratic safeguards that an external researcher would have to satisfy in order to access the people and information that you have access to as a matter of course in your role.  What checks and safeguards do you need to put in place to make to make sure that your professional position does not undermine your position as an ethical researcher?

What happens in relation to informed consent if participant observation is done covertly? 

Can covert or deceptive research be justified?  Will you explain your dual role to the people you are studying at any point?  What impact might that have on them?

What would happen if you - or another researcher - was ‘found out’ during the course of covert research activity?   

Could anyone be put at risk as a result?  See our section on assessing risk and harm.

What is the power differential between you and the people you are studying? 

Even when you are overtly seeking consent to participate, bear in mind that your professional role - or that of the people who are commissioning or managing the work you are doing - may mean that potential participants feel they cannot refuse to take part.  Are you in a position of authority or seniority, such as a line manager, supervisor, teacher or lecturer?  Might they be concerned about negative consequences if they refuse to help you - for example, in terms of their grades, their promotion prospects or job stability, or simply whether they have been helpful to the boss?  Will they be able to distinguish between a request from you as a researcher, that they can refuse, and request from you in your professional role, which they cannot refuse within their professional role?

 Will you have access to information in your professional capacity that you plan to use for your research? 

Remember that participants should consent to the use of their data for research purposes, so if you hope to use organisational data or records, you need permission from the people whose data you want to study.  For example, imagine an HR manager wants to do a study of workplace discrimination as part of her MBA studies.  She has access to personnel records in her professional role, but she would need permission from individual employees if she wanted to use information from those records for her research.

Summing up

Overall, the key point is to remember that the same ethics principles apply to research, whether it is conducted by an outsider or an insider such as a practitioner. When the boundaries between your role as a researcher and as a member of an organisation or group become blurred, there is a risk that ethical research practice can be undermined.  You may feel the ethical risks are lower because you know the group or organisation well, but ethics committees will be concerned to make sure that the particular challenges of  ‘insider’  research have be addressed.