Guillemin and Guillam describe ethically important moments in research as “the difficult, often subtle, and usually unpredictable situations that arise in the practice of doing research” (p. 262).1In thinking through the ethical tools needed to navigate these challenging moments, they distinguish between two different ethical approaches in research: 1) procedural ethics and 2) ethics-in-practice.
Procedural ethics—also referred to as ethics-as-IRB2—typically involves seeking approval from a relevant ethics committee to conduct human subjects research.1 The concerns of this approach are confined to the human subjects protocol submitted before a study commences, which generally does not account for ethical challenges that may occur at other stages during the course of research.
Ethics-in-practice considers the everyday dilemmas that can arise during research. This approach recognizes that unresolved ethical problems are likely to arise. There is often no clear right or wrong answer to these challenges, requiring researchers to make a choice between different options, each of which may have competing ethical advantages and disadvantages.
The notion of reflexivity in social science research consists of systematically examining one’s own beliefs, perceptions, and practices during research and considering how they influence the construction of knowledge.1 Part of this constitutes thinking through one’s positionality, or the multiple social identities one has in terms of gender, race, sexuality, class, and so on, compared to those they are studying.2 All researchers enter the field with certain assumptions, beliefs, and life experiences that are rooted in their specific social identities, and this influences how they understand, perceive, and interpret situations, people, and processes in the research context. It is important for researchers to reflect upon the ways in which their social positions influence both the knowledge they are bringing to the field, as well as their interpretations and experiences within this context.2
Engaging in reflexive research means that a researcher scrutinizes their role in the research to the same degree as the data they collect. Although not usually seen as connected to ethics, the reflexive process can also assist researchers in examining the ethics of their research practices.1 Reflexivity involves taking a step back to question and interpret different aspects of research. For instance, a researcher may critically examine whether a study is using the most ethically informed methods or consider a range of formal ethical positions and principles they may use to guide ethical decision-making.
Questions Researchers Can Ask Themselves to Engage in Ethical Reflexivity
- How much of what I interpret stems from the participant’s meaning rather than my subjective assumptions, beliefs, or personal experiences?
- How much of what I interpret stems from the participant(s) rather than something I heard from other study participants?
- What are the words or phrases that I may be misinterpreting due to my own assumptions, beliefs, or personal experiences?
- Have my emotional reactions to the participant’s responses biased my understanding?
- Do I need to ask clarifying questions to confirm my interpretations?
1.Guillemin M, Gillam L. Ethics, reflexivity, and “ethically important moments” in research. Qualitative Inquiry. 2004;10(2). doi:10.1177/1077800403262360
2.Merriam SB, Johnson-Bailey J, Lee MY, Kee Y, Ntseane G, Muhamad M. Power and positionality: Negotiating insider/outsider status within and across cultures. International Journal of Lifelong Education. 2001;20(5):405-416. doi:10.1080/02601370120490
3.Research Design Review. In-the-moment question-response reflexivity. Research Design Review. Published September 18, 2017. https://researchdesignreview.com/2017/09/18/in-the-moment-question-response-reflexivity/