Engaging in a hot topic session at the 2019 BERA Conference, we explored the notion that ethical dilemmas in the field are dynamic and constantly evolving, heavily dependent on both context and the diverse nature of our relationships with participants. In reality, ethical conduct is a matter of being and becoming through practical experience, learning, adaptation and reflection rather than neatly applying a set of defined rules or principles (Head, 2018). To become virtuous researchers, who are responsive to the dilemmas we face in the field, requires us to be ethically reflexive (Gewirtz & Crib, 2006).
These discussions prompted personal reflection on the ethical dilemmas I recently faced as a teacher-researcher in my school. This insider research had its challenges as I shifted identities: from a teacher at the school to secondment in a government role, before returning to the school as a curriculum leader. My shifts in researcher positionality led to issues associated with power relations and informed consent. Here, I reflect on my actions, and on how taking a more ethically reflexive approach helped me to become a more virtuous teacher-researcher.
I began my research rather naïve about the power differentials intrinsic to insider research. Perceptions of me as ‘just one of the teachers’ changed as my colleagues positioned me as a ‘teacher-researcher’. To them I became associated with an external organisation and with ‘stranger’ supervisors, with whom I would share stories of their work. The potential for my colleagues to feel obliged to participate, or even under scrutiny, was real, and I quickly realised that successful negotiation would be dependent on developing greater reciprocity in order to equalise these relationships. Informed consent needed to move beyond compliance, or a marked check-box: it needed to be an ongoing and authentic process. I continuously reflected on my role, the progress of the research and the dilemmas inherent to researching those so close to me.
In the final stages of data collection, I was seconded to a government role – an ideal position, I thought, in which to distance myself from the research. However, my power relations with my colleagues shifted again: I now became a bureaucratic figure with intimate knowledge of my past school and colleagues’ practices. My colleagues started to ask questions. These prompted me to even greater reflexivity: in living-out virtuous conduct, what was now required of me? Could the data now be shared more widely, with the attendant implications for anonymity? Did my new role mean that I would have greater power over the participants? In becoming more virtuous, I reflected on my actions first, and considered whether I was prepared to change my value judgements in response to this dilemma. I committed myself to ongoing consent, meeting with each participant to discuss their concerns and demystifying my new position.
‘Taking an ethically reflexive approach helped me become a more virtuous teacher-researcher, one able to navigate ethical dilemmas arising from being a chameleon in their own research journey.’
My thesis completed, I returned to the school as a curriculum leader, cognisant of what this new position meant in relation to the overall dissemination of the research findings. Although the participants were informed that the findings would be shared with the school and the wider public, they may not have fully understood the implications of this, especially now that I was in a more senior role. I carefully considered socially responsible means of sharing the findings. I questioned whether I had gained sufficient trust, and whether participants really were comfortable having findings shared internally and externally. I had to put my participants’ needs first, fully acknowledging my intellectual debt to them, the importance of inviting them, and others, to challenge my thinking, and the actions I took in making the research, their work, so public (Macfarlane, 2009).
Taking an ethically reflexive approach helped me become a more virtuous teacher-researcher, one able to navigate ethical dilemmas arising from being a chameleon in their own research journey. It made me more adaptable to my changing circumstances and positionality. Taking responsibility for my actions strengthened my respectfulness, humility and sincerity – key attributes of a virtuous researcher (Macfarlane, 2009).
So: how can reflexivity help you grow as a virtuous educational researcher facing ethical dilemmas? Are you willing to reflect, and to share these reflections?
Gewirtz, S., & Cribb, A. (2006). What to do about values in social research: The case for ethical reflexivity in the sociology of education. British Journal of Sociology of Education, 27(2), 141–155. Retrieved from https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/01425690600556081
Head, G. (2018). Ethics in educational research: Review boards, ethical issues and researcher development. European Educational Research Journal, 1–12. Retrieved from https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/1474904118796315
Macfarlane, B. (2009). Researching with integrity: The ethics of academic enquiry. New York, NY: Routledge.