The SAGE Handbook of Qualitative Research Ethics

With all the handbooks being published these days, it’s hard to keep up. Since I teach a course on research ethics, I’ve recently taken delivery of The SAGE Handbook of Qualitative Research Ethics (Iphofen & Tolich, 2018). I have yet to read this text in full, but in this blogpost, I’ll provide an overview of the contents for those readers who would like to follow up on specific interests.

The handbook is edited by Ron Iphofen and Martin Tolich, both of whom have published other books on research ethics. Iphofen authored Ethical Decision Making in Social Research: A Practical Guide (Iphofen, 2011), and Tolich has edited Qualitative ethics in practice (Tolich, 2016) and with Joan Sieber, co-authored Planning ethically responsible research (Sieber & Tolich, 2013). The handbook is organized in six parts, with 35 chapters (clearly, not an afternoon read!). Of these, under half of the chapters are authored by scholars based in the United Kingdom, with an equal number of authors drawn from Australia, New Zealand, and the United States. Other chapters are authored by scholars based in Canada, Hong Kong, Finland and Sweden, and South Africa. I personally would have liked to have seen a greater variation in authorship representing views from a wider variety of countries (e.g., the continent of Africa, Asia, South and Central America, and the majority of Europe are not well-represented, if at all).

Part 1, Thick descriptions of qualitative research ethics, begins with 6 chapters that discuss ethics and values (Martyn Hammersley), reflexivity and virtue (David Carpenter), posthuman approaches (Natasha Mauthner), feminist epistemologies (Andrea Doucet), researching in the Global South (Mark Israel), and democratizing research (Helen Kara)

Part 2, Qualitative research ethics by technique, examines research ethics in relation to research methods, including ethnography (Sara Delamont and Paul Atkinson), dyadic interviewing (Karen Lowton), autoethnography (Anita Gibbs), performative approaches to research (Mark Edward), walking interviews (Penelope Kinney), and working in ethnographic environments (Olivia Marcus and Shir Lerman). I wondered about other methods that are not represented (e.g., clearly archival research, visual methods, focus groups all involve ethical issues as well), while I recognize that no handbook can cover every topic.

Part 3, Ethics as politics, enters the arena of political dilemmas, with chapters devoted to political dilemmas in ethnography (Jon Shefner and Zachary McKenney), discussion of the Canadian context (Igor Gontcharov), perspectives and issues related to working with ethics review boards (L. L. Wynn; Lynn Gillam and Marilys Guillemin; and David Hunter), and approaches to building institutional support for ethical reflection in research (Gary Allen and Mark Israel).

Chapters in Part 4, Qualitative research ethics with vulnerable groups, focus on ethical issues to do with vulnerable groups in research, including examining hate crimes involving people with disabilities (Chih Hoong Sin), indigenous youth (Linda Liebenberg, Michele Wood and Darlene Wall), community research on sexual health (Julie Mooney-Somers and Anna Olsen), children (Angel Escamilla García and Gary Alan Fine), older people (Fiona Poland and Linda Birt), non-human animals (Emma Tuilty, Catherine M. Smith, Peter Walker and Gareth Treharne), and people who use drugs. And to mix up the debate, this section opens with a chapter by Will C. Van den Hoonaard on “Why social science researchers should abandon the doctrine of vulnerability”.

The connection of the chapters collected in Part 5, Relational research ethics, is less easy to determine based on a scan of chapters: here are chapters on journalism and ethics (Donald Matheson), disaster research (Dónal O ‘Mathúna), insider-outsider research (Bridgette Toy-Cronin), covert research (David Calvey), and grounded theory (Karin Olson).

The final section, Part 6, Researching digitally, includes three chapters to do with conducting online research: working with vulnerable populations (Camilla Granholm and Eva Svedmark), fan cultures (Natasha Whiteman), and gendered spaces in mainland China and Hong Kong. Since new technologies and online spaces offer new ethical dilemmas to do with topics examined, contexts studied, and methods used, it is surprising to see only three chapters in this section. The editors complete the book with concluding reflections.

