Some pitfalls of ethical research

This could also be titled “when research participants get in the way”. My work on my narratives was nearly done, and as is the wont with narrative inquiry methods – or even case study – the ethical, respectful thing to do is send your draft narratives to your participants so that they can comment on what they’ve said, or report inaccuracies in the text. It’s the final piece of the ethical research puzzle and provides valuable validity to your findings.

So, about a year ago I sent my drafts to my participants for a read and possible discussion, and got a great response from one and an interesting response from another. I changed that person’s draft in response to their not unreasonable opinion that the draft was a bit long winded and lacked shape. (Love it when they comment on your actual writing style!). A few more minor edits to protect the innocent and there you are.

The other participants did not respond. So, this year after redrafting the narratives all quite heavily I sent through my final drafts to the participants. Well, it’s nice to see one came back with a “congratulations!”. There you go.

But the next respondent, boy oh boy. Every single sentence they uttered has been altered. Some to the point of not even sounding like it comes from a human. What do you do? In deference to the participant, I need to look at the work as a whole and consider what altering the text will do to my findings.

So, I’ve taken the road frequently travelled in narrative inquiry and looked at what is important to the study but keeps the humanity of the spoken word. I’ve removed things that hurt the innocent – in other words if my participant feels what they said at the time was unfair or contentious, then I’ve changed it to reflect the participant’s wish. That’s reasonable. It isn’t hurting my findings too much, rather, it’s tempering the language to be more moderate and being fair to those who cannot respond.

Where the participant changed the text to improve an explanation of a technical concept and it’s not too different from the original I’ve changed it too. However, my dear participant has removed all of the lovely interjections and language style that makes the narrative sing and gives it its power. The participant wanted to reflect that the narrative will be read, not spoken. But for me this is one step too far. This is where the participant gets in the way.

I’ve chosen to ignore some of the participant’s edits – they lose the beauty and movement of the participant’s lyrical speech patterns, but I’ve occasionally added an extra thing in the commentary that they had written in the edits, to provide greater clarity to the spoken text. That way the spoken word is maintained, but the participant’s revised word is still included. And booyah! I’ve found places where my text is lacking explanation or analysis of the text. Goodoh.

It’s difficult, though, because what if the intent, beauty and power of the original statement is lost in translation? That’s the great dilemma and one of the pitfalls of ethical research.


3 thoughts on “Some pitfalls of ethical research

  1. I’m just embarking on my own narrative inquiry, so it will be interesting to see if I get similar responses. Good idea about including both their suggested edits, as well as the original.

  2. Hi Jess, I confess I haven’t fully understood the term narrative enquiry, I’m gathering it’s some form of interviewing (and I’m curious as to what you are applying it to) but the word narrative perhaps implies there’s some story telling going on here, of some description. What’s your discipline and what’s your inquiry? I’m sorry if this has been answered elsewhere on the blog…it feels natural to ‘speak’ with you.

    1. Hi Katinka, narrative inquiry methods is a qualitative research approach that stories research data (interviews, field notes, videos, other artefacts) presenting the findings in a narrative framework. Usually linear but not always, place, people and time are 3 elements considered important in this approach. Like ethnography it’s a research approach best exemplified by living in the field, being ethically responsible and considerate of the participants, and being a reflective researcher, knowing one’s biases, ontology and epistemological position, and how those biases inform one’s research findings. My discipline was tertiary music education, my methodological approach was qualitative narrative and case study methods, my theoretical framework was cultural psychology and my ontological position was social constructivism, in which truths and knowledge are coconstructed.

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