Written voluntary informed consent (VIC) procedures are the standard approach for operationalising the ethical principle of respect for persons’ autonomy in qualitative research. However, achieving fully informed and truly voluntary consent is challenging, particularly in qualitative research and/or postcolonial contexts. Evidence about (mis)understandings (i.e., unintended meanings) surrounding VIC comes primarily from participants in quantitative, biomedical research. I aim to advance knowledge about qualitative research participants’ (mis)understandings of VIC. I used ethnographic methods to document the evolving (mis)understandings participants attached to written VIC procedures in two postcolonial settings, Eswatini and South Africa. All participants provided me consent to document their interactions as co-researchers in participatory research, in which they learned about, designed and implemented VIC procedures. I analysed the data interpretively and abductively, informed by Bourdieu’s theory of practice. Participants valued the opportunity to decide and sign consent to participate but held (mis)understandings of study information and signing, which evolved as they participated. Many (mis)understandings were shaped by what the unfamiliar act of signing symbolised to them (i.e., binding, contractual agreements that protected the researcher/university and through which they relinquished their rights), from their positions of marginalisation amidst economic/material, cultural and social power inequalities. In postcolonial settings, requiring qualitative research participants to sign consent forms likely undermines the ethical principle of respect that VIC is intended to operationalise. Based on these findings I recommend alternative non-written procedures are used to operationalise the principle of respect in postcolonial qualitative research settings.


Power, Post-Coloniality, Voluntary Informed Consent, Research Ethics

Author Bio(s)

Michelle is social scientist whose research spans basic and applied approaches and incorporates methods and tools from multiple disciplines, including health, development, anthropology and education. Her research is broadly focused on developing research approaches and empirical data that improve understanding of power and how these influence participatory processes. She has specific interests in epistemic, gendered and racial power inequalities and how they play out in participatory research in postcolonial southern African settings. She is affiliated with the School of Education Studies, Faculty of Education and Afromontane Research Unit, University of the Free State (South Africa), Qwaqwa campus; and Global and Women’s Health, Monash University (Australia), School of Public Health and Preventive Medicine.

Corresponding author: Michelle Brear; Monash University (Australia), Level 4, 553 St Kilda Rd, Prahran. michelle.brear@monash.edu


I greatly appreciate the time, knowledge, and energy the participants contributed to this research. During the fieldwork and preparation of this article I was supported by an Australian Postgraduate Award (Monash University) and a Postdoctoral Research Fellowship (University of the Free State). 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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