Module 7: Interviewing Ethics

Interviews in Research

A lot of valuable information can be gained through an interview, especially in non-literate populations.  Interviews allow researchers, in partnership with an effective interpreter, to delve deeper into issues of interest and follow up on conversational cues in a way that simple survey research simply does not allow.  Interviews also strengthen the relationship between the interpreter and the researcher, as well as the relationship between the researcher and the participants in the study.  Interviews allow the researcher much greater insight into the population of interest, but this insight comes with certain risks that the researcher must address before and during the interview process.  Remember, a researcher who is proactive in addressing possible complications will be more successful and will conduct his or her project in a more ethical manner than a researcher who is not as vigilant.

Possible Harm to the Interviewee

A researcher is capable of harming an interviewee without intending to do so.  Most of the time, socio-behavioral research does not entail a risk of physical harm (with the exception of gender-based violence, which may be improbable but is a definite risk in some situations), but there is a great deal of psychological and/or social harm that can occur.  According to the World Health Organization’s Ethics Research Committee, some of the common causes for potential harm include:

It is clear that breach of confidentiality/privacy issues make up the core of this potential harm.  As we observed in Module 5, the language barrier exacerbates these issues because it brings an interpreter into the interviewing room.  Furthermore, cultural practices may entail the interviewee’s family members being present for the interview.  It is impossible to overemphasize the importance of the researcher doing everything in his or her power to maintain confidentiality of information, even in these circumstances.  Further harms to the interviewee may include:

While the first two issues in the above list seem rather easy to ameliorate, the last one is not.  The interviewee oftentimes places him or herself in a vulnerable position by partaking in a research project, and the researcher must be very careful not to do anything that could damage the interviewee within the context of his or her community.  Social stigma, especially in developing countries, may be far more significant than a researcher can comprehend, and it is important to respect local traditions and steer clear of anything that might place the interviewee in a precarious position.

Protecting the Interviewee

Researchers should always err on the side of caution when it comes to protecting their participants.  Here are a few things that a researcher should think about when approaching an interview project:

Gender Issues in Interviews

In many developing countries, gender roles are very different than in Western countries.  Women are often subordinate to their husbands or other males in their family, which may mean that men are required to be present for all interviews.  It is also possible that the women may be expected to remain quiet and allow the men to answer questions for them.  While the researcher must respect the community’s cultural practices, the researcher must be cognizant of the fact that the woman may not be able to give true, voluntary consent of the kind we discussed in Module 4.  Although the local traditions may be such that men are able to speak for women completely, this does not disqualify women as autonomous individuals in the eyes of an ethical researcher.(4) Cultural gender power disparities may also make it difficult for female researchers to conduct interviews. 

Compensation

Interviewees and other research participants expect to be compensated for their time and effort when participating in a project, but it is generally inappropriate to use money as a compensatory tool, especially in developing countries.(5)  This is because money is seen as having a somewhat coercive power in a resource-poor environment, and may be too much of an incentive for some people to pass up.  This may cause people to take part in a project that they might not normally consent to simply because it will compensate them well.  Ethics committees have taken issue with this threat to ethical treatment of participants, and now are strict with regard to the kinds of compensatory mechanisms that are appropriate for research in developing countries.  Researchers should work closely with their research advisors and members of their IRB to develop a compensatory mechanism that rewards participants for their time but does not over-incentivize people to take part in the research project.

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Footnotes

(1) Erinosho, Olayiwola, ed.  “Ethics for Public Health Research in Africa” Proceedings of an International Workshop in collaboration with the Special Programme for Research and Training in Tropical Diseases (TDR) of the World Health Organisation, with the support of the Federal Ministry of Health, Abuja, Nigeria, April 21-23, 2008. pp. 72.  Accessed 2/17/09.

(2) Erinosho, Olayiwola, ed.  “Ethics for Public Health Research in Africa” Proceedings of an International Workshop in collaboration with the Special Programme for Research and Training in Tropical Diseases (TDR) of the World Health Organisation, with the support of the Federal Ministry of Health, Abuja, Nigeria, April 21-23, 2008. Accessed 2/17/09.

(3) Erinosho, Olayiwola, ed.  “Ethics for Public Health Research in Africa” Proceedings of an International Workshop in collaboration with the Special Programme for Research and Training in Tropical Diseases (TDR) of the World Health Organisation, with the support of the Federal Ministry of Health, Abuja, Nigeria, April 21-23, 2008. pp. 54.  Accessed 2/17/09.

(4)Marshall, P. A.  “Module 3: Public Health Research and Practice in International Settings: Special Ethical Concerns”  pp. 90. Accessed 2/24/09.

(5) Erinosho, Olayiwola, ed.  “Ethics for Public Health Research in Africa” Proceedings of an International Workshop in collaboration with the Special Programme for Research and Training in Tropical Diseases (TDR) of the World Health Organisation, with the support of the Federal Ministry of Health, Abuja, Nigeria, April 21-23, 2008. pp. 49.  Accessed 2/17/09.