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The ethical context of research

The ethical context for research

This section provides an introduction to the ethical dilemmas facing guidance researchers as well as an overview of why a discussion on ethics is important to researchers, practitioners and those who combine the two roles in their work. It examines what ethical standards translate to in practice by summarising relevant documents and research.

The role of the practitioner-researcher: ethical considerations

No doubt users of this Forum will be very comfortable with agreeing to the importance of behaving 'ethically' in terms of their work whether as practitioners, researchers or managers. However, it is easy to cite adherence to ethical standards as a necessary pre-requisite for work within the careers field and much harder to identify what that may mean in practice. Just as many equal opportunities policies can come to be somewhat bland and meaningless, 'the rhetorical equivalent of elevator music' (Daniel in Franklin (Ed) 1997: 24), so too can the notion of 'ethical standards' unless they are revisited, debated and 'owned' by those who claim to uphold and subscribe to them. In particular, it is helpful (if alarming) to recognise through discussion that ethics are not always easy to abide by. Different aspects of the same ethical codes may conflict with one another. Further, it can be argued that, some universal 'truths' such as the importance of 'impartiality', or 'objectivity' are little more than misleading 'myths' which allow practitioners and researchers alike to delude themselves that they behave in a manner that is morally robust and ethically defensible!

Questions for you to consider:

What does the concept of ‘ethical context’ mean to you?
How aware are you of ethics in your practice as a researcher or manager?
What dilemmas have you faced in adhering to any codes of practice you subscribe to in your work?
What questions or opinions do you have for other users of the forum, which might help give clarity and coherence to the notion of a shared ethical code?
Even the most cursory consideration of the role of the researcher requires a basic acknowledgement of the importance of ethics, but what does this mean? Is it about telling the truth - if so how easy is that to achieve, is there any such thing as an objective reality, can subjective truth also play a part in research? As Cohen et al (2000: 49) point out: 'ethical concerns need to be addressed at the outset of the research process and acknowledged as it is undertaken. Professional codes exist to provide guidance, but the responsibility for upholding them must lie with the individual researcher.'

One useful way forward is for the researcher, or practitioner, to identify their own perspectives as part of any research process: contextualising any claims made to take account of any possible influence (or bias?) that might arise from their approach. A brief foray into the literature demonstrates this is a contentious area that provokes much debate. For example, sometimes quantitative approaches are presented as being more 'objective' than their 'subjective' qualitative counterparts. However, the debate around the relative merits of these two approaches suggests two, perhaps unnecessarily polarised, positions (Eisner, 1993; Phillips, 1993; Hodkinson, 1998). It has been suggested that in any case the claim for 'objectivity' may be suspect, since it presumes a particular perspective is the only 'truthful' interpretation of a situation and fails to recognise that any analysis is likely to be influenced by the frames of reference of the researcher. For example, feminist perspectives questioned the 'neutral' claims of many previous 'scientific' approaches (Usher, 1996, in Cohen et al, 2000). This was one of many qualitative approaches that arose as a direct result of dissatisfaction with quantitative techniques, which seemed inadequate to explore the complexity of social situations and whose claims to 'objectivity' were viewed by some as spurious. 'To put the point pithily, neither subjectivity nor objectivity has an exclusive stranglehold on truth' (Phillips 2003: 61). Yet, as he points out, the real distinction lies in recognising the difference between a 'biased or personally loaded viewpoint’ as opposed to one ‘supported by carefully gathered evidence'. A research account needs to demonstrate how such evidence has been gathered, and why before it can be gauged as robust enough to support any findings it claims to have unearthed through the research process.

