(Un-)Informed Consent? Regulating and Managing Fieldwork Encounters in Practice

  • Dorit Happ
  • Frank Meyer
  • Judith Miggelbrink
  • Kristine Beurskens


Interactive methods of qualitative social research such as interviews bear the possibility that the mere fact of researchers visibly conducting research may influence the behaviour e.g. of respondents. This empirically proven aspect of interviews, group discussions and observations leads to problems for the current practice of procedural ethics that call for a specific form of informed consent. We, in contrast, illuminate the complex relationships researchers and respondents engage in. Based on these insights, we highlight the need for consciously managing one’s identity in the course of fieldwork. Using examples from our own empirical work, we elaborate on the delicate balance between this essential impression management and the need to avoid deception which would compromise our research from an ethical point of view.


  1. Aagaard-Hansen J, Johansen MV (2008) Research ethics across disciplines. Anthropol Today 24(3):15–19CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. American Anthropological Association (AAA) (2012) Principles of professional responsibility. Accessed 20 Oct 2016
  3. Association of Social Anthropologists of the UK and the Commonwealth (ASA) (1999) Ethical guidelines for good research practice. Accessed 20 Oct 2016
  4. Barsegian I (2000) When text becomes field. Fieldwork in “Transitional” societies. In: De Soto HG, Dudwick N (eds): Fieldwork dilemmas. Anthropologists in postsocialist states. Univ. of Wisconsin Press, Madison, p 119–129Google Scholar
  5. Belarus Red Cross: Projects Sotsialnaya i meditsinskaya pomoshh bezhentsam i litsam ishhushhim ubezhishha v belarusi. Accessed 7 Nov 2016
  6. Bell K (2014) Resisting commensurability. Against informed consent as an anthropological virtue. Am Anthropol 116(3):511–522Google Scholar
  7. Berreman G (1962/2012) Behind many masks: ethnography and impression management. In: Robben ACGM, Sluka JA (eds) Ethnographic fieldwork. An Anthropological Reader, Malden, p 153–174Google Scholar
  8. Coffey A (1999) The ethnographic self. Fieldwork and the representation of identity. Sage, LondonCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Corrigan O (2003) Empty ethics. The problem with informed consent. Soc Heal Illn 25(3):768–792CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. DFG (2013) Vorschläge zur Sicherung guter wissenschaftlicher Praxis/Proposals for Safeguarding Good Scientific Practice. Denkschrift/Memorandum. Wiley-VCH, WeinheimGoogle Scholar
  11. Dudwick N, De Soto HG (2000) Introduction. In: De Soto HG, Dudwick N (eds) Fieldwork dilemmas. Anthropologists in postsocialist states. Univ. of Wisconsin Press, Madison, p 3–8Google Scholar
  12. Fujii LA (2012) Research ethics 101. Dilemmas and responsibilities. PS Political Sci Politics 45(4):717–723CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. German Sociological Association (GSA) (2014) Ethik-Kodex der Deutschen Gesellschaft für Soziologie (DGS) und des Berufsverbandes Deutscher Soziologinnen und Soziologen (BDS). Accessed 21 Oct 2016
  14. Gobo G (2008) Doing ethnography. Sage, LondonCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Goffman E (1959) The presentation of self in everyday life. Anchor, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  16. Goffman P (1989) On Fieldwork. Jour Cont Ethnogr 18(2):123–132Google Scholar
  17. Guillemin M, Gillam L (2004) Ethics, reflexivity, and “Ethically Important Moments” in research. Qual Inq 10(2):261–280CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Happ D, Bruns B, Miggelbrink J (2018) Der Datenträger im Brillenetui. Feldforschung in autoritären Staaten. In: Meyer F, Miggelbrink J, Beurskens K (eds): Ins Feld und zurück. Praktische Probleme qualitativer Forschung in der Sozialgeographie. Springer VS, Wiesbaden (im Druck)Google Scholar
  19. Harper I, Corsín Jiménez A (2005) Towards interactive professional ethics. Anthropol Today 21(6):10–12CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Jacob M, Riles A (2007) The new bureaucracies of virtue: introduction. Polit Legal Anthropol Rev 30(2):181–191CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Kawulich B B (2005) Participant observation as a data collection method. Forum Qual Soc Res 6(2) (Art. 43)Google Scholar
