National Centre for Research Methods



Seminar 3: Qualitative research in new ethical times
Cardiff University
The Committee Rooms, Glamorgan Building
, Cathays Campus
Thursday 4th May 2006

The nature of participation in qualitative research raises particular and distinct questions about the ethical dimensions of social research practice. There are compounded by the wide variety of potential modes of data (including visual and sound data) currently available to social researchers engaged in undertaking some form of qualitative inquiry. This seminar will particularly consider qualitative research in relation to the ethical dimensions of contemporary research governance (for example ethical guidelines, data protection, freedom of information) and in the context of methodological innovation. The seminar will contribute to the facilitation of new and interdisciplinary ethical dialogues across the social sciences. The seminar is organised and co-hosted by the Cardiff Institute for Society, Health and Ethics and the Cardiff Centre for Ethics, Law and Society.

Purpose of seminar
Stimulate debate within the research community on the development of innovative research strategies in a climate of increasing emphasis on ethical governance.


Welcome and Introduction - Paul Atkinson, Cardiff School of Social Sciences

Martyn Hammersley, Open University.
Are ethical Committees ethical?
Ethical regulation of social science research is currently increasing, not least as a result of the new ESRC research ethics framework. In this paper I want to raise some questions about the role of ethics committees, both in terms of what they are able to do and what they have the authority or right to do. The practical problems are twofold. First, the literature on research ethics indicates that there are significant disagreements among social scientists about key ethical issues, so that there is very little consensus on which ethics committees can operate. Secondly, researchers' decisions about how to pursue their inquiries involve weighing ethical and other considerations against one another, and this requires detailed knowledge of the contexts concerned, which ethics committees will not have. Even aside from the question of whether ethics committees have the expertise they claim, there is also the issue of what authority their members have, or a university has, in telling individual researchers and research teams how best to do their work. Given that these committees seek prospectively to control how research is and is not done, it can be argued that there is an illegitimate infringement of the autonomy and integrity of researchers here. There are also reasons to expect that this bureaucratic control will worsen the quality of research in the future. The problems here are especially severe for qualitative work. While ethics committees can play a worthwhile role, this is limited to giving feedback and offering forums for discussion; they are not a legitimate instrument of governance.

click here to read Martyn's article in the Qualitative Researcher
click here for the list of references handed out at the seminar

Katie Featherstone, Cardiff School of Social Sciences
Informed consent: the ethnography of 'ethics' and the 'ethics' of ethnography
This paper focuses on the requirement to obtain 'informed consent' from research participants. I argue that the adoption of a biomedical model of research governance by the social sciences is misplaced and is particularly inadequate for the promotion of ethical research practice within qualitative paradigms. Rather an ethical approach must be developed that is driven by the core principles central to the use of these methodologies. In addition, the social sciences should apply qualitative, ethnographic approaches to understand ethical practice within biomedical and social science research more widely. I draw upon three qualitative studies to examine the requirement of obtaining 'informed consent' from participants within three randomised controlled trials, the main evaluative technique within biomedicine, to demonstrate the huge gap between regulatory protocols and research practice. I suggest that the ethical regulatory frameworks and research governance enforced within clinical trials should not be the model adopted by qualitative researchers, because these bureaucratic tools merely serve to mask underlying inequalities within the research process. Instead, qualitative research must develop ethical principles informed by social scientific research and driven by professional values, not driven by protocols derived from biomedicine.

Roger Penn and Keith Soothill, Lancaster University
Ethics in Sociological Enquiry - The Enemy within

Click here to download Roger and Keith's presentation (do not cite without authors permission)

Soren Holm, School of Law, Cardiff University
Ethics, ethics committees and official regulation - why chairs of ethics committees are not bad people after all
In this paper I will explore 3 issues. 1) what are the main ethical issues in qualitative research seen from the point of view of the professional ethicist, 2) what is the role of research ethics committees in the social sciences and why are they suddenly proliferating, 3) are the problems researchers complain about in relation to ethics review problems concerning strict ethics or strict regulation. All of this to convince you that the chairman of your local research ethics committee is a really nice person caught between a rock and a hard place.

Debate (Chair - Paul Atkinson)
Ethics committees: a necessary safety mechanism or a hindrance to innovation?



ESRC National Centre for Research Methods
ESRC - Economic & Social Research Council