Further Questions to consider:

Does the very process of research change or influence the outcomes in some way? Remember the Hawthorne effect? (Cohen et al, 2000: 127)
How is any information gathered to be used?
How can the researcher ensure confidentiality (if promised) if working in a small field where others may be able to recognise participants from apparently ‘anonymous’ biographies? As McLeod (2001: 15) cautions 'collecting qualitative data from clients or patients, for example through interviews, can be intrusive and demanding, and therefore ethically questionable; reporting rich qualitative data (for example client narratives) may compromise confidentiality.'
Who 'owns' the research? The organisation that funds it, the individual(s) who conduct it, or the subjects of the enquiry?
Do organisational pressures influence the research process – are there subtle pre-determined outcomes at play?
Are any participants really giving informed consent, or might they feel obliged to take part fearing covert penalties if they refuse to take part?
What do you think about the objectivity / subjectivity debate? Does it still seem resonant to you, or is it a distraction from the real demands of research?
How can / should research be assessed?
What do you think?

Has your research raised any ethical concerns or considerations that it would be useful to share with other users of this forum? If so, make a comment - your views will be of interest. Add your own commentary, bibliography or questions if you have found any of the ideas expressed thought provoking, or can fill any gaps or omissions that relate to this topic.

Ethics and parctice

As well as pondering upon ethical issues for those engaged in guidance research, it is also worth reflecting upon how guidance practitioners relate to their own Code of Ethical Practice, developed by the Institute of Career Guidance which states: 'effective and impartial career guidance, founded in the principle of equality of opportunity, aims to ensure individual clients are aware of the full range of opportunities which could be available to them in education, training and work and know how to access them.'

However, an article by Terry Collins on 'Being ethical' in Careers Guidance Today, 13 March 2003, issued a challenge to consider the extent to which such ethical standards are adhered to in practice. Collins recognises the complexity of the code of ethics and gives fictionalised, but all too familiar, case studies to illustrate the enormity of the challenge of applying the ethical code when faced with the complexity of demands that arise from practice. For example, if 'no careers adviser has the right to impose his or her own value system on a client and family but every careers adviser has a duty to expand horizons and to empower individuals in their career choice' - then 'what is a careers adviser doing when encouraging realistic but possibly unrealisable expectations in a client?'

Although this section of the website is focused on the ethical foundations of research, it is helpful to keep in mind that practice too is often bound by ethical codes of practice, whether written or unspoken, and these too can be challenging to interpret and abide by. The question of whose interests do guidance practitioners (or researchers) serve is not always easy to answer.

The practitioner researcher may because of their dual role face particular ethical challenges and it is to that we will now turn.

Ethics in practitioner research and evaluation

The role of the practitioner-researcher itself raises certain ethical considerations, some of which are explored here, with particular reference to the process of evaluation. You may find yourself walking an ethical tightrope finely judging the demands of keeping your research robust and transparent, whilst meeting the demands of your employer as a Practitioner-Researcher.

For many practitioners the first research requirement arising from practice is linked to the need to evaluate their work. However, immediately this objective raises ethical questions. As Killeen stated (1996: 331): 'evaluation is tangled up in the macro-politics of national resource allocation and the micro-politics of organisational preferment. For this reason it may be done in outright bad faith, although the reality may more often be that the evaluator is led to bias the outcome without being fully conscious of what is happening'.

Evaluation can be controversial – particularly when a project needs to demonstrate achievement of successful outcomes in order to secure continuation funding for example. The practitioner-researcher faced with such a brief meets the ethical context and conflicts of their role head on. In an age where quality assurance has come to mean a great deal, it is arguably more important than ever to understand what outcomes careers work is to measured against and why.

Killeen, (1993:60) pointed out that evaluation is linked to finding (seeking) definitions to terms such as 'quality' or 'guidance': 'these questions are in part political and ideological, which means they are unlikely to be resolved… thinking about guidance invites us to engage in a debate about the kind of world we think we should live in.'

As such, it cannot be a blunt tool of judgement. Effective evaluation depends on recognition of the complexity of the particular context in which it takes place, and an explicit statement of intended objectives against which the work is being evaluated. This is frequently a difficulty within careers work where outcomes are often 'soft' or only become apparent over time. Killeen points out the difficulty of evaluating guidance when it becomes reduced to counting of 'processes' and 'inputs' suggesting is 'rather like evaluating magic by counting the number of spells that are cast' (1993:60). Yet: ‘evaluation forces us to be very explicit about our objectives: so explicit, that we are either able to demonstrate that they are being met, or have to accept that they are, for one reason or another, undemonstrated, or even undemonstrable. This in turn, leads to the clearest possible recognition of what the alternative points of view about objectives and purposes really are… debates about what guidance should do become much more productive when they are also about what guidance can do’ (Killeen 1993:60 original emphasis).