Having scanned the book, I am still perplexed as to why qualitative researchers in many cases appear to be resistant to the regulation of protection of human subjects in research. Having served on the full board of the Institutional Review Board (IRB) for some years at my institution, I align with the view of a participant reported by L. L. Wynn’s (2018) survey of ethnographers’ experiences with ethical review boards in the chapter entitled “When ethics review boards get ethnographic research wrong”: “It [the ethical review board] was made up of a bunch of overworked, undercompensated, under-recognized people trying their best to uphold ethical standards in the conduct of research” (p. 257). Because of my own positive experiences working with IRB staff-members at my institution, I had trouble sympathizing with some of the complaints about regulation that I came across in the book. That said, I am cognizant that institutions do not necessarily interpret federal regulations similarly. Further, since the staff and faculty involved in decision-making change, along with the contexts in which research studies are conducted (consider, for example the changes wrought by technology on what researchers examine and how they go about that), interpretations of regulations for how research is conducted with human subjects will always be subject continual, if not rapid change. Gillam and Guillemin (2018), in a chapter entitled “Reflexivity: Overcoming mistrust between research ethics committees and researchers” provide useful guidelines for a process that researchers might use in cases where research ethics boards may be difficult to work with (pp. 270-271).

Another omission is a further reference to the concept of research integrity, or “responsible conduct of research” (RCR) (Macrina, 2014). This is a program initiated in the U.S. aimed at ensuring that researchers undertaking funded research consider their ethical stances throughout the process of research preparation, the conduct of research, and representation of findings. To me, this takes “ethics” into the land of “how one lives”. In my own reading of the literature on ethics in qualitative inquiry, I’ve noticed that writing frequently gravitates to problems and pitfalls related to the regulation of research, the conduct of research, and representation of findings with human subjects. What is useful about RCR is that it encourages researchers to think more broadly about their actions and activities with not only participants (including non-human animal subjects) of research projects, but editors, co-authors, colleagues, mentees, and the public. What are the ethical responsibilities of researchers in these groups? While some of what is discussed in RCR pertains more to biomedical research, there is still much to be learned by researchers regardless of the research methods they use.

Clearly, some of the topics encompassed by RCR (e.g., use of statistics, reproducibility, and bias) rely on positivist approaches to research used in biomedical research. Yet, further dialogue among researchers using different methods about these topics could potentially enhance understanding among different scientific communities. I understand that the approach to preparing researchers to conduct research of integrity encompassed by RCR is US-centric. Yet, since research is a globalized and collaborative endeavor, it is useful to know what is going on in other countries. That said, there is a lot to think about in The SAGE handbook of qualitative research ethics concerning the issues that qualitative researchers face in their research, and I’ve definitely found the text helpful in teaching students about the broad range of topics encompassed by “ethics in qualitative research.”

Kathy Roulston



Gillam, L., & Guillemin, M. (2018). Reflexivity: Overcoming mistrust between researcher ethics committees and researchers. In R. Iphofen & M. Tolich (Eds.). The SAGE handbook of qualitative research ethics (pp. 263-275). London: Sage.

Iphofen, R. (2011). Ethical decision making in social research: Palgrave Macmillan.

Iphofen, R., & Tolich, M. (Eds.). (2018). The SAGE handbook of qualitative research ethics. London: Sage.

Macrina, F. L. (Ed.) (2014). Scientific integrity: Text and cases in responsible conduct of research (4th ed.). Washington, DC: ASM Press.

Sieber, J. E., & Tolich, M. B. (2013). Planning ethically responsible research (2nd ed.). Los Angeles: Sage.

Tolich, M. (2016). Qualitative ethics in practice. Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast Press.

Wynn, L. L. (2018). When ethics review boards get ethnographic research wrong. In R. Iphofen & M. Tolich (Eds.). The SAGE handbook of qualitative research ethics (pp. 248-262). London: Sage.


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