Purpose - This paper demonstrates the limited efficacy procedural ethics has for qualitative research. Ethics committee’s instructions have a short shelf life given the research question qualitative researchers create is volatile; that is, likely to change due to the inductive, emergent, informant-led nature of qualitative research. Design - This article draws on extensive literature to examine the void between the original research design and the messy reality experienced in the field. We focus on how researchers can practice ethically by recognizing the need for agile and responsive ethics praxis in their work. Findings - This practice describes the researcher, recognizing the initial support from an ethics committee and its limitations, but as the research gets underway assuming full responsibility for ethical considerations that emerge in the field. Practical implications - Researchers’ responsibilities entail recognising the dual faces of confidentiality; distinguishing external confidentiality from internal confidentiality. Other responsibilities in post procedural ethics include recognising and addressing what Guillemin and Gillam label big ethical moments and addressing these in different ways. Originality/value - At times, participants and researchers’ ethical protections are insufficient to deal with the unforeseen, requiring on the spot ethical reasoning and decision-making. Being prepared for and capable of ethics praxis is therefore crucial. Researchers should also assume they may find themselves at personal risk (physically, emotionally, reputationally) and in anticipation of that they should create a safety plan. Most importantly, the changeable nature of practicing ethical research requires researchers to establish a reference group that can provide impartial advice and guidance enhancing the ethical practice.


Internal Confidentiality, Process Consent, Anonymity, Reference Groups

Author Bio(s)

Martin Tolich’s (0000-0002-0208-9315) first degrees were from Auckland University and his Ph.D. in Sociology was from University of California, Davis. He is currently Associate Professor in Sociology at Otago University, New Zealand. Martin has authored and co-authored numerous books on Research Methods and Research Ethics for Pearson, Oxford University Press, Routledge and Sage. His latest books were Planning Ethically Responsible Research (with Sieber), the Sage Handbook of Qualitative Research Ethics (with Ron Iphofen), Public Sociology Capstone: Non-Neoliberal Alternatives to Internships, and Social Science Research in New Zealand (with Davidson). His forthcoming book with Routledge is Finding Your Ethical Self: A Guidebook for Novice Qualitative Researchers. He has served on ethics committees for over twenty years and in 2008 founded a not-for-profit independent New Zealand Ethics Committee. In 2012, he gained a blue-sky three year Marsden Grant from the Royal Society of New Zealand to study tensions around ethics review.

Emma Tumilty (0000-0002-4132-6467) is a Bioethicist and Lecturer at the School of Medicine, Deakin University, Geelong, Australia. She completed a PhD in Bioethics at Otago University and Postdoctoral Fellowship in the Institute of Translational Sciences at the University of Texas Medical Branch. Her research interests span both clinical ethics and research ethics, where she is interested in issues of justice, power relations, and feminist approaches. In the area of research ethics she focuses both on what is involved in practicing ethically as a researcher and what is required for research ethics review to be effective and meaningful. Her research is informed by her previous work on ethics review committees in New Zealand and the U.S.A., providing research ethics consultation services, and her experiences as an empirical researcher. She is the book review editor for the International Journal of Feminist Approaches to Bioethics and an Associate Editor for Progress in Community Health Partnership Journal.


An earlier version of this paper was presented at the 4th World Conference on Qualitative Research (WCQR2019) in Oporto, Portugal, October 16th to 18th 2019. https://2019.wcqr.info/world-conference-on-qualitative-research/

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