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PhD research with marginalised communities: a few questions about ethics…

Anna Isaacs, Methods

PhD research with marginalised communities: a few questions about ethics…

Photo by Alexandra. © 2015. © CC0 Public Domain via Pixabay.

Photo by Alexandra. © 2015. © CC0 Public Domain via Pixabay.

By Anna Isaacs

In my distant pre-PhD life, I spent a considerable amount of time each week volunteering with migrant and refugee organizations. In fact, the improvement of migrant and refugee health, and more broadly the reduction of health inequalities have long been my primary ‘vocational’ goals. To me, doing a PhD is a logical extension of these interests, a way that I can best develop my particular skills to meet these ends, albeit in the setting of academia rather than a non-governmental organisation (NGO).

Nearly a year in to my PhD, my intentions haven’t changed, but I realise that my approach was perhaps a little naïve. As I’ve worked on my research questions, and critically considered who exactly my research will benefit and how, I understand that I can’t just expect people to acknowledge my good intentions automatically. More importantly, those good intentions are not enough to ensure that my research will create any positive change; I need to have a clearer plan.

With that in mind, I wanted to discuss a few of the ethical conflicts I’ve considered whilst preparing for fieldwork in my first year.

  • Volunteering: a valid way to reciprocate or a potential conflict of interests?

As a newcomer to Glasgow, I quickly decided that volunteering in the communities I hoped to draw participants from would not only be a good way to learn more about the areas I was researching (and thus improve the validity of my research), but more importantly to ensure my research had an element of reciprocity. Researchers demand considerable time and energy from their participants and so contributing my own time and energy appeared to be a good way to start to redress that balance. The reality is less simple however. If some of my participants overlapped with the pool of individuals I was volunteering with, could my volunteering be construed as a subversive way to recruit research participants? Might individuals feel compelled to participate because they had known me as a volunteer?

  • Is it acceptable to do research with ‘over-researched’ communities?

Engaging with community groups at the start of the research process, I was met with a variety of responses, from jokes that a member of staff could be hired just to deal with the requests of PhD students, to remarks on the number of researchers who have come in, taken up participants’ time, never to be heard from again. Of course my specific research hasn’t been done before, but does that alone justify it? What provisions do we need to put in place to ensure we are not just adding another paper to the large pile that has already been written?

  • Making a difference to participants’ lives: how much is enough?

There is rightly concern about researchers who fail to feed back even basic information to their participants. This certainly runs counter to my own priorities as a researcher, as I seek active participant engagement with, and tangible outcomes from, my research. However, at what point are we contributing sufficiently so as to make our research and the potential disruption to participants’ lives, worthwhile? Is it enough simply to provide a space for marginalised voices to be heard? Is it enough just to provide reports to the organizations or individuals involved, or must there be something more substantive?

As PhD students, we have minimal influence, and considerable commitments: to the completion of our theses, to funders and supervisors. Is it fair to take up the time of potentially vulnerable individuals who may have complex needs, if actionable research outcomes can’t be guaranteed?

How have others addressed the questions I’ve highlighted here? What other ethical issues are important to consider? I doubt that many of these questions have answers, but considering the ethical imperatives that extend beyond submissions to university research ethics committees seems a crucial part of the PhD process, or indeed, any research project.



  1. Jane March-McDonald

    I encountered similar ethical dilemmas with my PhD research with Somali families in the Uk. Highlights the importance of critical reflection and good supervision. Good potential discussion for methodology chapter showing research ethics is a dynamic process not a just an application with a tick box mentality.


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