Is it enough then to look at whether a project has met its objectives, or would it be better to use enquiry into a project as an opportunity to unearth the soft unexpected outcomes or benefits that it may have brought about. Alternatively if objectives have not been met, rather than producing a defensive apology for 'failure' it might be an opportunity to identify if the original objectives were appropriate, what barriers got in the way, or to produce narrative case studies that illustrate (though may not necessarily represent) the project’s impact on particular individuals.

Killeen reminds the reader that 'it is difficult to see how the techniques and organisation of guidance are to be improved without research and development allied to a strong culture of evaluation. This means that we need to encourage the development of reflective practitioners and to offer them access, through training, to the skills and knowledge – including those of evaluation – that they will need' (Killeen, 1993:60). Perhaps this forum can be part of that process.

Want to find out more?

If you are embarking on an evaluation process and feel at sea, use this forum to pose your questions, dilemmas and seek advice on the topic of evaluation. If you are already confident, use it to post your own experiences and case studies. You may also wish to look at the following:

References and further reading:

BOWES, L., HARTAS, D., HUGHES, D., & POPHAM, I (2003) A Little Book of Evaluation, Nottingham: DfES
COHEN et al (2000: 49-72) ‘The ethics of educational and social research’ in COHEN, L., MANION, L., & MORRISON, K., 5TH Edition (2000) Research Methods in Education London: RoutledgeFalmer
COHEN, L., MANION, L., & MORRISON, K., 5TH Edition (2000) Research Methods in Education, London: Routledge Falmer
DANIEL, C, (1997) ‘Socialists and Equality’ in J. FRANKLIN (Ed) (1997) Equality, London: IPPR
EISNER, E., (1993) ‘Objectivity in Educational Research’ in HAMMERSLEY, M., (Ed) (1993) Educational Research, Current issues London: Paul Chapman Publishing/Open University
HAMILTON, D., (2002) ‘‘Noisy, Fallible and Biased though it Be’ (on the vagaries of educational research)’ in British Journal of Educational Studies Vol. 50, No. 1, March 2002 pp144 -164
HAMMERSLEY, M., (Ed) (1993) Educational Research, Current issues London: Paul Chapman Publishing/Open University
HODKINSON, P., (1998) ‘The Origins of Career Decision Making: a case study of hermeneutical research’ in British Educational Research Journal, Vol. 24, No. 5, 1998, pp 557 - 572
Irving, B., & Marris, L., (2002) ‘Towards an inclusive framework’ in ICG (INSTITUTE OF CAREER GUIDANCE) (2002) Career Guidance: Constructing the Future, Social Inclusion, Stourbridge: ICG
KILLEEN, J., (1993) ‘Research Priorities: A Personal View’ in WATTS, A.G., STERN, E., & DEEN, N., (Eds) (1993) Careers Guidance Towards the 21st Century, Cambridge: CRAC
KILLEEN, J., WATTS, A.G., & KIDD, J., (1999) Social Benefits of Career Guidance, NICEC Briefing, Cambridge: CRAC
KILLEEN, J., WHITE, M., & WATTS, A.G. (1992) The Economic Value of Careers Guidance, London: PSI and NICEC
KILLEEN, J., (1996) ‘Evaluation’ in WATTS, A.G., LAW, B, KILLEEN, J., KIDD, J., HAWTHORN, J., (1996) Rethinking Careers Education and Guidance: London, Routledge
KIMMEL, A.J. (1988) Ethics and Values in Applied Social Research, Newbury Park, California: Sage Pulbishing
McLEOD, J., (2001) ‘Qualitative Research in Counselling and Psychotherapy’ London: Sage Publications Ltd
PHILLIPS, D.C., (1993) ‘Subjectivity and Objectivity: an objective inquiry’ in HAMMERSLEY, M., (Ed) (1993) Educational Research, Current issues London: Paul Chapman Publishing/Open University
ROBSON, C., (2002) Real World Research, Second edition, Oxford: Blakewell Publishers Ltd
USHER, P., (1996) cited in COHEN, L., MANION, L., & MORRISON, K., 5TH Edition (2000) Research Methods in Education London: RoutledgeFalmer pp 34 - 35.
Some advantages and disadvantages arising from operating as a practitioner-researcher…

