Dilemmas in fieldwork and research ethics: Consent, privacy, and beyond - 4 ECTS

This is an advanced course in interpretive research methods and the interpretive methodological grounding underlying them. Field research in the social sciences involves interacting with living human beings—sometimes called “human subjects” or, preferably, “research participants.” Although such interactions occur in field (and laboratory) experiments, non-experimental field researchers typically encounter people in a range of everyday settings, including workplaces, coffee shops, schools, their homes, and public settings. These days, internet listserves, chatrooms, and other internet-based contexts (such as Facebook) would also be considered places in which researchers encounter research participants. A variety of methods may be used in such encounters, including interviews, participant-observation/ ethnography, and records and documents.

Organised by Wageningen School of Social Sciences (WASS)

Mon 28 May 2018 until Fri 1 June 2018

Duration Registration deadline: May 14, 2018
Venue Leeuwenborch, building number 201
Hollandseweg 1
6706 KN Wageningen

Increasingly, such encounters are subject to state regulations. Intended to protect research participants, such regulations also impact researchers:  governmental requirements, above and beyond professional ethics codes, can impact choices of method and research design. Regulation may require researchers to obtain prior review and approval of their research proposals (e.g., US and Canadian policies) or may focus on consent requirements and privacy protections without requiring prior institutional approval (e.g., the Netherlands). In addition, more and more, scholarly journals are asking for proof that such institutional review and approval has been obtains—some prior to manuscript review or, upon acceptance, as a requirement of publishing the research article.

But what about protecting researchers in their field settings?  What are some of the dilemmas researchers face, especially in conflict or post-conflict settings?  And do such settings require additional care in protecting research participants?  This course will explore the relationships among national regulatory requirements, disciplinary codes of ethics, and the actual dilemmas that confront researchers in conducting field research. These questions will be explored both theoretically, drawing on research ethics literature, and pragmatically, i.e., in terms of student-generated questions from their field experiences (as applicable) and in terms of the university and/or departmental policies, professional associational ethics codes, and/or state regulatory. Real-life stories from researchers doing fieldwork are the leading element during the lectures.

Taking this course will raise course participants’ awareness about:  (a) their own regulatory setting(s) and (b) the more general ethical issues recognized in disciplinary ethics codes. Class discussion will be centred around research dilemmas that course participants bring with them.

What this course will not cover:
(1) This is not a course on ethics as treated in the philosophical literature. Although we may draw on some of this as background, the focus will be pragmatic and inductive, i.e., focusing on students’ own regulatory setting(s) and the research challenges they have faced or may face in the field.

(2) Academic integrity includes not only interactions with research participants but also issues of plagiarism, falsification of data, etc. There is insufficient time to address these additional issues, although we may make reference to them in passing.

Learning outcomes

After successful completion of this course, participants are expected to be able to:

  1. to understand the disciplinary ethical codes and regulations that apply to their research;
  2. to describe some of the historical context that has produced increased regulation of researcher conduct, as well as contemporary critiques of such regulation in the social sciences;
  3. to identify and critically reflect on a range of research dilemmas that arise in the field;
  4. to apply a range of strategies for thinking about ethical interactions with research participants to fieldwork dilemmas, particularly with regard to deceptive or covert research, informed consent, and privacy protections, and for thinking about protecting the researcher.


Monday 9.30-10.00 Introductions and course overview
10.00-11.00 The promise of doing the right thing Regulating ‘ethics’ in social science research
11.15-12.30 Protecting research participants—Key ideas emerging from these codes: • Informed consent • Protection of vulnerable populations • Benefits to outweigh costs Top down vs bottom up ethics and the implications for ethics in field research
14.00-17.00 Positionality and power Rethinking ‘vulnerability’ in light of power dynamics in relationships
Tuesday 9.30-12.30 Dilemmas in fieldwork: • Gaining access to the field • Managing identity in the field
14.00-17.00 Privacy, confidentiality, anonymity
Wednesday 9.30-12.30 Informed consent
14.00-17.00 Role of deception in social science research – both ways • Undercover research • Truth, lies and rumours
Thursday 9.30-12.30 Protecting researchers • Preparing fieldwork • Upon arrival • Doing fieldwork • After fieldwork
14.00-17.00 Protecting researchers (continued) Key threats, risk reduction & contingency planning
Friday 9.30-12.30 Storing data, destroying data.
14.00-17.00 Issues in writing and publication


The course will be assessed based on:

  1. pre-course assignment
  2. initiative and active participation in the discussions during the classes
  3. the final reflection report

Target group and min/max number of participants
This course is intended for both for those PhD students just coming out of the field (having conducted qualitative interpretive research and in the writing-up stage) and for those planning to go into the field (i.e., working on qualitative interpretative research plans).

The maximum number of participants is set at 20, the minimum is 10 participants.

Assumed prior knowledge

Dilemmas in Fieldwork and Research Ethics’ is not an introductory course. Participants are expected to have a background knowledge on MSc level on ethnographic or qualitative methods. If students have never taken a course in ethnographic or qualitative methods (e.g., they took their M.Sc in natural sciences and are familiar with experimental and/or statistical analyses), students should contact the course coordinator to decide on a tailor made pre-class exercise to help them understand the issues we will be engaging in the course.

Course fee 

WASS, PE&RC and WIMEK/SENSE PhDs with TSP € 300
a) All other PhD candidates b) Postdocs and staff of the above mentioned Graduate Schools € 600
All others € 900

The course fee includes coffee/tea, lunches and course materials

NB: for some courses, PhD candidates from other WUR graduate schools with a TSP are also entitled to a reduced fee. Please consult your Education/PhD Programme Coordinator for more information

Cancellation conditions:

The participants can cancel their registration free of charge 1 month before the course starts. A cancellation fee of 100% applies if a participant cancels his/her registration less than 1 month prior to the start of the course.

The organisers have the right to cancel the course no later than one month before the planned course start date in the case that the number of registrations does not reach the minimum.

The participants will be notified of any changes at their e-mail addresses.