Ethics and Interview Practice

Some years ago, I talked to a number of experienced qualitative researchers about how they used interviews in their research. There was a good deal of variation in how this group of researchers used interviews, and the kinds of interviews that they preferred to use (e.g., focus groups, phenomenological, ethnographic interviews etc.). One of the topics discussed was the ethical challenges that arise in using interviews for research purposes. With a co-author, Myungweon Choi, I’ve written more about potential challenge in conducting interviews (see Roulston and Choi, 2018). Below, is an overview of the ethical issues mentioned by the researchers that I talked to, and the kinds of strategies that they used. These researchers argued that ethical issues are integral to doing research, and are embedded throughout all aspects of conducting research studies using interviews.

Ethical issues Strategies to consider
What to do with interpretations of topics that the researchers and participants might disagree over (conflicting agendas)?


Write in ways that the participants can recognize as truthful (even if they don’t agree with the interpretation)

Represent others in ways that are true to their stories, rather than orienting to “juicy leads” or being unfair to participants; representation is a political act (as in newspaper reporting)

Establish member checks with participants so that they can have right of reply to the researcher’s interpretations; this is accomplished through a member check interview; through providing copies of publications.


What to do with data in which the interviewer (IR) suspects the participant is not being truthful; or talks about events that didn’t happen or can’t be verified)? Search and locate other data that might be used to verify information



What to do with data that includes sensitive information that could be potentially harmful to participants?


Omit data from representations that may be harmful to participants or was spoken “off the record”

Represent others in respectful ways; value participants’ stories; work to be non-exploitive in interviewer-interviewee relationships; strive to avoid further stereotyping of participants (e.g., through transcription practices)


What to do with topics that come up in interviews that are not relevant to the research questions, but provide descriptions of deep-seated problems, intensely difficult experiences of participants, or psychological issues – should the topics be pursued or discussed by participants? Should others be consulted (e.g., parents of participants, teachers, counselors)?


Express empathy and respect for participant; seek participant’s permission to intervene on their behalf if necessary

Make sure that participants still consent to be part of the process; let them know their rights as participants and that participation in research is voluntary

Ensure that participants have continuing consent throughout the life of a project

Seek assistance if participant is in danger


What to do when interviewing participants who are reluctant, who don’t want to talk to you (e.g., children)?


Undertake collaborative work with participants or work with them as co-researchers

Use alternative approaches to eliciting data (e.g., visual methods, graphical elicitation etc.)

Perhaps in some situations it is not ethical for interviewers to do study; it is the participants who need to represent themselves

How to represent the “other” fairly? Use alternative approaches to give findings back to the participants; provide sufficient contextualization of data to adequately portray participants’ viewpoints


Of course, there’s a host of other issues that may be relevant in the conduct of research. What ethical challenges have you encountered? What did you do? Would you do anything differently in your next project?

Kathy Roulston


Roulston, K., & Choi, M. (2018). Qualitative interviews. In U. Flick (Ed.), The Sage handbook of qualitative data collection (pp. 233-249). Los Angeles, CA: Sage.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s