  22. Kellehear A (1996) Unobtrusive methods in delicate situations. In: Daly J (ed) Ethical intersections. Health research, methods and researcher responsibility. Allen & Unwin, Sydney, p 97–105Google Scholar
  23. Kelly A (2003) Research and the subject. The practice of informed consent. Assoc Polit Legal Anthropol 26:182–195CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Linnekin J (1998) Family and other uncontrollables. Impression management in accompanied fieldwork. In: Flinn J, Marshall LB, Armstrong J (eds) Fieldwork and families: constructing new models for ethnographic research. University of Hawaii Press, Honululu, p 71–83Google Scholar
  25. Miggelbrink J (2014) Crossing lines, crossed by lines. Everyday practices and local border traffic in Schengen regulated Borderlands. In: Jones R, Johnson C (eds) Placing the border in everyday life. Ashgate, Burlington, p 137–166Google Scholar
  26. Miggelbrink J, Meyer F (2015) Lost in complexity? Decisions in research on the social constructions of peripherality. In: Lang T, Henn S, Ehrlich K, Sgibnev W (eds) New geographies of Central and Eastern Europe. Socio-Spatial polarization and peripheralization in a rapidly changing region. Basingstoke, Palgrave, p 62–79Google Scholar
  27. Miller T, Boulton M (2007) Changing constructions of informed consent. Qualitative research and complex social worlds. Soc Sci Med 65(11):2199–2211CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Mintz SW (1963) Book review “Behind many masks: Ethnography and impression management in a himalayan village. Gerald D. Berreman”. Am Anthropol 65(6):1362–1363CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Orb A, Eisenhauer L, Wynaden D (2001) Ethics in qualitative research. Journal Nurs Scholarsh 33(1):93–96CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Roth W-M (2004) Ethics as social practice: introducing the debate on qualitative research and ethics [22 paragraphs]. Forum Qual Soc Res (Forum Qualitative Sozialforschung) 6(1) (Art. 9),
  31. Shannon J (2007) Informed consent. Documenting the intersection of bureaucratic regulation and ethnographic practice. Assoc Polit Legal Anthropol 30:229–248CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Soulsby A (2004) Who is observing whom? Fieldwork roles and ambiguities in organisational case study research. In: Clark E, Michailova S (eds) Fieldwork in transforming societies. Understanding methodology from experience. Palgrave Macmillan, New York, p 39–56Google Scholar
  33. Steger T (2004) Identities, roles and qualitative research in Central and Eastern Europe. In: Clark E, Michailova S (eds) Fieldwork in transforming societies. Understanding methodology from experience. Palgrave Macmillan, New York, p 19–38Google Scholar
  34. Swazo NK (2005) Research integrity and rights of indigenous peoples: appropriating Foucault’s approach of knowledge/power. Stud Hist Philos Biol Biomed Sci 36(3):568–584CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Thorne B (1980) “You Still Takinʼ Notes?” Fieldwork and problems of informed consent. Soc Probl 27(3):284–297CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. Tomkinson S (2015) Doing fieldwork on state organizations in democratic setting. ethical issues of research in refugee decision making. Forum Qual Soc Res 16(1) (Art. 6)Google Scholar
  37. Valentine G (2003) Geography and ethics: in pursuit of social justice—ethics and emotions in geographies of health and disability research. Prog Hum Geogr 27(3):375–380CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. Weindling P (2006) Nazi medicine and the nuremberg trials. From medical war crimes to informed consent. Palgrave Macmillian, BasingstokeGoogle Scholar
  39. Westoby R, Mcnamara KE (2013) The challenges of doing development research consulting in the pacific: from pre-departure to fieldwork and back in the office. Development 56(3):363–369CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. Zichner H, Happ D, Bruns B (2014) Dealing with “lived experience”. Benefits and Limitations. Erdkunde 68:289–300CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag GmbH Deutschland, ein Teil von Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  • Dorit Happ
    • 1
  • Frank Meyer
    • 1
  • Judith Miggelbrink
    • 1
  • Kristine Beurskens
    • 1
  1. 1.LeipzigDeutschland

Personalised recommendations