Truthfulness and veracity

It is tempting to social researchers to ignore the one messy piece of information that might upset our otherwise clean or uniform conclusions. How can we ensure that we present all of the pertinent data we have collected to portray the fullest possible picture, with all of its complexities?

Tips: Review the scholarship in your field. How have scholars before you dealt with anomalies, variations and complexities in the data? Is there a standard within your field for how to present this?

Meeting audiences’ expectations

As we consider who will make use of our knowledge, we have to understand that different audiences have different expectations for the kinds of reading they will find most useful. A systematic analysis may be deemed “accurate,” according to academic standards, but be unrecognizable and hence “inaccurate” for community members.


  • Construct a list of relevant audiences for your work. What kinds of conclusions will each be expecting? Generalizable results? Specific description and details? Objective statements or subjective musings? Does your discipline allow for a combination of these elements?
  • Consider using different media to convey your results. A written paper can handle very analytical arguments well while video can often handle affective conclusions more effectively.

Humane Treatment

Will participants be represented in ways they can understand?

In many cases, we write about one group of people for the education of another group of people. But we still owe our participants the honor of being represented in ways that they themselves will find accurate and appropriate. How can we show our participants as whole people while still focusing our reporting on key elements of their lives?


  • While it is tempting to believe we can avoid this dilemma by simply writing different products for different audiences, we are still obligated to the people we work with to be consistent and respectful.
  • Think about how this becomes easier or more problematic when you offer confidentiality to your informants.

Embarrassing revelations

Fieldwork often allows us to get to know individuals very well, including intimate details of their lives. Sometimes this personal information is integral to our study and cannot be ignored. Confidentiality and anonymity can help in such situations, but in instances where our participants expect and want to be identified, this problem is more complex. Will any of our data embarrass our participants? How can we ensure that we understand what might embarrass our participants, rather than simply assume they share our own values?

Tips: Assuming you understand what is or is not embarrassing to a person can be dangerous. How might you establish a relationship with your participants so that you can determine what might be embarrassing to them?

Informed Participants

Participants changing their minds after the study

In most informed consent agreements, we indicate that participants may end their participation at any time without penalty. But what happens when a participant who has been central to your analysis decides at the very end of the project that s/he no longer feels right about the work and wants you to not include her or his information? Should we allow people to decide on their level of participation right up until the moment of publication, even though their withdrawal of information may effectively render the study useless?

Tips: Are there compromises to these situations? What kinds of concessions could you make to maintain the truthfulness of the study and your obligation to your participants?

Power differentials in writing

As the authors of other people and groupsG lives and stories, we have a lot of power when we write up our findings. While we may not be able to completely avoid telling “our” version, what obligation do we have to ensure that we give voice to the people we work with. How can we ensure we do not co-opt their story?


  • Brainstorm ways to make sure the voice of the participants is heard. One of the most obvious is to include direct quotes, but be sure to consider how easily these can be manipulated if you pick and choose according to your own agenda rather than theirs.
  • Another way might be to include your participants in the process of writing and revising. You could show drafts of your work to them and ask for input. However, again, think about the potential problems that might arise. What if they disagree with your assessment, an assessment that your data clearly supports? And what if competing factions within a community give you conflicting advice about how to tell their story?

Necessity & Applicability

Publication and distribution channels

As we think about methods of reporting, we must also think about the locations of that reporting. Writing about a community for an academic journal or a class paper probably means that the community itself will never read their own stories. Do we have a responsibility to choose a venue of publication that will speak more directly to the participant community? And if so, how will we do this? Other academics might prefer an “objective” report with many ties to prior literature, while lay readers might instead want a powerful story with recognizable characters and challenges. How can we write in ways that our readers will find most helpful and engaging?


  • Review the possibilities your research has for application. How can your final write-up assist in this application?
  • Be creative and flexible. Can you write-up your research in a number of different forms and styles? For example, can you write both an academic article and a blurb in a community newsletter?


  • Start with an article your read in class that is similar to the type of product you might produce from your own research. Translate it into various forms that the community involved in the study might be useful. Examples might include a community newsletter, a public lecture, a video for community outreach, a grant application, etc.

Availability of raw materials to other researchers

In some fields, researchers are expected to make their raw notes available to other researchers who may want to take their investigations in a different direction. How does this impact agreements about confidentiality? Can you adequately honor participantsG “informed consent” once another person begins to make use of their information? Does an individual researcher have the right to withhold collected information even though another scholar might make effective use of it and expand our knowledge?


  • First, determine whether your discipline expects such sharing. If so, are there parameters? In other words, do they expect all of your fieldwork or just interview tapes and more formal data collection?
  • * Even if your discipline does not expect such sharing, would it be useful to other researchers to do so? Or do your public presentations and publications convey all the useful data you gathered? If not, can you identify certain parts of your fieldwork that could be shared without violating “informed consent.” Remember that other researchers may not share your ethical standards.

Download the Full Ethical Practices in Field Work Module