Qualitative Methods in Monitoring and Evaluation: Ethical Considerations in Qualitative Research

Evaluators use the emic perspective, and qualitative data collection techniques, to understand the how and why around a project. This can give us insight into the planning, implementation, outputs, and sometimes even impact of a project. However, the use of qualitative data collection techniques presents a unique set of ethical considerations that evaluators must take into account throughout the entire research process. Two ethical issues in qualitative research include confidentiality, and the role of the researcher as a data collection instrument.

When we use qualitative data collection techniques, we usually spend a lot of time with research populations. We engage people at the community level. We oftentimes learn intimate details about people’s lives when we do so. This presents unique ethical considerations in qualitative research. On one level, as evaluators we need to build rapport to have people trust us enough to give us what can be personal details or controversial information related to a project. We need cross cultural communication skills to build rapport, but we must also earn the trust of, and above all, respect, the project population.

A project population needs to be comfortable giving us personal details or discussing controversial information, and, very importantly, we need to respect confidentiality around this. We need to make sure that we provide a project population with confidentiality at all stages of our research. This goes past getting informed consent from research participants. We might need to disguise identities of those giving controversial information, or in some instances find diplomatic ways to release research findings.

The researcher conducting an evaluation does hold a certain amount of power over the population, like it or not. Evaluators oftentimes come from an organization funding or implementing a project. How does this impact the relationship we have with stakeholders? Project partners might want to answer a question a certain way, or show us a certain need or part of the project, in order to ensure continued funding. A solid evaluation design can help to mitigate some of these potential problems. We should remember though that our reports can impact the direction of a project, and the lives of project participants, and this is surely not lost on implementers or community members. It should not be lost on us as researchers, either.

As qualitative researchers, we are the research instruments, and as such, we should also consider the effect of the researcher on the actual data collected. The observations that we make and the questions that we ask will depend on our own thought processes and biases. Our own internal biases impact what we see, and the conclusions that we draw. If we are aware of and interested in gender or environmental concerns, we might be more likely to seek out information and pinpoint potential problematic areas around these issues. Our previous experiences oftentimes guide our thought patterns, impacting our research in the process.

Attributes such as a researcher’s sex, gender, language, age, race, and marital status might also impact the data to which we have access. How we carry ourselves as researchers, including how we dress and our approachability, could additionally impact the data to which we have access. If we know the local culture well enough, we should be able to come to an understanding of how we will be viewed in the local culture, and how this will impact our work. We need to be aware of these ethical concerns in qualitative research and make considerations based on our project and the data we need to collect.

Qualitative researchers are reflective; we are aware of cultural attributes that might affect the data we collect and the data to which we have access. As qualitative researchers, we embrace that the data we collect is filtered through ourselves, and we find ways to mitigate our own biases and interpretations in trying to understand the emic. We keep journals to compare to our data, so that we can ascertain if our mindset on a particular day impacted the data we collected. We develop solid research designs that include data collected on multiple occasions using multiple qualitative methods. Sometimes, for instance in a project with gender implications, we might craft a design that includes space for multiple researchers.

Building trust and confidentiality with the population, knowing the local culture so that we understand its micropolitics, and detecting our own biases as we engage in the research process, are all important steps in collecting valid and reliable data using qualitative data collection techniques.

About the Author
Dr. Beverly Peters has more than twenty years of experience teaching, conducting qualitative research, and managing community development, microcredit, infrastructure, and democratization projects in several countries in Africa. As a consultant, Dr. Peters worked on EU and USAID funded infrastructure, education, and microcredit projects in South Africa and Mozambique. She also conceptualized and developed the proposal for Darfur Peace and Development Organization’s women’s crisis center, a center that provides physical and economic assistance to women survivors of violence in the IDP camps in Darfur. Dr. Peters has a Ph.D. from the University of Pittsburgh. Learn more about Dr. Peters.

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