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Good Ethics and Reducing Risk: Doubling Up or Going it Alone?

Guest post by Lindsey Appleyard, Hussan Aslam and Jordan Lazell, Centre for Business in Society and Carl Packman, Toynbee Hall

In light of recent terrorist attacks and Weinstein scandal, there are for important considerations for those undertaking qualitative research, particularly carrying out research alone. What constitutes good ethics when undertaking interviews on potentially sensitive subject matter with potentially vulnerable groups? Our empirical research undertaking face to face interviews with declined payday loan applicants in the UK has given us a greater understanding of the ethical considerations and the dynamics of the interview process. The issues we have experienced have important implications for promoting good research ethics in empirical interviews.

On ethical review at Coventry University[1] our research was considered medium to high-risk on account of the potentially sensitive subject matter (in this case, financial difficulties, and the impact on financial wellbeing, and financial precarity including over-indebtedness) and in addition, the possibility of interviews being undertaken in out of office hours and in participants’ homes.

Our aim was to mitigate any institutional concerns around ‘doing research’ and risks of the research to both participants and our experienced research team. Part of the solution was to undertake the interviews in pairs in public spaces such as cafes during the week. This allowed second interviewers to shadow more experienced researchers by taking notes and record relevant contextual information that cannot be recorded by audio recorders, such as the interview setting and the participants facial expressions or reactions and if appropriate/necessary by asking more probing or challenging questions.

Whilst this presented some challenges in arranging two researchers to be able to attend the interviews, we found the experience of having two researchers was extremely valuable. First, far from being intimidating experience for participants, it made participants feel safer meeting two interviewers. In particular, having mixed gender interview pairs helped to alleviate concerns participants had in meeting a stranger and undertaking an interview. For example, female participants may have not felt comfortable meeting with a male interviewer for various reasons, including cultural or religious grounds Second, using a two-interviewer method can help to improve the richness and depth of the data, as it can aid the interviewers’ ability to ask probing questions, with there being two experienced qualitative interviewers. For example, the second interviewer can help put the participant at ease through introductory conversation whilst the interview is being set up and assist in clarifying aspects of the research or questions, helping to reduce miscommunications.

Finally, post-interview we found that interviewing in pairs provides validation for information and topics discussed by participants, ensuring consistency amongst interpretations and subsequent analysis. For example, interviewers can develop a feedback loop, where each interviewer can provide feedback to the other following an interview. It also increased the accuracy of data particularly if the interview was not audio recorded. When piloting the interview it provides the opportunity for interviewers to discuss the effectiveness of interview questions and make necessary changes. Moreover, this technique provided the opportunity for interviewers to learn from one another during the data collection process which is key to reflexive learning for even experienced researchers.

Using two interviewers, even with one acting as a shadow, is not without challenges. We found that it can be difficult to arrange a suitable time for both interviewers and participant. Also, if the second interviewer drops out it can be difficult to find a replacement. This research technique increases the cost of the data collection process. However, undertaking quality research is never ‘cheap’ and robust data is paramount.

To navigate some of these issues we have had to be flexible and undertake telephone interviews where meeting face to face has not been possible. We found this can work just as well as face to face interviews and in fact for some people, the anonymity can provide greater confidentiality for the participant than an interview undertaken in a café or other public place. Telephone interviews only requires a single interviewer and participants able to organise the interview at a convenient time for example out of office hours. This also allowed us to access participants from a wider geographical area.

Here we wanted to raise the awareness of undertaking empirical interviews in pairs as this has significant implications for qualitative research. Undergraduate and postgraduate research in particular. The responsibility for this needs to be shared between researchers, supervisors, funders and within the ethical review process which for ‘good ethics’ should be promoted and risks to be recognised and mitigated.

[1] On previous research projects, some interviews have taken place in people’s homes in evenings in pairs.

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