Ethics in research: follow-up 5

I’m intrigued by discussion in this forum of higher education about the notion of vulnerability. Unless I’m mistaken, there is the possibility that we are talking about different things. I should preface my comments with something that Williams brought up in this week’s video when an interview respondent revealed that she had been sexually abused by a colleague of the researcher and;

“now suddenly she finds herself sitting in the same tea room with the same people who her respondents had just revealed desperate information about” (Laureate, 2012).

I do realise that there will always be the potential for this kind of problem in any research, but I also wonder if the respondent has not overstepped their ethical bounds by revealing information that ended up hurting the researcher. This scenario, however, is categorically different from the apathetic attitudes exhibited by elder colleagues whose knowledge about ethics will have been informed of years of incident-free research;

“You’re not giving me medicine. You’re not going to hurt me in any way, so it’s not a problem.” (Laureate, 2012).

Contrast that with the situations discussed by Parker and Crabtree (2014). They situate their discussion firmly within the bounds of socially beneficial research in social sciences: more specifically in the field of health services. Their readership is assumed to be professionals in those fields. Another article in the same volume talks about the ethical right the police have of entry to “premises where it is suspected that a vulnerable adult is being abused?” (Hewitt, 2014, p. 42). These discussions have little semblance of reality to the typical activities researchers in higher education will be involved in.

Although Parker and Crabtree do bring up some interesting points about covert research, covert research is likely to be the de facto mode for most HEI backyard research because there will be some members of the HEI who are not aware of the researcher’s task and whose data will be used at some level in the research. This point is conceded by Parker and Crabtree who note that “most research probably lies on a continuum somewhere between overt and covert” (2014, p. 35).

In order to place the categorical distinction I have made into some kind of context, I looked up a definition of ‘hurt’. Without a clear conception of what hurt means, understanding the boundaries of ethical research may be problematic. For example, as a classroom teacher, I know that the textbook choice I make may be said to be an ethical one. By the power invested in me by the university, I am able to demand that students pay money beyond course fees for that book, and that book will live with them, direct their attentions and frame their learning for up to a year. However, it is unlikely that I will invoke hurt by making this decision. Likewise, should I decide to give my class a questionnaire about learning attitudes without informing them that I plan to use that data in any subsequent research again is unlikely to lead to hurt. Indeed, the likelihood is so low that there is no requirement in Japanese national universities to pass research proposals through any ethics committees.

So, what is ‘hurt’? Gert, in his exposition on the definition of morality, defines hurt as “death, pain, disability, loss of freedom, and loss of pleasure” (2004, p. 7). My textbook selection may indeed result in some emotional pain, certainly a loss of psychological freedom and, for many students, a serious loss of pleasure. I doubt, however, that any of this is really what we are—or should be—talking about.


Gert, B. (2004). Common Morality: Deciding What to Do. Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/0195173716.001.0001

Hewitt, D. (2014). You are not, any of you, my mother: what happened to the safeguarding power of entry? The Journal of Adult Protection, 16(1), 41–51. doi:10.1108/JAP-09-2013-0040

Laureate Education Inc., (2012). Ethical Issues for the Practitioner-Researcher. [Audio]. Music Creative Support Services: Los Angeles, CA.

Parker, J., & Crabtree, S. A. (2014). Covert research and adult protection and safeguarding: an ethical dilemma? Journal of Adult Protection, The,16(1), 29–40. doi:10.1108/JAP-07-2013-0029

About theCaledonian

Scot living in north Japan teaching at a national university.
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