Building Ethics into the Research with Vulnerable Groups
Building Ethics into the Research
with Vulnerable Groups
University of Guelph
EDRD 6000: QUALITATIVE
This slide will first introduce the vulnerable groups, then will compare between
ethically preferred research processes and practical implications, finally will summarize
Overview of General Ethical Considerations
• Appropriate inclusion
• Avoid inappropriate
• Concerns for welfare
• Respect for participants
4 dimensions of vulnerability:
1. Vulnerable individuals: children, women, the elderly, the mentally and physically disabled,
2. Vulnerable groups and vulnerability through group membership: religious group, ethnic
group, minority group, institutional membership such as prisoners
3. Construction of vulnerability: vulnerability is the result of research activity such as
confirmation of stereotypes about the social group (homeless people, prostitutes, drug
addicts, single mothers, asylum seekers, the long-term unemployed, ethnic minorities, or
4. Vulnerable research environment: the environment that is intimidating or dangerous
(socially or physically) for participants.
(Biggs et al).
Vulnerability is often caused by limited capacity, or limited access to social
goods, such as rights, opportunities and power (TCPS2, 2010).
Sources of Vulnerability
Economic Status and Geographic Location
Health, Age, and Functional or Developmental Status
Unexplained Vulnerability Associated with Race, Ethnicity, Sex
(U.S. Department of Health & Human Services)
“If we cannot guarantee that such participation may improve their
lives, we must ensure, at least, that our scrutiny of them does not leave
them worse off”
Ethics in Research Design: Consent and Power
Ethically Preferred Consent Process Practical Difficulties
Seeking access from gate keepers
Researchers need to gain permissions
from gatekeepers (e.g. parents,
guardians or authorized third parties)
before in a position to seek the
consent of vulnerable individuals.
Relying on a third party or agency
that are already in the field could
ensure that the process maintains
ethical integrity (Melrose, 2002).
It may require several layers of consent to access to
individuals. (Munro, Holmes & Ward, 2005).
Exclusion of individuals’ chances to participate
Considering the well-being of the research
participants, the gate keepers decide whether it is
appropriate for one to participate. Such time
consuming procedure may exclude vulnerable
individuals with great willingness to participate.
The exclusion of potential interested participant may
impose limitations on the final sample and further
impacts on the findings (Melrose, 2002). The finding
may serve the gate keeper‟s best.
Ethics in Research Design: Sampling Methodology
Opt-in sampling method:
Participants are asked to
actively volunteer to
participate by responding to
the recruitment. This includes
signing the consent form or
giving verbal consent.
Opt-out sampling method:
Participants are deemed to
have given consent and
excluded only when they
refuse to participate.
(The Research Ethics Guidebook)
Ethics in Research Design: Sampling Methodology
Ethically Preferred Sampling Methodology Practical Implications
Ethics committees are more likely to expect
researchers to prefer opt-in sampling (The
Research Ethics Guidebook).
“The opt-in approach has ethical advantages
because consent is actively given by the
child/young person, following consent from a
range of adult gate-keepers and is often
preferred by policy makers and social service
managers” (Munro, Holmes & Ward, 2005).
Opt-in sampling method would make researchers
more reliant on local personnel to facilitate
access to children” (Munro, Holmes & Ward,
Opt-in samples are small and less representative.
(Munro, Holmes & Ward, 2005).
When a participant seeks to opt-out, the data
collected from them may already have been
accessed and processed (The Research Ethics
Equal opportunity for members to participate
within the community
“It challenges the researchers to develop
strategies to reach out to the broader community
members whilst still respecting and acknowledging
the status of the gatekeepers” (Pittaway,
Bartolomei, & Hugman, 2010).
Ethics in Research Design: Confidentiality and Trust
Protecting confidentiality as researcher’s duty
It is the researcher‟s duty to protect the
confidentiality of the sensitive personal
Conflict of duties
If the participant is considered by the researcher to
be at risk, the researcher has the obligation to
protect and inform relevant authorities. This may
require certain level of exposure of information.
