A Few Thoughts on Research Ethics


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!


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


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 in Social Science Research Projects Part 1 – Some Basic Principles


Interviewing is a very common method to collect qualitative data in social science research projects. Interviewing is a very time consuming but very fruitful method to use and much can be said about it. Due to this reason I will split this topic into two posts. In this first post I will cover some of the basic principles you should adhere to when interviewing; in the second post I will discuss some personal experiences and pitfalls I have come across or fallen into in the dozens of interviews I have conducted to date and I will explain how I tried to solve some of these situations.

Type of interviews

There are 3 types of interviews that are used:

  1. Unstructured: You only have an idea of what you want to talk about, but you have not prepared a set of questions you plan to ask. Instead it feels as if you are having more of a conversation than a formal interview.
  2. Semi-structured: You have prepared a set of questions and you have a clear idea of what topics you want to cover. You can still deviate from your questions and talk about new things that come up, but generally you aim to cover the same questions in all your interviews.
  3. Structured: You have a clear set of questions, often with yes and no answers. This is a very formal way of interviewing and most often used in survey research. It is less commonly used to collect qualitative data that aims to uncover meanings, experiences and stories of the interviewees.

Most typically interviews for qualitative studies are semi-structured, so the remainder of this blog will be based on the assumption that you conduct semi-structured interviews.


  1. Define topic of interview: What do you want to find out?
  2. Who to interview and how to access them: Once you know what your topic will be, it is important to ask yourself who you want to interview and how you want to access them. If you want to find out about a certain subject that only a specific group of people know about, it is of crucial importance to find one first contact who can help you identify more interviewees who he/she thinks would be good candidates. From these new contacts you can then identify even more candidates and so on. This method is called snowballing and is often used in interview studies. While it may be difficult to get that first contact, in my experience, once I had it I have often found it very easy to get access to more interviewees.
  3. Topic guide: Before you start with your interviews you need to develop a topic guide. In this guide you should include all questions that you want to ask, grouped by theme or topic. You should also make sure that you have a logical order in which you want to ask your questions, though this order may need to be adjusted during the interview.
  4. How to interview (virtual, in person, telephone): During the time you seek access, you also need to think about how to interview. Will you be able to meet everybody in person for a face-to-face interview, can you call them by phone, can you do a video call with them e.g. through Skype? I have used all three of them on many occasions and while face-to-face is probably the best way to establish rapport between you and the interviewee, it is not always possible. In such cases Skype can be of great help and can also allow you to save significant amounts of money, if you don’t have to travel physically.
  5. Obtaining consent: Once you are clear on the above points, you should draft an informed consent form that details the aims and objectives of your research, the methods you use, the confidentiality procedures you have put in place and what will happen after the interview. Often universities provide examples of consent forms that you can adjust to your needs.
  6. Bring equipment e.g. recorder, pen & paper: In times of smartphones you usually carry your recorder with you, but you should still make sure that you know how it works and how good the quality is. If the interview is online you can download apps that record the interview for you e.g. “MP3 Skype recorder”.
  7. Location of interview: If the interview is face-to-face think about where you can interview in confidence and quiet without interruptions. Cafes may be a good meeting point but are not a good option due to noise and distractions. If the interview is online you should still make sure that you and your interviewees sit in a quiet room so that nobody will interrupt or overhear your conversation.
  8. Bring/Provide “thank yous” as incentive: It is always a good idea to let interviewees know upfront that you are grateful for the time they give you, due to which you will provide e.g. snacks, drinks, cookies, chocolates. Depending on budget, other incentives can be useful as well such as a small amount of money to thank them for their time. It is not necessary but often appreciated. If the interview is online, the least you can do is to offer the interviewees a summary of the results at the end of your study.

Conducting the interview

  1. Speak slowly and clearly: This will make the transcription afterwards easier and will also make it easier for your interviewees to follow your questions and understand them fully.
  2. Introduce yourself: This may sound obvious but especially when it is an online interview, it is easy to forget this. It is important that your interviewees know who you are so that they can establish some initial trust.
  3. Clarify objectives: Make sure the interviewees are clear on what this project is all about and give them the opportunity to ask questions.
  4. Start interview with fairly easy questions: This is very important as you don’t want to be too demanding at the beginning and you need to slowly work your way towards more complicated and/or personal questions.
  5. Try to build up trust and rapport between you and your interviewee e.g. by telling them something about yourself: This has often worked for me. I ask them about something personal and I make it easier for them to answer by providing a personal story of my own.
  6. Ask more difficult questions later on: Once the trust is there it is much easier to ask delicate questions.
  7. Be sensitive: Not everybody is always willing to talk about all the things you will want to talk about. Respect this and stop pushing, if it is clear that they don’t want to go there.
  8. Probe for more details if something interesting comes up: For instance, ask “can you be more specific”, “do you have a concrete example”.
  9. Clarify complicated statements by rewording them and by asking if you understood this correctly: Ask them “Did you mean…” or “To sum up, I understood this…”
  10. Complete interview and tell the interviewee what happens next: Once the interview is done, be clear about it, tell them how you will proceed and how long you estimate it will take before you can provide them with a summary of the results.
  11. Thank them for their participation and time
  12. Possibly ask for contact detailsg. email address so that you can provide the interviewees with the results of your study, should they be interested.

After the interview

  1. Reflect on the interview: What has gone well and what hasn’t? How can you improve next time?
  2. Develop topic guide further: Possibly new issues or themes have come up in one interview that you hadn’t thought about previously. In such cases I have often extended or modified my topic guide to include these new issues for the remaining interviews.

A Bit More about Myself: The “Why” that Made Me Discover Sociology


It is almost a year ago that I decided to start this blog and so far I have been able to publish at least one new post per month. I hope these posts have at least somewhat helped some people navigate their way through higher education.

This month I was asked to write a blog post on another, more personal matter. Why did I ditch my potential career as corporate employee and chose to do a PhD in Sociology instead? There are many reasons why I did it, but for me the key argument was that I wanted to step out of the system that we call capitalism in order to better understand it and find fulfilment in trying to improve it.

Academia, and sociology in particular, allow me to do just that. You can first of all investigate questions that bother you and secondly you can then try to make it better! Read more on how I discovered sociology and why I became a great advocate of a lifestyle as social scientist on the Sociology@LSE blog, following below link.