Ethical Challenges Researcher Take When Conducting Ethnographic Study

A market researcher faces the following broadly stated challenges and responsibilities when conducting ethnographic research.

Holistic Responsibilities and Challenges – Some basic principles and responsibilities underlying ethnographic research are beneficence – i.e. the responsibility of good doing an overall good or benefit to the community, non-maleficence – i.e. the responsibility of ensuring that the research does not contribute to physiological or psychological harm to the community and the protection of the general dignity, well-being and autonomy of the participating community. Ensuring such a high moral standard is actually extremely difficult for a researcher in the field, as scholar Shulamit Reinharz expresses her disdain for conventional researchers as malicious interlopers who disrupt the privacy of the subject, skews their perception, manipulated them using false pretences and abandon them by breaking off contact when their needs are fulfilled (Reinharz 1979: 95).

Objectivity – Another common challenge is to avoid ethnocentricity – i.e. the belief that a particular culture is superior to another. The researcher must maintain a staunch objective outlook based on egalitarian principles and a comparative analytical stance. Research has to be conducted in a highly objective manner and a very well defined relationship with appropriate well-defined boundaries should be established between the researcher and the subjects – such often being communicated by the researcher to the subjects before the commencement of study. For this reason, it has often been seen, and indeed condoned, that the research may choose to play a non-participating role in the utilisation of the research findings for advocacy on behalf of the community being studied as that in hindsight may very well askew the methodologies of research and recording of findings by bringing in dangerous elements like personal biases and motivations of the researcher.

Confidentiality – Confidentiality is a vital challenge of ethnographic market research. That the privacy of the participants has to be maintained finds concurrence among established and peer-reviewed research practices and scholars (Hill 1993; Spradley 1980). Apart from mitigating obvious risks to the participants, confidentiality is key for establishing trust and participation which is vital for conducting field study and primary research Johnson (1975). In certain rare instances however, confidentiality can become a major ethical challenge for the researcher himself. For eg. in Van Maanen’s (1983) study of police brutality where he interviewed police officers, he faced a major dilemma when he was asked to testify in Court; it was only his good fortune that the case was dropped because he would have received a contempt charge had he refused.

Peer obligations – A researcher has an ethical obligation not only to the subjects of the study but to his own peers as well, however this a general obligation not restricted to ethnographic studies. Such obligations not only extend beyond the basic refrainment of plagiarism and misappropriation but also extend to reporting the misconduct of their peers for the greater scientific and community wellbeing.

Critically evaluate how a market researcher should address these ethical challenges when designing and executing their ethnographic study? Please support your answers with illustrative examples.

The researcher can take the assistance of the following techniques to execute their studies and overcome the ethical challenges stated above.

Utilising Research Ethics Committees (RECs)

RECs maintain a crucial role to ensure that a balance between standards of ethics and scientific merit and usefulness is maintained in conducting of research involving human subjects. Three vital functions are discharged by RECs – protecting rights of participants by providing them with sufficient information to make a conscious choice to participate or opt-out, ethical obligation to society to ensure the ethical and honest utilisation of the results of the study, and obligation to train and educate the researcher regarding his/her ethical considerations and decision making to protect the researcher from legal and ethical fallout to protect and advance the career of the researcher (Gelling 1999). Formalised ethical scrutiny is this an indispensable resource for both the researcher and the participants.

In conducting international research especially in sensitive areas, it is crucial that the researcher consults RECs regarding the domestic laws of the country. Also, consolations regarding the political state of the community is also essential as it is often observed that ‘community leaders’ might have their own personal agenda (Iphofen, 2011).

Maximising Benefit by Minimising Harm

As stated in the previous section, a researcher must tread carefully while contacting subject communities for his research as he/she can cause enormous psychological and even physical distress to the community and their way of life by indelicateness. In sensitive communities, this is even lead to legal troubles and ostracizing of individuals who chose to participate in the study and it is thus the responsibility of the researcher to shield them from such adverse consequences and not debase them as described by (Reinharz 1979: 95).

According to Gokah (2006), the only way a researcher can ensure that such adverse consequences does not befall on the subjects while ensuring the success of the study is by adopting a “continual reflective stance” and maintain an ongoing and continuous cost-benefit analysis of the study and make individual ethical decisions accordingly. For this purpose, the vulnerability of a subject must be analysed and a right to participate or opt out should be provided to the subjects so as not to ‘dis-privilege’ them.

Utilising Informed Consent

Scholars such as Johnson (1975) stress that establishing trust is indeed one of the most difficult aspects. One of the primary methods of maintaining confidential and establishing trust is through informed consent of the participants. Informed consent is not only sometimes a legal pre-requisite, for e.g. as in legislations such as the U.S. Public Health Service (1969), without informed consent it is also impossible to obtain information from participants regarding sensitive topics like sexual behaviour and substance abuse (Blair, et. al. 1977).

However, there are some instances where informed consent and assurance of confidentiality has the opposite effect such as in a study by Reamer (1979), regarding juvenile status offenders (regarding offenses which would not be considered such if committed by adults, such as running away from one’s home) where he found that assurances of confidentiality resulted in fewer responses and thus less information gained from the participants, as the very promise of confidentiality elicited a suspicion of manipulation in their minds that the information would not actually remain confidential.


Often times a researcher may be in doubt as to whether a study would yield efficacious results. According to Berscheid, et. al (1973), in case of such a dilemma, it is often useful and recommended for the researcher to pre-test – i.e. conduct a preliminary study on a small sample size at first to judge the efficacy of the results and also gauge the reactions of the small sample regarding ethical concerns. This method is often useful in sensitive areas such as substance abuse and addiction studies where the researcher may gain the opinion of a few addicts and counsellors as to whether it would be morally right to report information gathered during an Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) meeting.


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