Basic topic of study

When we choose a research question, that very opening move contains ethical concerns. These ethical concerns are directed primarily towards our general audience for whom this study will be of interest. We must ask ourselves whether we believe we can accurately address our research question or whether we are setting ourselves up for half-baked conclusions that could negatively affect both the community of study and the community of scholars.

Tips: Review the existing literature on your topic. What were the limitations of those studies? What were the problems they faced? Will you be able to avoid the same? How will your research provide new and useful information?

Self-fulfilling study

Some studies seem designed to find exactly and only what they are looking for through the language they use and the definition of terms, through constraining the questions so that only a handful of answers are possible. Are we designing the work or defining our terms and questions such that we’re bound to find only that which we already expected? How is our research design leaving us open to surprise, to learning something unexpected, to understanding our topic from the various perspectives of the people in the community we are studying?

Tips: Identify your assumptions about the topic and what you expect to find. How might those assumptions be faulty or debatable? How have those assumptions directed your plan of research?

Sampling and participant selection

When we work among a population, we should expect to find diversity – diversity in gender, ethnicity, religion, political affiliation, and personal habits and opinions. Are we attempting to gain a broad sample of voices in our work? When we learn something, are we attempting to find people who might disagree, or would add a more complex interpretation?

Tips: As you work, identify your informants according to the various roles and categories they fit within in that society (e.g. occupation, religious group, political affiliation, etc.) Have you sampled broadly? If not, can you? If not, have you addressed these limitations in your study?

Humane Treatment

Prediction of possible harms

The social sciences may not place people in physical danger in the same way that medical research might, but we can cause changes among those with whom we work. How will we attempt to protect the reputations of our participants? Could our work cause disruption in the community, or interfere with other ongoing plans? Could we inadvertently change the power structure in place through seeming to side with one group over another?

Tips: Refer to your schoolGs Institutional Review Board (IRB) for guidelines on identifying and dealing with possible harms to your participants.

Exercise: Hypothesize worst-case scenarios. How might you deal with them? Then develop less dramatic and more realistic scenarios. How might you deal with them? It might help to place yourself in various roles in the social setting, playing the role of the participant and not just the researcher.

Selection of methods

Some questions can be answered through archival research, others through questionnaires, and still others only through immersion into a group. What is the least invasive method we can employ to get the answers to our questions?

Tips: Review the methods typically used in your field of study. Discuss the benefits and limitations of each. Be sure to ask yourself not only which are the most relevant, but which are the least invasive as well. You may have to make a compromise as you balance these two factors.

Obligation to informants

When doing fieldwork, we are not only asking people to take time to work with us, we are also asking them to trust us. Each relationship we build with an informant is different, but all are implicitly reciprocal. Identifying exactly what are obligations are to our informants is perhaps the most crucial step we take in ensuring we act ethically.

Tips: The Golden Rule applies to most ethical questions, but here it is particularly useful as a starting point. If you were the informant, what would you expect from the researcher you were working with?

Exercise: Choose any or all of the categories below and answer them for your project. See how many other questions you can develop that would be usefully answered before you enter the field. Note that many of the questions one might develop are addressed in other areas of this chart.

  • Compensation for your informants?
  • Chance to edit own interviews?
  • Maintenance of contact after the project ends?
  • Share all data with all informants?

Informed Participants

Degree of anonymity or confidentiality

Confidentiality means that the researcher knows which participant has said or done something but agrees to keep that identity a secret. Anonymity means that even the researcher doesn’t know who has said something (such as responses to an unsigned questionnaire). But sometimes we canGt control who knows things: using a pseudonym in a report on a small group can still leave a person recognizable if we comment on their habits or social role; we may have to coordinate our research with an existing organization who will recognize the people they work with; and sometimes our participants themselves may want to claim their comments and make their beliefs or actions known. What level of confidentiality can we reasonably offer to our participants? How can we help them understand the risks and benefits of their choices?


