A Few Thoughts on Research Ethics

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One key aspect in the research process that is often ignored or overlooked by students when doing social research is the question of ethics. When students go out to do their own research for the first time, they are usually excited and nervous about it and all they do is think about how they can get their research question answered and how they can best collect the data they need. This is totally understandable. I myself usually get really excited when I have a research project in mind and I don’t immediately think about ethical issues and dilemmas involved. Nonetheless, after the first excitement about a new research idea has cooled off a little and I start thinking about how to operationalize my project, the question of ethics is one of the first ones that I need to consider.

Ethics discussions can often be very abstract and philosophical due to which many people quickly switch off. I sympathize with these people, I really do, but when you really think about what ethics entails, you quickly realize that it is one of the most important aspects to consider in doing research. For three reasons:

  1. It affects you as a researcher, your health and safety.
  2. It affects other human beings (your research subjects, possibly your families), their health and their safety.
  3. If affects the social sciences more generally, their reputation and chances of getting access in the future.

When I talk about ethics I am referring to moral questions of what is right and what is wrong in doing research, who may get harmed in the process, and who needs to be protected and how. Usually, there is no black or white answer to what is ethical or unethical in social research. Rather thinking about ethics is supposed to make you reflect on important issues and it wants you to justify your approach, while minimizing any harm (to your participants, yourself and other researchers and your discipline). It urges you to consider all possible consequences (including unintended) and what they mean to you and others. One key dilemma in the discussion on ethics is the question of covert vs. overt research.

Covert vs. Overt Research: The debate whether covert, that is, “undercover” research is ever justified is one of the key ethical dilemmas social scientists face and there is no yes or no answer to this question. Generally speaking there are quite a few celebrated research studies out there where researchers have conducted covert research. However, quite often they put somebody at risk, either themselves, their families and friends, their participants or their discipline. So, even though important insights may be won e.g. about drug dealers or gang culture, by doing covert research. There are huge ethical issues involved that you should NEVER try to solve or handle by yourself, as a student researcher.

So in general, the key thing to ethical research is trying to think through a variety of possible scenarios and consequences before you go out to do research. In addition, not having done this beforehand will most likely put you into difficult situations and then you are not sure how to respond. You may well be unsure how to respond even if you think about ethical issues beforehand, nonetheless, you are much better equipped at responding to tricky situations in an acceptable, ethical manner if you have considered potential ethical dilemmas beforehand.

Some more practical tips for “doing ethics”:

Informed Consent: One key tool that social researchers usually draw on to minimize ethical dilemmas is informed consent, which basically refers to a written statement in which your participants agree to take part in your research. Such consent should clearly state purpose and process of the study, as well as use of the data gathered afterwards and it is crucial that you talk through this with your informants prior to e.g. doing interviews. Obviously, seeking informed consent is not always possible, especially if you are doing ethnographic research in public spaces like attending an official political debate. Nonetheless, there are ways around this issue. For instance, you can try to seek approval from the formal organizers of the event you want to study or you can explain your research to people you talk to during the event. Verbal informed consent is better than no informed consent.

Key questions you should ask yourself before doing research:

  1. Am I the right person to do this research? Is my background suitable to this kind of research? Here I am particularly referring to issues of class, gender and race. For example, is a white, middle class man the best person to research black, working class females’ experiences of motherhood? Consider the issue of power and privilege in this research setup. A researcher has always a position of power.
  2. Who can get harmed in this process? Is the organization you research put at risk because you reveal too much information about their internals to the outside world? Are you endangered because you are trying to get access to a subculture such as gangs or organized crime? Are your informants endangered because you may reveal sensitive information about them and their doings that may put them in jail or make them outsiders of their community?
  3. What can be done to minimize any harm? Here think about your methods of doing research. About protecting anonymity of your informants. About their emotional experiences and their wellbeing when they talk about sensitive experiences. What about your emotional investment in your research participants?
  4. Who will I be able to talk to about any ethical dilemmas that come up and that I didn’t expect? This is very important, as quite often you will encounter dilemmas that you would like to discuss with other, more experienced people, such as your supervisor, but sometimes due to reasons of protecting anonymity this may not be an easy thing to do.

 

If you find answers to these questions and you follow the ethics guidelines of your institution, you should be well equipped to deal with ethical dilemmas that may appear in your research. And, as the head of department, Professor Mike Savage, thinks, the most interesting research usually entails a variety of ethical dilemmas. So be ready to deal with them!