For one view of the issues that may arise from the perspective of the practitioner researcher you may find it useful to look at Appendix B of ROBSON (2002). Robson (2002: 534) defines a practitioner-researcher as ‘someone who holds down a job in some particular area and is, at the same time, involved in carrying out systematic enquiry which is relevant to the job.’ Robson compares practitioner-researchers with ‘outside’ researchers in terms of disadvantages and advantages. One disadvantage identified is that of ‘Insider’ problems. The insider may have preconceptions about issues and/or solutions. There can also be hierarchy difficulties (both ways, i.e. with high-status and low-status practitioner-researchers); and possibly the ‘prophet in own country’ phenomenon (i.e. outside advice may be more highly valued).’ It might be the case that such insider problems, unless recognised and addressed, can lead to ethical dilemmas.

Let’s talk …

Are you a practitioner-researcher? If so, why not add an account of your experiences? Don’t think ‘research’ has to lead to a mighty tome published in an academic journal. Your research might begin with a ‘simple’ exercise in evaluation of a particular project, seeking client feedback on services or producing some sort of evidence of success as part of a bid-writing process. Have you been involved in any of these activities? If so how did you approach it, did you identify ethical concerns at the time, or can you now with hindsight see how you may have tackled it differently?

Use this section of the forum to post your comments, contributions and findings, don’t be inhibited, practitioners may lack confidence or expertise as researchers, but often that is more than adequately compensated for by practitioner insights in identifying, designing and analysing useful and appropriate studies.

Here are some open ended questions concerning ethical issues, intended to stimulate discussion. Add your own thoughts, responses and comments or pose new questions for others to consider.

Here are some key questions on the role of the researcher:

Can research ever be truly objective?
Can a balance be achieved between the ‘pursuit of truth’ and the rights and values of the participants of research?
Key questions for the role of the practitioner:

Does careers guidance within a society where life chances are unequally distributed serve to reinforce such inequalities rather than reduce them?
Are careers advisers encouraging unrealisable expectations in their attempt to widen horizons?
Key questions on the role of the practitioner-researcher:

Are there ethical conflicts in evaluating projects that need to show ‘success’ in order to secure further funding?
Is a practitioner-researcher too much of an insider to be an effective researcher?
What do you think?

Ethical frameworks for research

Ethical frameworks for research

The British Educational Research Association believes that all educational research should be conducted within an ethic of respect for the person, knowledge, democratic values, quality of educational research and academic freedom' (BERA Ethical Guidelines, 2004: 5). Researchers have responsibilities linked to the research profession, participants, public, funding agencies, publication, relationships with host institution and so on. A past BERA president, Anne Edwards, discussed ways of being a researcher in her presidential address: Responsible Research: Ways of being a researcher at the BERA Annual Conference, Leeds 2001.

The linked documents below are other sets of ethical guidelines produced by various professional and government bodies:

The British Psychological Society have also produced a Code of Ethics and Conduct (2006), which includes a section on research ethics.

The British Sociological Association too have produced a statement of ethical practice (2002) with reference to research issues.

The Government Social Research Unit has developed guidance for the ethical assurance of government social research: Ethics in social research.

Doing the Right Thing – outlining the Department for Work and Pensions' approach to ethical and legal issues in social research, Bacon J and Olsen, K, DWP working Paper 11 (2003).

The Institute of Career Guidance has its own ‘Code of Ethical Practice for Members of the Institute of Career Guidance’, but this relates more to practice, rather than research.