Blog post Part of series: The challenges and solutions for qualitative researchers in gaining ethical approval and consent
How do we enact ‘informed consent’?
As researchers we have a responsibility not just to inform participants about our research and its possible consequences, but to have confidence that participants are giving informed consent. So in addition to giving information, we try to ensure that our communication is understood, in ways that are similar to those used in teaching and learning. However, just as a teacher may intend but not effect learning, so a researcher may give a potential participant information about what will happen without necessarily effecting their understanding of the process or its consequences. What, then, can we do to enable better understanding? What does our pedagogical expertise as educational researchers suggest?
‘What can we do to enable better understanding of what informed consent entails? What does our pedagogical expertise as educational researchers suggest?’
External researchers usually encounter pupils first once school permissions have been granted, and when we have little control over what the school (and parents) have already said. These encounters are framed by the authority of teachers and leaders having apparently sanctioned our activities with them. This can imply to young people that, because the school has agreed to the researcher doing this work, the student should comply. Thus the authority of teachers and parents frames our request to children and young people to allow us to observe, talk to them and record what we see and hear, and colours the likelihood that they will trust us to protect them from any possible negative implications. This context frames and constrains a young person’s ability to deny consent, and is not always explicitly acknowledged. What’s more, we do so knowing that they have little (if any) prior experience of research and its potential consequences. How much attention do we give to ‘ongoing and renegotiated’ practices (Miller & Bell, 2010, p. 61) to ensure that our participants understand? Do we explain in a way that is genuinely meaningful for them?
I reflected recently with a fellow researcher on two things I had been doing, the first instinctively and the second deliberately. The first occurred in the opening moments of a series of interviews, when I discussed the participant’s familiarity with the interview site. I was aware of my own as well as their reactions to the spaces we were allocated. The different, power-related associations for a child meeting me in a staff room or senior leader’s office, in a study support room, or a classroom were often apparent in their non-verbal behaviour. A sense of compliant formality often characterised where or how they sat, possibly avoiding holding eye contact in spaces with more hierarchical associations. Talking about this and sharing my own sense of how the space might make us feel was often instrumental in communicating that how they felt mattered. When I asked next for their consent to use their data, by waiting a few extra seconds, I tacitly signalled an expectation of thoughtful consideration rather than of acquiesce. I was consciously signalling that I was seriously interested in their views. Of course, this is basic good practice, but I was recognising that I had not always applied what I knew as an educator about the ‘feedback loop’ (Williams, 2012), about seeking, waiting for and attending to responses about what I seek to make understood.
The second thing I began doing, prompted either by the blank or perhaps slightly suspicious expressions, was to print out examples of how I had used participants’ voices in previous reports. I talked about how single words or phrases might be combined with others, or how a sentence might capture an important and unique idea, or express a feeling echoed by numerous others. I talked about why this might be helpful; who might read or hear and how; or to what extent I could ensure their identity was concealed. I also emphasised that if they wanted me to know an idea but not record or attribute it to them that I could interrupt or stop recording. Often I suggested that others had done so, to give the impression that this might be a perfectly normal behaviour. The interviews that ensued were often heartfelt and revealing. I cannot know if they would have been so without such an introduction, but I felt that I had behaved ethically in working harder to ensure participants understood how their data might signify, and affirmed their agency in the process.
The experience made me reflect on whether, as educational researchers, we use our pedagogical expertise not just to feed the relational and empathetic qualities valuable to qualitative research but also fulfil our ethical responsibilities. Enabling participants’ agency and helping them to be fully aware of the ‘possible consequences’ of their involvement in our research is an issue I will be reflecting and working on.
Miller, T. & Bell. L. (2012). Consenting to what? Issues of access, gate-keeping and ‘informed’ consent. In T. Miller, M. Birch, M. Mauther & J. Jessop (Eds.), Ethics in Qualitative Research. London, Thousand Oaks, CA, New Delhi and Singapore: SAGE.
Williams, D. (2012). Feedback: Part of a System. Feedback for Learning, 70(1):30–34.