  • This dilemma is one of the most pervasive in fieldwork. It is also one of the most disputed. Begin by identifying the standards in your discipline. In sociology, for example, confidentiality and anonymity are generally expected. In folklore, the opposite is true. And in anthropology, it’s as often one as the other.
  • Construct a list of all the benefits and reasons why it would be useful to name your participants. Then construct a list of all the harms in doing so. Can you strike a compromise to accommodate both lists?
  • As you work on this, refer back to the list of harms you developed in the “Prediction of possible harms” section.

Representation of researcher identity

Researchers in “underground” settings have often disguised their identities or purposes: someone studying radical political groups may not be accepted as a researcher, but might be welcomed if they posed as a new recruit. Is this deception ever warranted? Are there ways we can gain the information we need without hiding our purposes?

Tips: Before going into any fieldwork site, you’ll want to think carefully about how you will present yourself. Even in situations where you present yourself at face value, you’ll need to think about how to describe what you’re doing so that your participants can understand you. Saying “I’m an ethnographer and am really interested in studying how you achieve social cohesion through group dynamics” will alienate everyone except other trained ethnographers. Practice your introduction before entering the field.

Exercise: Brainstorm instances where you think it might be necessary or advantageous to hide your identity. Do the justifications for doing so outweigh the potential harms?

Sampling and participant selection

We usually can’t talk with every single person involved in some group; we make selections in order to save time, while still attempting to keep our sample balanced. Should we tell individual participants why they were selected to participate as opposed to others? Should we tell them if (and why) we have left some others out of our study?


  • Often participants will be reluctant to be interviewed for fear of being thought of among their peers as trying to be “the expert.” Sometimes this fear is cultural as well as personal. Ask yourself whether you have in fact identified the appropriate people to work with. If you have, you’ll want to think of how you can assure them that they are not going to be misinterpreted as being THE voice of the group. In such cases, identifying how you are choosing participants can be extremely important.
  • Asking current participants to suggest other people you should work with can seem like a great way to find willing participants. However, be aware that this kind of networking can quickly lead to unknowingly restricting your work with a single, small group with shared interests. The complexity of a community and the inevitable disagreements in views will be lost.

Self-assessment of ability to conduct the work

Fieldwork often demands many skills, from interviewing and questionnaire design to the protection of participant confidentiality to data management and reporting. But when we take on work that is beyond our capacity, we may cause harm through our mistakes or misjudgments. How can we accurately assess whether we are competent to safely and thoughtfully carry out the work we have selected?


  • Refer back to your selection of methods. Do you fully understand them? Are they appropriate?
  • Then consider other factors such as the time needed to be thorough and whether you have available transportation. How about personality issues? For example, do you enjoy and are you capable of talking extensively with people?

Necessity & Applicability

Motivations for doing the work

Social research can easily slide into voyeurism E we want to see what people do because itGs just fun to see what people do; we want to see what some “dangerous” or “scandalous” activity looks like. Can we be honest with ourselves about why we take on certain projects? Are we trying to advance a body of knowledge, or assist our participants themselves in gaining better self-understanding? Or are we just curious for our own curiosity? Or even are we doing this because we think itGs the easiest way to fulfill a class assignment?

Tips: List all the reasons you want to conduct the research. Be honest. Ideally, this will help you focus your topic and help you ensure you have chosen wisely. This list, of course, is not sufficient in order to ethically decide whether the topic is appropriate. You will still need to consider other factors such as possible harms to the community as well as possible benefits.

Possible applicability of the work for the participants

Fieldwork often involves taking knowledge from one community for use by another. Perhaps the people we work among and study can also benefit from what we learn. How can we make our work available to those who have made it possible, so that they can make use of it? Who most needs to know about the results we have found? To whom must we write?

Tips: A research project does not need to derive directly from the community to have useful application. However, the sooner you consider possible applications the better. This is true not only for the success of application, but for convincing your participants that their time and energy is being well-served.

Download the Full Ethical Practices in Field Work Module