Qualitative Research Model In Visual Surveillance Research

Research Model In Visual Surveillance Research


The research ethics review processes within academic institutions have evolved from a paradigm developed to suit positivist biomedical research. These principles were designed to prevent the kind of abuses inflicted by the Tuskegee Syphilis study and by Nazi Scientists during World War II. In recent decades the remit of these processes has extended to all non-clinical research involving human subjects, including qualitative humanities and social science (HSS) research. 

It is acknowledged in the literature from the US, Canada, the UK, New Zealand and Australia, that the application of biomedical research ethics paradigms to qualitative research often creates significant problems for qualitative, social science research which can be subjective, messy and non-linear (see, for example, Boden et al., 2009; Connolly and Reid, 2007; Cortada, 1998; De Wet, 2010; Guillemin and Gillam, 2004; Haggerty, 2004; 2013; Smith and Rust, 2011; Van Den Hoonaard, 2006). To quote Hurdley, ‘despite multiple debates in qualitative research concerning ethical regulation, the fences just keep closing in’ (2010: 524). 

Dingwall remarks, ‘the system of pre-emptive ethical regulation developed in the biomedical sciences has become a major threat to research in the humanities and social sciences’ (2008: 1), while Israel and Hay claim that ‘social scientists ... believe their work is being constrained and distorted by regulators of ethical practice who do not understand social science research. (2006: 1). 

It is essential that research participants be treated respectfully (Smith and Rust, 2011). However, the principles of anonymity, free and fully informed consent, confidentiality, and withdrawal are becoming sanctified by research ethics committees as absolutes, regardless of the situation (Buckley, 2011; Murray et al., 2011). 

It must be acknowledged that not all ethical considerations apply in the same way in all methodologies, particularly because of the two main differences between biomedical and HSS research, namely; the nature of the research interventions and the relationship between researcher and researched. These key differentiating factors are what drive the need for biomedical and HSS research to be treated differently when it comes to ethics oversight. There have been many calls for ‘tools to support ethical practice in participatory and other non-postpositivist research’ (Kleinman and Vallas, 2001: 1060). 

Dingwall suggests the health of social science research in UK universities rests on a tipping point and urges the academy to subject research ethics review processes to serious scrutiny (2008). Despite these calls, the extant literature largely falls into two categories: (1) descriptions of ethical dilemmas encountered by researchers; and (2) critiques delineating the unsuitability of biomedical research ethics procedures for HSS research. 

Halse and Honey suggest mutiny against the current mode of review has a magnetic attraction but report that ‘if there ever was a glorious golden age of unfettered freedom for research, it is unlikely to be resurrected in a neoliberal world of legislative controls, legal responsibilities, and institutional audit and accountability (2007: 349). 

Absenting HSS research from any kind of ethics oversight is neither feasible nor desirable. Instead, social science academics need to move beyond demonstrating the failings of current practice and build a consensus around more suitable review processes. 

Not only are legislative controls and institutional regulations growing, but many universities across the globe are also facing financial pressures (Altbach et al., 2009), resulting in increased resource constraints. In this context, an entirely separate system of research ethics oversight of HSS research is not a financially realistic option.

This article answers the call for tools to support ethical practice in qualitative research. Drawing on our collective experience as members and chairs of social science research ethics committees in a university in Ireland, we develop a research ethics model encompassing the variables relevant to research involving human subjects. We show how this model can be applied in a practical way to both biomedical and non-clinical contexts through the application of different levels of tolerance in each domain. 

While a precise, quantitative formulation of this increased tolerance is impossible to achieve, our model seeks to clearly identify specific areas where principles taken from the bio-medical review processes are too stringent for some HSS research. After its original construction based on the research ethics literature, the model was further developed on the basis of findings from a series of qualitative interviews carried out with members of various types of research ethics committees spanning different disciplines across two jurisdictions (the UK and Ireland). 

The perceived usefulness of the model was also examined by interviewees. Our aim is to provide a visual tool/model which will assist research ethics committees in evaluating qualitative research, without creating a dual system of research ethics oversight for different research domains. We are aware of no other visual model being currently used in research ethics oversight.

Differences between biomedical and HSS research 

The primary differences between biomedical and HSS research lie in the nature of the research interventions and in the relationship between the researcher and the participant (Cortada, 1998). In biomedical research, participants may risk death or serious injury. 

HSS research generally presents no equivalent risk (Haggerty, 2004; Hoecht, 2011). There is no doubt that HSS research participants may be emotionally upset, have their dignity undermined, or experience very real invasions and violations of their privacy (Lincoln and Tierney, 2004; Owen, 2006). 

There are examples of high-profile social science research studies which would now be considered unethical, such as Stanley Milgram’s (1974) research on obedience or Philip Zimbardo’s (1973) prison experiments. Nevertheless, the harms that HSS research is capable of are generally of considerably lower magnitude than biomedical research (Haggerty, 2004).

Research method 

In an evolutionary process, the model we describe above was initially designed and then shown to a number of members and chairs of research ethics committees in the course of qualitative interviews in order to investigate the relevance of the core concepts included, as well as the perceived usefulness of this kind of visual model. The interviews informed the maturation of the model into its final iteration.

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