For example ， in the situation which a young
people‟s life is threatened by ongoing abuse, the
researcher has forced duty to protect the
participant by breaking the confidentiality promise
Risks for vulnerable participants
Individuals participate in the research
involves sensitive issues may face higher
level of risks than other qualitative research.
Such risk may threaten individuals‟ welfare
or well-being, for example, abused women
participate in the research may be
physically threatened by the husband.
“While protecting the confidentiality, the
researchers in sensitive area should keep in mind
that vulnerable people, however, may be in
greater danger from NOT having participated and
NOT having their story told” (Biggs et al).
Ethics in Research Design: Research Practise
Research Settings and Design Implication
Presence of gate keepers
The gate keeper can play an important role in ensuring the
vulnerable individual is comfortable and understands the
In the home setting, for example, parent can provide
children with particular communication or support needs.
Violation of voluntariness
Individuals may feel inhibited to reveal personal information
or feel obliged to provide socially acceptable responses
(Shaw, Brady, & Davey, 2011).
Special care is given to vulnerable groups in the institutional
settings in order to ensure the voluntariness of participation.
Such situation includes prisons, care homes, school settings,
or other situations where individuals‟ welfare depends on
the caregiver (could also be the gate keeper).
There is a deep-rooted dynamic of compliance associated
with the institutional care.
Violation of voluntary input
“In institutional settings, where conformity and compliance
are rewarded, people may not feel that they have a real
choice” (Biggs et al).
Due to the usual experiences of students in the school
setting, they may feel pressure to only provide the right
answer (Shaw, Brady, & Davey, 2011).
General level of researchers’ involvement
The researcher‟s duty is merely established upon gathering
data and ends once the research is completed.
The trust with vulnerable group is formally established in the
process of consent and data collection (Biggs et al).
Participants may left vulnerable revealing feelings, stories,
Research may cause harm to participants by Immediate
involvement and recruitment through confirmation of
negative stereotypes (Pittaway, Bartolomei, & Hugman,
Reporting back: vulnerable participants may be particularly sensitive with “hit
and run” situation. Researcher should extend the obligation beyond merely
gather data for own research.
Follow-up support: research can sometimes cause additional harm to
vulnerable people when individuals‟ feeling and emotion are fully exploited.
Narrative research method: with the research involves individuals experiencing
emotional crisis, direct questions are unethical, causing distress and anxious. The
narrative approach can be therapeutic for participants.
Disguise information: in some case researchers can disguise the information of
personal identities or research location in order to effectively protect
Hidden involvement of participants: with the research may impose higher risks
for participants, it is important to ensure the participants are not seen or
contacted throughout the research.
Biggs, H, Clough, R, Esterhuizen, L., Hatton, C., Levitt, M, & Rennie, C. (n.d.). Vulnerable People and Groups.
Retrieved from http://www.lancaster.ac.uk/researchethics/4-3-infcons.html
Canadian Institutes of Health Research, Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, and
Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, Tri-Council Policy Statement: Ethical Conduct for
Research Involving Humans, December 2010.
Melrose, M. (2002). Labour pains: Some considerations on the difficulties of researching juvenile prostitution.
International Journal of Social Research Methodology, 5(4), 333-351.
Munro, E. R., Holmes, L., & Ward, H. (2005). Researching vulnerable groups: Ethical issues and the effective
conduct of research in local authorities. British Journal of Social Work, 35(7), 1023-1038.
Pittaway, E., Bartolomei, L., & Hugman, R. (2010). „Stop stealing our stories‟: The ethics of research with vulnerable
groups. Journal of Human Rights Practice, 2(2), 229-251.
Shaw, C., Brady, L. M., & Davey, C. (2011). Guidelines for research with children and young people. London:
National Children‟s Bureau Research Centre.
The Research Ethics Guidebook. (n.d.). Opt-in and opt-out sampling. Retrieved from
U.S. Department of Health & Human Services (n.d.). Focusing on vulnerable populations. Retrieved from U.S.
Department of Health & HUman Services. (n.d.). Focusing on vulnerable populations. Retrieved from