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An examination of ethical issues pertaining to educational research

Author - Greg Gallagher

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Non-traditional methods of research

A little sincerity is a dangerous thing, a great deal of it is absolutely fatal.
Oscar Wilde (1854-1900) Intentions

Recent nuances of approach to the method of data collection for research purposes have added significantly to the growing debate regarding research ethics. Covert research, ethnographic studies and action research have all contributed to the question of what methods of data collection are ethically acceptable. Do some methods of data collection by their very nature contravene certain ethical principles?

Marshall defines ‘covert observation’ thus:

Participant observation carried out without the explicit awareness and agreement of the social unit being studied. This entails finding some self-explanatory role within the research setting in order to mask the researcher’s true purpose. It may be used because research access to the social unit would normally be denied, or to ensure that the researcher’s presence does not affect the behaviour of those being observed.
(Marshall 1998: 124-125)

Scott and Usher explain the rationale behind covert research thus: ‘The principle behind this strategy is that participants in the research will behave unnaturally if they are aware that they are part of a research project’ (2003: 129).

There are arguments against covert research and a tension between the public right to know and the protection of the individual's privacy and confidentiality. Guidelines need to be formulated for the use of secondary data where informed consent of the participants is obtained, even if retrospectively.
Punch (1986) presents an argument that covert research in social science is justifiable in some circumstances. Ethical issues which he raises include the idea that some research areas are 'beyond the pale' as topics of social research. Although he gives some examples, Punch (1986) points out that there is no consensus in social science about what these areas might be and likens some kinds of social research to investigative journalism where an exposé of a practice or organization has some public benefit.

Other writers on qualitative research argue for the centrality of a special relation between researcher and researched, and consequently reject covert research as an appropriate method. The perspective on covert research put forward by Punch (1986) seems to have little relevance for educational research, and is both explicitly and implicitly challenged in much of the other literature.

In action research, persons conducting the research act as citizens attempting to influence the political process through collecting information. The goal is to promote social change that is consistent with the advocates' beliefs. Marshall confirms this interpretation in his definition and adds: ‘The research subjects are invited to participate at various stages of a relatively fast-moving sequence of research-action-research-action’ (Marshall 1998: 4). This type of research is ultimately an iterative process with an end goal or specific solution to a problem as the ultimate objective.

From the perspective of ethical principles, surely the objectivity of the researcher is questionable. By the very nature of this process, the researcher is intrinsically participating in all stages of the research and actively contributing to the outcome. Robson, openly accepts that action research ‘goes beyond the usual concerns for consent, confidentiality and respect for the participants’ interests’ (1997: 33). To compensate for this fact, Robson (1997) offers thirteen alternative ethical principles specifically for those engaged in this type of research.


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