Research Ethics and the Moral Enterprise of Ethnography: Conjunctions and Contradictions

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    Research Ethics and the MoralEnterprise of Ethnography:Conjunctions and ContradictionsSara Ashencaen CrabtreePublished online: 17 Jul 2012.

    To cite this article: Sara Ashencaen Crabtree (2013) Research Ethics and the Moral Enterpriseof Ethnography: Conjunctions and Contradictions, Ethics and Social Welfare, 7:4, 359-378, DOI:10.1080/17496535.2012.703683

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  • Research Ethics and the Moral Enterpriseof Ethnography: Conjunctions andContradictions

    Sara Ashencaen Crabtree

    This paper explores the perceptions and experiences of four doctoral research-ers to examine how research ethics committee (REC) processes have shaped andinfluenced specific health-based ethnographic studies. This paper considers howa universal tightening of ethical REC scrutiny at university level, as well as thosegoverning the health and social care sector in the United Kingdom, impacts uponsocial research involving the inclusion of participants from certain groups.Increased restrictions in ethics scrutiny is justified as protecting vulnerablepeople from intrusive research and is embedded in legislation, specifically theUK Mental Capacity Act 2005. The general international trend towards greaterethical scrutiny is heralded as an uncontested social good, yet this unquestionedassumption is tested in relation to qualitative social research methodologiesthat seek to explore the experiences of vulnerable individuals. It isconsequently argued that ethics review restrictions are in danger of disenfran-chising sectors of the community, excluding them from engaging in socialresearch activities that would serve to highlight their experiential and livedconditions. The enhanced bureaucratic control of the doctoral process inconjunction with the REC is also discussed as inhibiting proposed studies.

    Keywords Ethnography; Ethics Review; Doctoral; Vulnerable; Health


    This paper reviews ethical considerations in undertaking ethnographic research

    with service user/patient populations in the context of increasing ethical scrutiny

    in research ethics committee (REC) processes at university level. These are

    powerfully influenced by those governing health and social research in the United

    Kingdom, and which taken in unison create formidable barriers to such research.

    Accordingly, the impact of these tighter control mechanisms is explored in terms

    of future ethnographic research, specifically in relation to doctoral research in

    # 2013 Taylor & Francis

    Dr Sara Ashencaen Crabtree is Deputy Director of the Centre for Social Work & Social Policy and Headof Sociology at the School of Health & Social Care, Bournemouth University, UK. Correspondence to:Sara Ashencaen Crabtree, School of Health & Social Care, Bournemouth University, 3rd Floor, RoyalLondon House, Christchurch Road, Bournemouth Dorset BH1 3LT, UK Email:

    Ethics and Social Welfare, 2013Vol. 7, No. 4, 359378,




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  • the United Kingdom, but with wider implications for qualitative research in the

    social science academy.

    Despite challenges to the research odyssey of the solo researcher in their

    singular development of a narrative construction of a phenomenon (Lee 2008),

    for most social science postgraduates the traditional solitary quest for immersion

    into a phenomenon to achieve deep insights, characteristic of ethnography, fits

    the demands of doctoral research well. Furthermore, the diverse but esoteric

    culture of health care has been a compelling subject for a number of

    ethnographers (Estroff 1985; Savage 2000; Holloway & Todres 2010).A crucial aspect of ethnography carrying substantial relevance to the debate

    and discourse on research ethics is ethnographys ability to uncover and amplify

    the voices of individuals, which may otherwise remain muted and unheard in the

    wider public space. Consequently, ethnography can reveal the largely unseen or

    un-noted, particularly in relation to marginalised or vulnerable people. Ethno-

    graphy therefore may be viewed as carrying an integral moral enterprise,

    resonating with the Chicago Schools focus on constructing ethnographies of the

    socially obscure and disenfranchised in the non-exotic but distinctive and little-

    known marginal terrains of a nation (Deegan 2001). The use of the word moral

    therefore carries specific and deliberate overtones for the discussions rehearsed

    in this paper, where, in reference to Kleinman (1995) and Gotlib Conn (2008),

    morals underpin the personal commitment to principled enactments and

    interactions in the social world, while ethics tends to constitute a codified

    corpus of stated principles, usually professionally identified.This paper draws upon a comparative analysis of the accounts of four

    academics at British higher education institutions (HEIs), all of whom have

    experience of carrying out health-based doctoral ethnographies. These experi-

    ences cover a doctoral completion period for participants from 2002 to 2009.

    This, therefore, also spans the British transition period for university research

    ethics committees (URECs) in relation to an enhanced level of rigour in

    conjunction with that of the REC in the domains of health and social care

    (Dingwall 2008). Although the basis for increased ethical scrutiny of research

    across HEIs universally is heralded as benevolent and in the publics interests, as

    well as being almost certainly irreversible, the often unquestioned assumption of

    overarching benefits to society and social research is open to challenge.

    Research Ethics Governance in the United Kingdom

    In the United Kingdom there has been a concerted attempt in recent years to

    dramatically raise ethical standards in social research, following in the wake of

    similar developments in the United States (Hammersley 2009). This escalation in

    ethic review scrutiny comes under stringent research ethics frameworks and

    includes all research studies, including those at doctoral level, and additionally

    embraces a number of disciplines with traditional allegiances to qualitative





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  • methodological approaches (Alderson & Morrow 2006). The move has been

    strongly influenced by the increased rigour of ethical procedures governing

    research in the health and social care sectors, under the National Health Services

    (NHS) and social services (Alderson & Morrow 2006).The Economic & Social Research Council (ESRC) is viewed as instrumental in

    these developments in demanding ethical regulation of academic social science

    research (Hammersley 2009).The ESRC additionally seeks to impose sanctions on universities to encourage

    higher doctoral completion rates (Tinkler & Jackson 2000). These have

    traditionally been relatively low compared to other degrees; the Higher

    Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) reports that after seven years

    of study by 2005 only two-thirds of full-time doctoral candidates had successfully

    completed (Irving 2006). In addition, until recently in the United Kingdom

    doctoral studies have been relatively free from bureaucratic intervention.