Different disciplines and jurisdictions have policies on ethics that pertain to the specific circumstances of their contexts. They share concern for free and informed consent, respect for persons, minimizing harm and maximizing benefits. Such concerns are the standard categories of ethical review policies (Herr and Anderson 2005, 114).
The applicable ethical statement in a Canadian context is the Tri-Council Policy Statement: Ethical Conduct for Research Involving Humans (2010). That policy’s categories of respect for persons, concern for welfare and justice will be used to describe ethical research in this post (Tri-Council Policy Statement 2010, 8ff). The following section provides a summary of the concerns of these three areas with particular attention to the ethical concerns of participant researchers. This will provide the language and ideas for discussion of key ethical issues that arise in field research.
Respect for Persons
Respect for persons refers to the need to recognize “the intrinsic value of human beings and the respect and consideration that they are due” (Tri-Council Policy Statement 2010, 8). This involves assuring that research is free, informed and ongoing. Participants should have a full understanding of the potential risks and benefits of their involvement. They should also be able to freely choose involvement or non-involvement without coercion or fear of repercussions. In particular, they should not fear alienating those in authority over them. In participant research this could be a concern for both research participants and participant researchers.
Concern for Welfare
Concern for a participant’s welfare requires attention to “the quality of that person’s experience of life in all its aspects” (Tri-Council Policy Statement 2010, 9). This would include an individual’s “physical, mental and spiritual health” (Tri-Council Policy Statement 2010, 9). This encompasses free and informed consent and adds the additional concerns of privacy and participant control over their own information. It also includes concern for the welfare of the entire group as this has a direct affect on individual welfare. Thus, considerations of risks and benefits must take into account individuals and groups. Such considerations lead the Tri-Council Policy Statement to advocate a participatory approach to research design. The policy explains that, “[e]ngagement during the design process with groups whose welfare may be affected by the research can help to clarify the potential impact of the research and indicate where any negative impact on welfare can be minimized” (Tri-Council Policy Statement 2010, 10).
Attention to Justice
Justice is a reference to “the obligation to treat people fairly and equitably” (Tri-Council Policy Statement 2010, 10). The objective is to ensure that “benefits and burdens of research participation” are distributed equitably throughout the research population. Equitable does not always mean equal as different segments of a population have different privileges and vulnerabilities. Particular attention should be paid to vulnerable populations. Of particular concern is the potential imbalance of power between the researcher and the participants that must be adequately understood and addressed appropriately. As abuse of power-over relationships are well represented in the history of research specific attention to this issue is warranted.
First time researchers sometimes treat the ethical review as an annoyance to be dealt with in a perfunctory way to get into the real work of research. However, careful attention to the requirements of the Tri-Council Policy Statement not only protects researchers and and those being researched but also provides helpful guidelines for researching in a manner that shows respect for people and groups as humans not just as subjects.
Canadian Institutes of Health Research, Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, and Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada. 2010. Tri-council policy statement: Ethical conduct for research involving humans.
Herr, Kathryn., and Gary L. Anderson. 2005. The action research dissertation: A guide for students and faculty. Thousand Oaks, Calif.: SAGE Publications.