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What Research Question? A short exercise that will help you get your ideas flowing

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Towards the end of your undergraduate and postgraduate studies, and possibly even earlier, it is likely that you will be asked to design your own small research project. In such situations some of you may feel, yes, finally I can do what I am interested in, however, they may not yet be sure how to link their interest to key theoretical issues in their respective discipline. Others again may not even have discovered yet what really interests them due to which they have major issues coming up with any idea of what to research in the first place. In both cases, the following exercise may be useful, which I have designed and successfully applied in my own teaching (for undergraduate sociology students) very recently, with good feedback from my students.

Please note that the theoretical concepts and examples I am using in the following illustration are based on sociology and the specific setting (i.e. the city of London) that I used in this exercise, but I believe that this exercise can prove useful beyond sociology and London as a research site.

  1. Where?

The first step is fairly easy. As an undergraduate and in most cases also as a postgraduate, you will have limited resources and mobility, due to which you should probably choose a research site which is easily accessible to you. In most cases this will be your immediate surroundings. In the case of my students it was the city of London, as I used this exercise at the London School of Economics. However, don’t forget, it can also be online!

  1. What about your setting?

In the next step, you need to ask yourself, what issues do you really hate / love / care about in this setting? Make a list of all of these issues. Again in my example, I asked students what they loved / hated in and about London, leading us to the following list:

  1. Transport issues (rush hour, tube, strikes, long commutes, etc.)
  2. Housing (housing crisis, poor living conditions, huge costs)
  3. Cultural diversity (London as melting pot of different cultures, different foods / religions / ethnicities / traditions, immigration)
  4. Money issues (banking, generally high costs of living, shopping)
  5. Crime (robbery, rape, youth crime, immigration)

 

  1. What about your discipline?

Once you have such a list, ask yourself, what issues / debates / topics do you find interesting in your studied discipline? Again, make a list of all of these issues. When I asked my students about their interests we came up with the following list in class:

  • Gender / Feminism / Family
  • Class & Inequalities
  • Exploitation
  • Crime
  • Religion
  1. Now, connect the two!

In the next step I wanted students to connect their discipline specific interest with one of the themes they had come up with in step 2. This allowed them to discover an area of interest, which could be researched in their chosen setting, while being relevant for their academic discipline. So for instance, one student paired gender with transport, as he was interested in how women change their perception of means of transport at night in different circumstances (e.g. alone or with others). Another obvious example was that of linking the housing issue to class and inequalities, a very current topic in the city of London of today. Finally, another connection was that of youth crime, with a particular focus on gangs, and inequalities and class.

  1. Formulate your question

In this last step you now only have to connect your area of research with a certain type of question. Do you want to explore processes? Then ask a how question. Do you want to investigate trends and factual events? Then it may be better to ask a what question. You want to find out why something happens? Then ask a why question (please not the list of types of questions here is not exhaustive, there are other questions you could ask!).

That’s it, if you try this out for yourself, substituting the examples I have given above with your own settings, interests and discipline depending theoretical constructs and you will hopefully be able to generate some good ideas of what you might want to research. I think this is really exciting! Good luck!

Interviewing Part 2 – Insights from Interviewing Practice

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In the first blog post on interviewing (Interviewing part 1) I introduced you to the process of interviewing in the social sciences. In this blog post I want to build on the first part, but dive into real interviewing practice, explaining to you some of the issues I have come across when interviewing that you usually don’t read about in methods books. The list of experiences I want to share with you is not exhaustive but at least it sensitizes you to challenges of real life interviewing.

Common issues I have come across

  1. Interviewees try to look at your topic guide

This has happened to me on various occasions. You sit at a table facing your interviewee and put your topic guide (your questions) on the table as to fully concentrate on your research participant. However, as people are generally curious they will look at the guide to find out how many questions you have prepared, what will await them next etc. This will greatly distract both the interviewee and the interviewer and it will prevent a natural conversation from emerging. For this reason I have learned to memorize my questions as well as possible and to bring a clipboard with the topic guide clipped on to the interview, so that I have it close if needed without tempting the interviewee to look.

