Ethics in Fieldwork Essay

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Ethics in fieldwork draws on the perspectives of philosophy, law, and psychology to guide moral decisions. Consciously or otherwise, field researchers make ethical decisions whenever they gather, interpret, or present their data. However, ethical practice in fieldwork cannot simply rely on the guidelines for laboratory research.

Notorious abuses of human participants in twentieth-century biomedical studies led to mandated review of most academic research in the USA and (increasingly) elsewhere in the world. This process has been adapted by schools and public agencies and extended across the social sciences. While ethical reviews prevent many abuses, they pose problems for qualitative fieldwork. Two classic principles – ”informed consent” and ”anonymity” – illustrate the dilemma.

Informed consent has been the core of ethical review. Yet researchers launching a qualitative study cannot fully predict the course of the inquiry. Broad consent documents in legal language may baffle or frighten the uninitiated. For ”consent” to be ”informed,” people must know the kind of text, the audience(s), and the context for their words, names, or pseudonyms.

Anonymity offers equally dubious protection in fieldwork. If a sociologist publishes a study of dating practices at a small college, there may be lively speculation on campus. If a vivid case study appears under a teacher-author’s name, students may be recognized under their pseudonyms from cafeteria to school board. Research in online groups presents further dilemmas in that privacy and consent must be redefined in electronic ”communities.”

Most ethical risks arise in dissemination, where findings may harm reputations and relationships. Conversely, stakeholders who collaborate with a scholar may want credit more than anonymity. ”Voice” is an ethical choice. While scholarly dialect can facilitate conversation among researchers, it usually excludes the researched. Some fieldworkers provide a summary report in everyday language while others invite participants to review drafts, adding their interpretations to create multivoiced reports.

Ethical decisions call for analyzing the local situation as well as global principles. Fieldworkers can start by examining the researcher and the researched – how each is constructed, their roles, and their relationships. The researcher may range from traditional ”outsider” to ”participant observer” to ”insider.” Moving along the continuum foregrounds certain ethical issues while resolving others. Today’s field researchers tend toward self-representation, a sense of ”being there” (Geertz 1988), and an analysis of their own lenses. The true ”insiders” (action research/teacher research) have primary commitments to stakeholders and view research as an aspect of professionalism. The roles of the researched suggest a parallel continuum, from ”human subjects” to the more engaged ”human participants” to full collaborators, each with its own ethical risks. Because more researchers ”study down” (families in poverty, college students) than ”up” (elites), their challenge is to practice respect while acknowledging their power.

Ethical review of fieldwork is more (not less) complex than what is mandated for laboratory experiments, calling for dialogue among insiders and outsiders. Adopting an inquiry stance helps researchers ask more nuanced questions, such as:

  • What question am I exploring? Why?
  • To whom am I professionally accountable?
  • How have I prepared myself culturally to understand the ”other”?
  • Should my report include the voices of participants whose views differ from mine?

Dialogue and inquiry throughout the field-work process can move ”ethics” beyond the legalistic into the personal, the relational, and the covenantal.


  1. Geertz, C. (1988) Works and Lives: The Anthropologist as Author. Stanford University Press, Stanford, CA.
  2. House, E. & Howe, K. (1999) Values in Evaluation and Social Research. Sage, Thousand Oaks, CA.
  3. Kirsch, G. (1999) Ethical Dilemmas in Feminist Research: The Politics of Location, Interpretation, and Publication. SUNY Press, Albany, NY.
  4. Zeni, J. (ed.) (2001) Ethical Issues in Practitioner Research. Teachers College Press, New York.

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