The Ethics of Gaining Access

Working to Research: Rambling on the Ethics of Gaining Access

by Kari Mariska Pries, February 2012

Gaining access to interview subjects at all levels is a process that has become ethically fraught, especially over the last decade. Previous generations of researchers had a large degree of freedom in conducting field work which, although at times resulting in questionable methods and compromised outcomes, allowed for a certain degree of creativity to take place in the field. Today, however, with the requirement to gain ethical clearance to travel to your field location and take notes during conferences and meetings, let alone the interviewing of target subjects, has the power of the Ethics Committee gone too far and are we covering our academic hides too much to acquire valuable information?

The life of the PhD researcher, especially one in the field, has never been easy. However, the number of actions which require ethics approval in today’s University system borders on the extreme. Legal responsibility and the possibility of litigation should something go wrong are partially to blame and understandable. While specialised forms and technical detailing may seem over the top, Ethics Applications do establish time and space to reflect on topics of concern when researching violence and insecurity. How we approach our interview subjects, obtain quality information, and treat the data we accumulate directly affects the worth of our final products. Thus, although I have a habit of fighting the technical, hair-splitting tendencies that Ethics Approval processes have become, there are some real questions and some valued reflections which have emerged therefrom.

1. Disclosure during Open Sessions: When researching in violent countries (or in any location for that matter), a valuable source of on-going policy discussions and strategies in confronting issues are meetings between government analysts, coordinating bodies and international organisations/donor agencies. These meetings may lead to informative high-level discussions on issues, trends and programmes. They also familiarize the researcher with the terms and strategies currently in favour and in action. Yes, they do tend to represent a certain amount of posturing but this can also be useful to gain insight into the dynamics of particular groups, topics and discussions. Furthermore, they give you access to collections of people and organisations conducting political and technical work on your topic. Do you need to disclose your presence through a formal announcement at the beginning of the session?  In high-level meetings, all parties present expect their words to be taken down by attending parties for reference and further discussion. There are often scribes maintaining a written record of what has been said and media are invited to session components to record elements for news briefs. On the other hand, the parties present have been invited, as you have if you are in attendance, for a specific purpose and as such may expect that the discussions are for use solely in resolving the issues at hand. Under Ethics Guidelines, are you required to jump in at the start of high-level talks to officially present your attendance, if you are even allowed to do so by the organisers? Is this overstating our own self-importance when no other parties, participant or observer, are announced? Is it enough that you are wearing a badge and introduce yourself as a doctoral student when speaking directly to individuals.

2. Disclosure because you are a researcher: In the field, situations are not always as clean-cut and dried as one might hope for. Confidences and statements come are made at inopportune moments when nary a disclosure form is at hand. For instance, in meeting and making connections with individuals, all statements made out of official signed and released interview bounds are inadmissible according to Ethics Guidelines of many institutions. On several occasions, having introduced myself as a PhD researcher, individuals have proceeded to make disclosures. “Oh, you are researching violence and security in Central America? May I comment regarding my experiences/opinions/ observations in such and such a role?” Which they then proceed to elaborate on. They are usually aware of the general role of a PhD student. They are aware of the nature of the topic and of the potential importance regarding the stories they are imparting. However, you are unable to use these confidences, even as background because they are out with the confines of a properly signed and released interview. You may never get another chance to speak with them and the observations are lost. Is this pursuing the stringency of Ethics requirements too far? The juiciness of some of the confidences is sometimes hard to resist. However, there are other considerations: (1) if they are not making the statement within the confines of a signed agreement, some confidences might be more skewed/imbued with personal prejudices/or open to sharing observations, than if they are conscious of the weight of their words within the confines of a signed agreement; and (2) you may not be aware of their connection to the confidences in question or able to solicit proof of that relationship because of the nature of the conversation. In addition, should you allow these confidences to influence your intended lines of questioning in future interviews if you have received them where (1) or (2) becomes an issue? I have found that people are often very interested in imparting information to you about violence, insecurity, and/or their experiences. However, they are less likely to speak with you formally and on record about such confidences or with the same level of detail. Does that bring into question their confidences or does it represent the very real threat people working within these topics experience? Can you allow these confidences to inform your general understanding of the topic even if not included/recorded as actual data gathering events?

3. Methods for Gathering Interview Candidates: Does it truly fall under Ethics Guidelines to assess the methodology through which interview subjects are acquired? This issue is understandably important for the collection of interview subjects when researching violence. In countries of violence and where insecurity governs, individuals whether in small barrios or as high level officials, may be put at risk through their communication with a researcher. In Honduras, for instance, several officials and lawyers have been killed specifically after disclosures on or off the record. However, as we are often reminded, there is a difference between methods and methodologies. Methods are the ways in which we establish contact, arrange meetings and protect identities and understandably fall under Ethics Guidelines. Methodologies are the ways in which types of interview subjects are selected (strategic, random, snowball etc.) – are they as important to gain Ethics Approval? I am still exploring how to structure and justify the methodology of my selection beyond a snowball and random shots in the dark of seemingly important subjects, both of which involve talking to anyone at any time that a given opportunity arises. Furthermore, as an early career researcher, you are also at the mercy of your topic’s interest than of your connections (few) and name (usually unknown).  Is this methodological issue a matter for the Ethics Committee? What are some good methodology articles which provide sensible suggestions on selecting research subjects in situations of insecurity?

If you have any reflections which might help in the development of proper, Ethics Guidelines-approved methods and methodologies in research subjects on topics of violence and insecurity, I am interested to hear them. The issues expressed above arose specifically because of the time created by the Ethics Application process and so I can state that the process has indeed been constructive on this point; explaining to a committee which shots you need and how you plan to avoid mosquito bites, perhaps less so.

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