  1. Interviewees try to interpret why you ask certain questions

This has happened to me a lot! So be prepared for this. I don’t have an answer for how to behave best in such situations either. It is difficult. What I would usually do is try to reply to the interviewee in a way that shows my appreciation for their concern to thoroughly understand the interview but I would also try to be very honest about what I try to accomplish. So I would say something like: “Yes that is a very good aspect you mention here, which is also something I wanted to get to, but there is another aspect I tried to understand…”

  1. Interviewees get bored with the questions or get distracted (e.g. if you interview over phone or internet)

This is a very tricky situation. What has worked for me is trying to let the interviewee determine the direction of the conversation more autonomously to regain their interest. If this doesn’t work, I would try to get to the key questions quickly and then end the interview to make it less painful for both of you. If you want to be more provocative you can also ask the interviewee why this topic bores them. Maybe this will take the conversation in exciting new directions.

To stop them from getting distracted online, it is a good idea to explain at the beginning of the interview how important it is that you have their full attention. This will at least make it less likely that they engage in some other activity while you interview them.

  1. Interviewee answers with yes or no

This is a situation where you should seriously reflect on your own questions. Are they not phrased openly enough (i.e. open ended not leading to yes / no answers)? Can you think of other ways to probe for longer answers, such as “Can you tell me more about this?” “What is the story behind this?” “Do you have an example to illustrate this?” If the interviewee is still very much sticking to yes and no, then sometimes it is just best to end the interview early.

  1. Interviewee goes off to talk about something irrelevant for you

This is again a very difficult situation. You are glad they share their stories with you but you want to make sure you cover the key questions you have prepared. In this situation, I would stop the interviewee after a little while and say something like “That is so interesting, thank you for sharing, but going back to this topic…”

  1. Connection drops while interviewing (if online)

In this situation it is very important that you immediately write down what you were talking about when the connection dropped. Even if it is just a few seconds, you may both forget where you left off leading to valuable information getting lost. It happened to me on a few occasions and it is painful; so I now have a pen and paper ready so that I can write down the last sentences immediately after the connection drops.

  1. Interviewee has strong opinion you, as interviewer, don’t or even strongly disagree with

This is probably the most difficult situation to deal with and yes it happened to me. In such a situation it is really a question of what methodological standpoint you are taking. Are you a co-constructor of the narratives that emerge from the interview or do you think that you are a passive bystander? Depending on your standpoint to these questions you need to think about how to react. This is something you should really and carefully think through before you start any interview as to be prepared for the situation when it unfolds in the moment. If you decide to engage in a discussion with the interviewee rather than accepting his or her position then you should nonetheless make sure that you maintain a professional and polite tone at all times. I have found that in situations where I did challenge the interviewee on something I didn’t agree with, the most interesting insights were generated or co-constructed. Yet, it is a really difficult situation to deal with and you need to reflect on this on your own and possibly discuss this with your supervisor as well to find the most suitable approach for your specific research project.

Getting Started with Research – Basic Knowledge on Social Science Research Methods

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Choosing the correct method depends on your research question and your aim. Do you want to describe something, explore new questions or do you want to confirm a hypothesis? Answering this question first will be of key importance when choosing methods for your research project. Another factor to consider and heavily linked to the first question raised above, is asking yourself what kind of research you want to carry out. The question then is whether you want to use a deductive or an inductive approach.

Deductive: This term simply means that you start with a theory from which you develop a hypothesis, based on which you choose your research methods. In your research you then seek to confirm or disprove your hypothesis. This research approach is associated with quantitative data.

Inductive: In contrast to deductive reasoning, using an inductive approach means that you start with observations without having either a hypothesis or a theory guiding your research. The goal of inductive research is to let the hypothesis and theory emerge through the research you do. The idea is that you start your research with a clean slate in terms of theoretical expectations. This is of course very difficult, if not impossible, as we are always influenced by the things we experience and we often can’t help but have preconceived ideas of things, people and social phenomena surrounding us. Nonetheless, the challenge is to block this out as much as possible and to let the theory emerge from the observations you make. This kind of approach is strongly associated with qualitative data.

As you can guess from the above differentiation, often there lies a large ideological gulf between these two approaches that is also reflected in the question what kind of data you should collect. The key difference lies in quantitative and qualitative data.

Quantitative Data: Basically, quantitative data are numerical data that allow you to measure and quantify things and to test hypotheses. Most typically you will collect quantitative data through questionnaires with closed questions and scales. This means that the participant can only select pre-given answers which have an assigned numerical value for later analysis. Alternatively, they may be asked to select a numerical value on a scale that represents a certain answer e.g. Strongly disagree =1, Strongly agree = 5. These types of scales are called Likert Scales. Quantitative data have long been seen as the only valid sort of data in scientific research, but this perception has been eroded as the collection of qualitative data has become more widely accepted and used, especially among social scientists.

