The ethical approval application is sometimes seen as unavoidable on the path to fieldwork. But why do we need ethical approval? On a fundamental level, we need to undertake research in an ethical manner to ensure we are minimising risks to our participants/co-investigators and to ourselves. We need to ensure that we are truthful when engaging with research, about our aims, our methods, and our outputs. When working with groups whom society has already marginalised, we should ensure that we consider their vulnerabilities whilst still giving them an authentic voice. Ethics offers the chance to reflect upon key questions in your research; why am I researching this subject, is it necessary, how can I best gather the data that will allow me to best explore the subject, what type of data will I be gathering and how will I access it? It is an iterative process resulting in clarity in answering the question of ‘who’ the research will focus upon and ‘how’ it will be undertaken.
This might sound a bit of a tall order and perhaps a little ‘preachy’ but to demonstrate what can happen when this goes wrong McGarvey (2019), in his book Poverty Safari, describes well-meaning researchers arriving in Pollock (Glasgow) to research the culture and poverty of the area, then leaving, their research completed, with no discernible benefits to the community. So ethics, rather than being a form-completion exercise should be a consideration from the start of research, who do you aim to speak to, what barriers will you face and how do you plan to overcome these, which geographical areas will you be drawing samples from and why, what methods will best gather the data needed to answer your research question? Finally, what will be the lasting impacts on those who are involved?
These questions are more important when the participant group you wish to contact is a marginalised group. The term ‘marginalised’ is used deliberately here. Often groups are referred to as ‘hard to reach’ or ‘hidden’ populations but it is not that these groups choose to avoid identification, rather that society fails to acknowledge their existence. Recognising the reasons why these groups are overlooked gives valuable insights into the most effective methods of sampling and which methods are most appropriate for collecting the type of rich data required to reflect the lived experience.
My research examines the housing experiences of estranged students within the privately rented sector (including purpose-built student accommodation). There are noted difficulties in accurately assessing the population of estranged students Scottish Government (2022, p. 64) noted that ‘numbers of estranged students are likely to be higher than reported’ and that this could be due to difficulties evidencing the estrangement. (Bland and Blake, 2020; Costa, Taylor, Goodfellow and Ecochard, 2020). There are a number of reasons why sampling estranged students can be difficult. Firstly, they may not know that their circumstances are classed as estrangement, they may not meet the evidential criteria to claim estrangement, or they may feel the identity of estranged students stigmatises them in the view of others.
Stigma is seen as a negative quality or characteristic which is unwillingly ascribed to an individual, unfortunately it is something experienced by many estranged students. In a society where family support is accepted as the norm and where services are designed around this preconception, students can be stigmatised by the very services designed to support them. As an example, how many times are these questions asked at universities: ‘Are you looking forward to going home for the holidays?’, ‘can you access the Bank of Mum/Dad?’, ‘did you have a good Christmas at home?’. For estranged students, these well-meaning enquiries only serve to emphasise their differences.
One way to circumvent the difficulties accessing estranged students can be using organised networks as a means of broadening recruitment. Some important considerations if using this method can be: What are the goals of organisations/companies that may offer access? Will they expect oversight/right of veto over your research questions? However, if you can demonstrate that you have considered and addressed any risk of causing distress to participants, gatekeepers can prove useful allies in providing access. This again is clarified by the ethical process.
It is also important to consider that methods can exclude potential participants. Some considerations are: will you do in person/online/ interview and/or questionnaire? If you are thinking of online interviews, consider digital exclusion – not everyone has a computer. Space is particularly important when considering discussing sensitive topics, where will it take place? If online, does the participant have a safe, quiet place to talk? Online may be preferable for those with sensory issues or anxiety around public spaces. (Harvey, van Teijlingen and Parrish, 2023).
Communication needs – an online interview (similar to a questionnaire but with longer answers and prompts) can be useful for those with impairments. As an example, autistic people can find face-to-face interviews overwhelming which can result in a situation called ‘info dumping.’ There may also be requirements on the researcher’s side. For example, I am disabled so travelling to undertake interviews in person is difficult as well as expensive.
Maintaining anonymity is particularly important with vulnerable groups such as estranged students. With such small groups, if the institution they study at is revealed, there is a risk that they could be identifiable. Using pseudonyms is usually a way to preserve anonymity, however, when allocating these, care should be taken to make sure they still respect the cultural identity of the participant. A previous research participant provided a helpful example. When discussing the use of pseudonyms to protect identity, Safiyah (not real name) informed me ‘Yeah but make sure you use a name that reflects my South East Asian heritage otherwise what I’ve told you about problems sharing accommodation won’t make sense, like if you call me Charlotte but I’ve said about Ramadan.’
The ethical approval process is an iterative one, allowing us to clarify what exactly we want to learn from the research and the best way to achieve it.
Bland, B. and Blake, L. 2020. The difficulty in evidencing family estrangement to attain statutory finance in UK Higher Education. Higher Education Quarterly. 74(4), pp.531-542.
Costa, C., Taylor, Y., Goodfellow, C. and Ecochard, S., 2020. Student estrangement in higher education: identity formation and the struggle against stigma. British Journal of sociology of Education, 41(5), pp.685-700.
Harvey, O., van Teijlingen, E. and Parrish, M., 2023. Using a range of communication tools to interview a hard-to-reach population. Sociological Research Online, p.13607804221142212.
McGarvey, D., 2019. Poverty safari. Rizzoli.
National Union of Students (Scotland). 2022. Broke: How Scotland is failing its students. [Online]. [Accessed 3 February 2022]. Available from: https://www.nus-scotland.org.uk/resources/broke-how-scotland-is-failing-its-students
Fiona Powell was (at the time of writing) a PhD researcher at the University of Glasgow and her area of interest is estranged students and their experiences in the privately rented sector.