As with the other methodological approaches discussed here, research that uses observation varies in form – with corresponding variations in the ethics questions raised. Below, some questions to consider in preparing your application:
- Do you need permission from anyone to carry out observation in your setting?
- Do you need to let anyone know you are doing the study?
You may need to get permission from someone in charge of the setting (e.g. the manager), but if conducting observational research in public places, it may also be a good idea to let relevant organisations know that you are doing your research.
For example, if you are studying children’s road safety behaviour near a school, you would be working in a public place, but should still tell the school (and possible other authorities such as the local police station) that you are conducting your study, and – because the research involves children, you should secure Criminal Records Bureau clearance, and you would be well-advised to provide information sheets (via the school) for parents and children.
Will you seek consent from participants?
Is that feasible? If you were observing crowd behaviour in a public place, you might not reasonably be able to seek consent from all the individuals entering that space. Is there any way that you can tell the people being observed about your research? Refer back to our discussion of covert methods. Will you ensure freely given fully informed consent? If not, can you justify what you plan to do? Remember that an ethics committee will usually only accept covert or deceptive methods if clearly justified, and in exceptional circumstances.
Can you ensure that individuals can choose not to participate?
Consider another example. If you were observing employee behaviour in the workplace, you could reasonably seek individuals’ consent – because you are studying a defined group in a defined place, you could ask permission of potential participants. But what will you do if some people do not want to take part, while you are observing the setting as a whole? If that happens, you will need to exclude any observational data that includes those individuals, even if it also includes people who have agreed to take part. Also consider whether people might feel pressured to take part if the person in charge of the setting (the employer, in our example) has authorised your study. In group observation (as in group interviews) you need to establish ground rules for the group, and ensure consent from individuals and not just from gatekeepers or the group as a whole.
Do you have very good reasons not to seek consent?
Would it significantly affect important study findings if participants knew they were being observed? There is always a risk that people behave differently if they know they are being observed, but you have to consider whether that risk is sufficiently important to outweigh the principle that participants have a right to freely given informed consent.
How intrusive is the research?
It should be easier to justify not seeking consent if the methods you are using are not intrusive and pose little or no risk of harm to participants. Consider this question using our guide to assessing risk and harm.
What will you do if you observe something that gives cause for concern?
Make sure you - and all the researchers involved in the research - are clear about your legal and ethical responsibilities regarding what you may observe during the research.
What about researcher safety?
Ethics committees will also consider whether researchers may be put at risk during fieldwork – see our guide to assessing risk and harm.