How can I pursue ethical issues while using participant observation?

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    Kien Nguyen

    Hi all,

    I am conducting a qualitative research on deference rituals in public space. Drawing on the study by Erving Goffman on deference and demeanour (1956). My question is how can I ensure that all ethical issues are achieved if I conduct participant observation? One of the difficulties is my research areas are in public places such as bus station, market or street restaurant where people move quickly and their interaction is just touch-and-leave encounter. As a result, I find it difficult to get informed consent from them.

    Could you give me some advices on that problem?

    Thank you very much.

    bernard smith

    I am not asking for a detailed answer but surely the need for informed consent would depend on the kinds of interaction you are planning to be egaged in, If YOU intend to act in ways that deliberately confuse naive subjects then perhaps there is no way to solve your ethical concerns. If OTHERS in the settings routinely act in ways that confuse subjects and would do so whether or not you were present or engaged in research then I am  not sure that you have any significant ethical responsibility for informed consent. If you are simply observing folk and are able to do so because of your participation in the setting (driving a bus, selling in the market, waiting tables… then  would you need their consent to observe them in “public spaces”?

    Kien Nguyen

    Thank you Mr. Bernard for your answer. 

    In my observation, I choose to be a flexible participant in the situation, that is to say, my role can be ranged from the complete participant (who reveals his role and establishes relationship with the informant) to the complete observer (who disguises his role and creates no relationship in the field). Of course, I will try to get the informed consent whenever I could. But this explanation would not be satisfied to get ethical approval from the research committee. 

    Anyhow, I am looking for a book that gives me a rationale to complete my proposal. Many thanks.



    Remember that the key to consent is around issues of personal identification and confidentiality.. I am not sure exactly how you are collecting data– if it is general notation of activity then you are not collecting identifying information… lady in yellow blouse or 20-something Asian man with spiky hair  these are ways to track your notes, not identifiable, and should be fine without consent- in fact it can be argued that consent fundamentally disrupts/intervenes in the activities…

    Now, if you are conducting videos or still photos were folks can be identified- that is a different story and you will need to adjust your protocol and institutional research approvals accordingly..

    I think the key will be to determine how and what data you are collecting and what role you feel the researcher should take…

    bernard smith

    what if the research involves the researcher disrupting expectations even amongst unidentifiable people.. The researcher surely has an ethical responsibility in that context (contra Millgram and experimental psych ) . PO would suggest to me something more than simply sitting at a table and taking notes (or even taking photos or videos). Passive observation from the sidelines is not participation , is it?

    Kien Nguyen

    Thank you Tara and Bernard. It is a bit clearer for me now.

    My data will be interactant’s attitude and behaviour in their social interaction. The way they talk, they greets at each other, or even the way their body contact. I think that these information should be viewed as the deep information rather than general notation as Tara pointed out. 

    The problem I will face is that I can not identify which role or which level of participation I should take in my observation. Because the interactants will move really quick, their social encounters will be just touch-and-leave, so it is hard even I want to be full participant in the situation, creating the relationship with them in such case.

    Anyway, Denzin (1978, The research act…) said that it is important to not harm the fame or the life of the informants. However, this point of view may not get approved from ethics committee nowadays. 


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