Ethics in fieldwork: Reflections on the unexpected

Jane Palmer, Dena Fam, Tanzi Smith, Sarina Kilham

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

14 Citations (Scopus)
7 Downloads (Pure)


Research involving fieldwork can present the researcher with ethical dilemmas not anticipated in institutional ethics approval processes, and which offer profound personal and methodological challenges. The authors' experiences of conducting qualitative fieldwork in four distinctly different contexts are used to illustrate some of these unexpected consequences and ethical dilemmas. Issues encountered included: compromised relationships with informants which develop in unforeseen ways; engagement with traumatized informants which lead to unexpected roles for the researcher such as confidante, dealing with new information that is critical to informants' futures but could undermine the research project, and the implications of ethical decisions for research design and analysis. In our shared reflection on the four case studies in this paper, we examine anticipatory rather than reactive ways of dealing with such ethical dilemmas. Preparation and critical reflection are found to be key tools in relating to field informants, dealing with the personal challenges of undertaking field work, and developing useful research outcomes after returning home. We conclude by suggesting some issues for field researchers to consider in addition to the concerns addressed in a standard university ethics approval process.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1-13
Number of pages16
JournalThe Qualitative Report
Issue number28
Publication statusPublished - 14 Jul 2014


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