Ethics of Qualitative Research: Part 1


Ethical research is a benchmark any researcher must meet before obtaining IRB approval to conduct research, but it is especially important for qualitative research. Ethical research includes a large miasma of different elements a researcher needs to take into consideration. In Part 1 of this blog series, we will touch on the ethics of selecting your target population.

There are various factors qualitative researchers must take into consideration before recruiting potential participants. If you have already identified the general population in your problem statement and purpose statement, you then need to establish certain parameters for your potential participants. These parameters are called inclusion criteria, meaning that individuals will need to meet certain expectations to be eligible to participate in your research study. Qualitative researchers use inclusion criteria to ensure that the participants are knowledgeable about the research phenomenon and experienced in the field under investigation.

After identifying the criteria participants need to meet, you will need to explore whether this population is defined as a vulnerable population. Vulnerable populations require researchers to put special protections in place so that they are not coerced or forced into participating. Some of these vulnerable populations are unavoidable, whereas others are avoidable; this depends on your target population. If your aim is to understand the perceptions of homeless individuals, you will have to identify protections for individuals who fall in that category beyond just the scope of homelessness. For example, the individuals you plan to study may also face mental health issues, so you will need to identify protections for this population. Women who may be homeless could also be pregnant and would require specific protections. Individuals who are homeless may not be able to read beyond a certain grade level, so specific precautions would need to be taken to ensure potential participants are able to understand the study and provide proper consent. There may be elderly individuals among your potential participants who would also require special protections. Some interview questions may negatively trigger participants, so you need to have a plan in place to mediate negative experiences. If you plan on providing a financial incentive to participants, you will need to make sure the amount is not coercive. A $5 gift card to a gas station or eatery may be appropriate, but $100 might be considered coercive to economically disadvantaged participants.

The main take-away from this example is that it is important is to understand the ethical considerations your target population requires. Some populations, like individuals who are homeless, require more protections because it may be harder to define set boundaries. Homelessness is not restricted to one sex, one race, or one age group. It is fluid, which makes it important to identify certain expectations through the inclusion criteria for participation and put in place protections for everyone else.

In Part 2, I will discuss participant recruitment, focusing on the Belmont Report and the three principles researchers need to meet to conduct ethical research. I will connect these three principles to how qualitative researchers ethically recruit potential participants.

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