Ethical Considerations in Case-Centered Qualitative Research

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Case-centered qualitative research is discussed elsewhere in this blog (in particular, see “Multi-method & Case-centered Research: When the Whole is Greater Than the Sum of its Parts”).  It is generally defined as multiple-method research that focuses on complex social units or entities (or “cases”) in their entirety, while maintaining the cohesiveness of the entity throughout the research process rather than reducing the outcomes to categorical data.  Two examples of case-centered research are: case studies – e.g., an examination of a city social program – and narrative research – e.g., a study of chronic illness among sufferers.

Roller.ResearchDesignReview

This post by Margaret R. Roller originally appeared at her Research Design Review blog under the title “Ethical Considerations in Case-Centered Qualitative Research” and is reposted by permission.

Ethical considerations are important in every research method involving human subjects but they take on added significance in case-centered research where researchers often work closely with research participants over a period of time and frequently in the face-to-face mode (where researcher-participant relationships play an important role in the research outcomes).  Both case study and narrative research gather a great deal of highly detailed information on each case, e.g., a case study may collect a detailed account of a particular social program; or a narrative inquiry may result in long, very personal stories associated with a chronic illness. In these types of studies, the possibility of inadvertently exposing participants’ identities (without their permission) runs high unless preventive measures are taken.

This is why the use of informed and voluntary consent as well as approval from institutional review boards (when required) is critical in case-centered research. Consent involves disclosing the various aspects of the research, emphasizing the voluntary component, promising to keep participants safe, and paying particular attention to vulnerable population segments (e.g., children).  Yet these efforts need to go further. Case-centered researchers must also effectively communicate the confidential nature of the research and take extra precautions to ensure participants’ right to privacy – which can be particularly challenging when only one case is the focal point of the research (e.g., a city social program). For this reason, it is not uncommon for case study and narrative researchers to maintain participants’ anonymity in their final reports by changing participants’ names as well as the names of the characters and places revealed in the course of the research.

The path that these ethical considerations – consent and anonymity – take in the research design is also important.  The skilled researcher will think carefully about how and when to incorporate these ethical standards while maintaining the quality and integrity of the data.  For instance, narrative researchers are reluctant to reveal “too much” regarding the study objectives at the onset of an interview in fear of biasing the participant’s narrative. These researchers balance the ethical obligation of informed consent with the need for quality outcomes by, among other things, gaining consent twice, i.e., before the interview and again at the completion of the interview, and by conducting a thoughtful debriefing with each participant.

Case-centered researchers also need to give thoughtful attention to anonymity and its impact on the final outcomes. Specifically, researchers must address questions such as: How will anonymizing the data introduce bias or error by way of changing context? and How will de-identifying the data alter its interpretation? These are important questions because the answers may determine how or if the data is used.

Ethical considerations revolve around transparency and safety, with safety broadly defined in terms of both physical and psychological harm, including the potential harm associated with the invasion of privacy and confidentiality. However, ethical considerations cannot (should not) be contemplated in a vacuum. Researchers – particularly case-centered researchers – need to carefully incorporate these ethics while also ensuring the quality of the research results.


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