Qualitative Data: When you collect qualitative data you try to understand meanings and interpretations. The idea is to collect narratives of research participants, to be more detailed and holistic, and to account for contextual circumstances. This kind of data may be made up of words, direct observations, videos, texts, pictures etc. and will be most typically collected using interviews, focus groups or observational techniques.

The distinction between quantitative and qualitative data seems very clear and hard, yet numerical data always has a qualitative and subjective element to it and qualitative data can be quantified as well, e.g. through textual analysis that counts words. If you are interested in a more detailed discussion of this ideological divide, have a look here: http://www.socialresearchmethods.net/kb/datatype.php

Mixed Methods

In fact overcoming this gulf can actually be very fruitful and more and more researchers, including myself, discover the beauty of using mixed methods. A mixed methods approach allows you to collect both quantitative and qualitative data and benefits from the advantages of both types of data while offsetting, at least to some extent, the disadvantages of either. In addition it makes your final thesis and interpretations stronger as you rely on multiple sources of evidence, not just a single one. An often used term to describe this advantage is data triangulation.

The Difference between Methods and Methodology

This question is another thing that bothers many students that are confronted with it for the first time and often teachers fail to give a simple answer to this question. The problem is it is not easy to answer this question in simple terms but I will try to answer it in the way I have learned to understand the difference over the years. For me Methodology is the overall approach I am using to develop a research project and Methods are the techniques I utilize as part of this approach. Methodology requires you to understand your research aim and question first and to have a good understanding of the different ideologies that may guide this research. This understanding will then allow you to choose the best methods to accomplish your goals.

So in the most basic and reductionist sense:

Methodology = the why

Methods = the how

The above discussed terms are only a starting point in understanding the research process in the social sciences but sometimes just getting a basic understanding of some complicated sounding words can open a new world of exciting research opportunities for you.

Transcribing Interviews – Made Eas(y)ier: 9 Helpful Tips

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The longer you are at university (and this mostly applies to students of the social sciences and humanities), you will most likely be asked to do little research projectsat one point. This can be a daunting task at first, but, in fact, I think these are the most fun and interesting projects you will get to do as a student. Yet they can also be very burdensome in terms of how much work needs to be done for them. Especially when it comes to qualitative research that involves interviews or focus groups. If you have to do this kind of research, most of the time you will be expected to transcribe your interviews and that means that you will have to tape record the interview and then listen to it again to type up – word for word – what has been said. This is called a “verbatim transcription”.

Sometimes your professors may not expect you to transcribe verbatim; this is something you should check out before you get started as it can make a huge difference in how much time you need to allocate to your research project. A verbatim transcription of an interview of 1 hour is often said to take you 6 hours, so for each 10 minutes you will have to budget one hour transcription time. This sounds horrible and it can be, but you will find that re-listening to an interview and typing it up can also be a very useful way of already getting mentally started with your analysis. I will get to this again in a second.

Here are my 9 top tips for how to transcribe effectively, all based on my own experience of having transcribed dozens of interviews, and more, myself.

 

  1. Clarify whether you need to:
    1. Transcribe Verbatim
    2. Include pauses (and think about how you will mark these pauses e.g. with a [pause])
    3. Include ehs, uhs etc.
    4. Include change of tone, laughter (in most social sciences it is usually enough to transcribe all spoken words but there are disciplines e.g. linguistics where you need to include changes of tone and a lot of other aspects of language in your transcriptions, this will add to the above estimation of 1 hour for 10 minutes of interview)
  2. Get a comfortable seat. You will be sat at your desk for quite some time, so make sure you sit comfortably.
  3. Get a comfortable keyboard on which you can type away without making too many mistakes! This will save you a lot of time of having to stop the tape and correcting what you have misspelled.
  4. Practice speed typing! Make sure you are as fast as possible in typing because you will need to keep up with the tape. Though it is unrealistic that you can type as fast as you or your interviewees speak, it is well worth trying to optimize your typing as you will have to stop the tape less often and will be much faster.
  5. Use good speakers and/or good earphones: Since you will be sat at your desk for some time constantly listening to a tape, you should make sure that your equipment is good enough and not harming your ears.
  6. Change between listening to earphones and your computer’s speakers. This is from my personal experience. It can really become painful to listen to a tape via earphones for many hours, so I would recommend you switch between earphones and speakers.
  7. Take breaks. It can be very tedious and straining to transcribe for a long time uninterruptedly, so make sure you take breaks and switch to other tasks to make it less painful. I usually transcribe in the mornings then take a break and do something else in the early afternoon and may go back to transcribing again in the late afternoon. You need to find out what works best for you.
  8. Start analyzing the interviews as you transcribe. This is what I found most useful in transcribing interviews. As you re-listen to the interviews you will again and again find very interesting passages that you want to remember so make sure you already mark these passages by e.g. highlighting them in a specific color. This will make the analysis phase much easier and it will also save you time. Also, mark these passages with timestamps so you can always go back to them easily if needed.
  9. Use transcription software!!!! This is probably the most important tip I have for you and I have not discovered this possibility until recently. There is software that will help you transcribe by allowing you to regulate the speed of the recording, to fast forward or backward, to easily stop and start, to print timestamps and most importantly to type in your browser!! So you won’t have to switch between the player and the word processor. It can all be done in the same interface. This has actually helped me cut my transcription time by at least 1/3 if not more. The software that I have been using recently is completely free and you don’t even need to download anything as it is 100% browser based. It is called otranscribe and you can find it here: http://otranscribe.com/

