Research ethics

We have now got ethical approval and are starting to recruit participants. It’s worth reflecting at this point on the complex ethics of our project.

Firstly going into someone’s home to look at their personal information is intrusive. People’s documents are very revealing of their lives; a letter from the hospital could show an embarrassing medical condition, a  utility bill could reveal debt and a passport will show immigration status. This kind of information research has been done before; such as the home memory tours conducted in Petrelli and Whittaker’s (2010) research. However it’s important to acknowledge the burden we are placing on our participants.

Our research poses additional problems because of our participants’ backgrounds. It is difficult to obtain informed consent from participants who have limited print literacy in any language and little formal schooling. We have responded to this by asking for oral consent and by using an interpreter. However the challenges obviously extend beyond these practical solutions.

In particular we  recognise the very real difficulty of explaining what research is to people who have had little formal schooling. The standard statements we might use in University ethics applications that “we will publish an article” or that “we won’t share their personal data with third parties” need to be expressed differently so they are meaningful to our participants.

Ultimately, the ethics for this research is not embedded in an ethics application (useful and necessary though these are). Instead they are embodied in the researchers and particular to the context of each household. In this way we will build on the trust Caroline already has within

Post-its on Sheila’s screen

this community. We will also (and most importantly) be guided by participants. We have left our definition of personal information very open and will let our participants decide what they want to share with us and what they want to keep private.

Another important element in doing ethical research is whether it benefits the participants. We feel that the real ethical risks of our research and the burden placed on participants are worthwhile because our research will be of practical help to each household as well as to ESOL learners and teachers more generally.

Petrelli, D., & Whittaker, S. (2010). Family memories in the home: contrasting physical and digital mementos. Personal and Ubiquitous Computing, 14(2), 153–169. https://doi.org/10.1007/s00779-009-0279-7

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