I hope that these tips will help you make transcriptions a less painful and even useful experience for you, and if you have any additional tips about this subject, please feel free to comment.

Making your life easier with reference software

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As soon as you enter higher education you will be confronted with the need to write academic essays or papers. A fundamental element to successful academic writing is referencing correctly and I have written an extensive blog post about how to reference correctly. And while I think it is important to understand how to reference well manually, it is also very important to professionalize your referencing the longer you are in higher education and the more references you accumulate over the years. When I say professionalize I mean either developing a system of manually referencing very quickly that works for you (and an annotated bibliography can you help you with this) or drawing on reference software for assistance. Reference software can be tremendously helpful in making sure that all your sources are cited in a coherent style and contain all required information in the bibliography. Basically such software automates the process of compiling a bibliography for you!

This is great news and I got really excited when I found out about these available options. I’m sure most of us know how time-consuming and tedious it can be to sort out your reference list after you felt you had already finished the paper, course work or whatever it may be you had been working on, so a software that automates this for you sounds like heaven.

However, over the years I have tried out a few different reference packages such as EndNote, Zotero and Mendeley myself and my initial excitement was dampened somewhat by a few issues I encountered with all of them. They all share some basic functionality, that is, they allow you to store all your sources in one place and then automatically draw the information that is needed for a reference list from there. However, they all differ in certain ways and you should try to find out what is important to you.

So for instance, I tried using EndNote for some time but the costs of it are enormous and I didn’t want to count on my university providing a license to me for free and then finding me in a situation of having lost all my sources once my university license had expired. So for that reason I would urge you to look at the available free software first (e.g. Zotero, Mendeley).

With Zotero I found it super easy to save sources online through a little add-on button in your browser, meaning that with a single click on the button all the information (i.e. document meta data) I needed to cite this source was already stored in my Zotero database! How great is that! But at the same time I perceived it as quite constraining that Zotero was limited to Firefox, which made me stop using it at one point (though there is new version of Zotero now that allows use in different browsers). Additionally, since Zotero is open-source based it has a big support forum, so if you have a problem with it someone else will probably already have had the same and has received help from the community. Mendeley, for instance, does not yet have such a great support community.

More recently I started using Mendeley as there was a lot of hype around this software and I wanted to give it a try. However, while there are a lot of benefits to using Mendeley such as the folder monitoring feature (i.e. basically you can tell Mendeley to watch a particular folder and as soon as you store new documents in this folder, Mendeley will retrieve the available information from the document and store it in its database), I found the software’s capacity to retrieve information from sources (e.g. pdfs) more than limited. In fact, for most of my references I had to manually go over the automatically stored information, which kind of defeats the purpose of having this feature. From that perspective Zotero always worked much better for me.

So as you can see there is a lot to say about each of them. In this blog post I don’t want to go into great detail describing these three options as there are already a lot of very good and detailed reviews out there. (Please go to this website for a very thorough and useful overview of paid and free citation / reference management software: http://www.literaturereviewhq.com/6-tips-on-how-to-choose-reference-management-software/)

Instead, I just want to make people aware that there are solutions out there that can help you manage your referencing better, as many are not aware of these options! At the end of the day you need to try out which one works best for you. Yet there is always a point to be made for knowing how to reference manually. As I said, from experience you should never trust the software completely and always check if all information that needs to be there is there and is correct!