To act ethically is not something that you simply do. Every encounter and interaction is an ethical decision. It might not feel like it but it almost certainly is. Queuing. Using public transport or public highways. Bemoaning the attitude of another (be it a student, a colleague or a friend). All can be considered ethical decisions. We make choices to act responsibly (or not) and others benefit (or not) as a consequence. You don’t have time to reflect and consider every decision you make but you are often asked (by a person, an outcome or a personal reflection) to consider your conduct after the event. Was it ethical? Did I treat that person fairly? Was I a decent human being? Was I awake to my decisions and the potential impact on another?
Most of the time (the vast majority of the time in fact) these ethical decisions are fairly unimportant. No one gets hurt or faces the potential of hurt. But sometimes they do cause you to question your comments, actions and feelings. This can often cause you to change your future course of action. I remember, once, using a lot of motivational quotes in a conference session but unconsciously failed to include the voice of any women. Someone in the audience, quite rightly, commented that it seemed that only men could say motivational things. This was never my intention but somehow it was my action. It was painful to realise that unconsciously I was bias towards men and that I was acting unethically.
I have endeavoured since that time to be better. More ethical. More conscious of the decisions I make. I’m sure I don’t always manage it but I am conscious that that gendered bias exists within me and I am working hard to change myself. I want to be ethical in everything that I do. This is a commitment to try to practice ethics in my daily life and to acknowledge the potential physical, social and emotional effects that my actions/decisions/thoughts/biases might have on others.
As a practitioner and a pedagogue I need to be conscious of my responsibilities. As a researcher – a practitioner researcher - I also need to be aware not only of the need to obtain ethics but to act in accordance with those ethics. Ethics is not a point of time and procedure that passes once the board has meet but is a commitment to act ethically in every stage of the research.
Because some practitioner research studies only ever use personal data and are about ourselves they don’t require official ethical approval. Conversely, any study that uses the perspectives of others (e.g. students., colleagues, players) comes with an obligation to act ethically not only on the surface but also at an official level. Regardless of whether they have informal or formal ethical approval, the practitioner researcher needs to think carefully about how they design any study.
Ethics is much more than a terminal process that ends when the board ends. It is imbued into the entire research process. It starts with the negotiation of the research space and moves through to the final co-composition of the final research text and beyond. It is to conduct ourselves in ways that best serve our practice and profession. It is to consider issues like participation and representation, thoughts and habits, relationships, fairness and, inevitably, power. It is an obligation to ethical action. It is both a policy (held at the university) and a practice (valued and adhered to in person).
When, as authors, Tim, Lee, Doug and I sat at our various computers to have our web-based discussions about ethical responsibility we focused on one key question: “what are the ethical responsibilities of being a practitioner researcher?” As previously, we tried to approach this question from one of the four methodological perspectives covered in the book, i.e. Action Research (me), Narrative Inquiry (Lee), Autoethnographically Inquiry (Doug) and Self Study of Practice (Tim). As our discussions unravelled, and after we had time to reconsider and reflect on them at length (away from the conversation itself), we developed four themes which I will now talk to in what remains of this blog.
Formal and informal ethical considerations
As a reader of this blog (and indeed as a reader of the book) you may never seek to publish your work to a wider audience but that doesn’t mean that ethics are irrelevant. It just means that you need to be able to understand what ethics means from your position as a teacher or a coach. In your case, most ethics you will be concerned with will be informal and require you to be an ethical researcher of your practice. It is a developmental process and is about creating ethical rigour in what you do so you are constantly mindful of how complex your ethical commitments really are. It is about thinking about the ramifications of your work. Is it ever going to be shared outside of yourself and your own work? Are you going to share it in a conversation or a blog? The last thing you want to do is throw a colleague under the bus by sharing something that should have remained confidential.
In doing practitioner research you are making a commitment to yourself and to others. You may only be collecting personal data but if it goes on to impact on others then how will that work? Teaching and coaching, for me, are a commitment to work to the very best of my ability. That is the ethical commitment that we make. But what if your practitioner research shows you that your pedagogy is weak? What if it ‘tells’ you that you need to change but that that change will take months, years, your whole life? What do you do? If you have made a commitment to act ethically then you need to change. That is ethical practice. It means doing something even when it takes far more work to do.
This is the little ‘e’ of ethics. This is being conscious of the rights of your participants and your students/players. The people you’re working with. The big ‘E’ of Ethics is the type we need to do in order to get published or get funding, and this is important too. This is the formal stuff but just because you have that doesn’t mean you can forget or side line the informal stuff.
Relational ethics (or ethics of the relationship)
When our thoughts moved to relational ethics we used Bergum and Dosster’s (2005) four basic elements of mutual respect (showing regard for one and all), relational engagement (be attentive of both self and other), embodiment (acknowledging that people live in specific historical and social contexts) and creating environments (the relational space for ethical action). In considering ethics from the perspective of relationships we quickly came to realise the potential messiness and complexity of ethical research.
We all had different perspectives on relationships in our discussions. Doug suggested that practitioner researchers treat those they work with in a similar manner to which they would treat friends. In doing so, he suggested that we could prioritise the relationship over the research and make time for participants. He suggests that, in treating participants in the same way as we would friends, we wouldn’t ask too much of them, and would consider issues of confidentiality and loyalty in ways that meet the demands of both the research and friendship. That is not to say we befriend our students/players but that we treat them in the same manner we would our friends.
We must strive to act in the best way we can. To remember that even when the study is over we owe our participants the rights of friendship. They have the right to anonymity, to confidentially, to withdraw at any time without punishment or adverse consequences. They have the right to know that their voices will be heard in a manner that represents their thoughts and actions not as a way to sensationalise our work.
Consent, confidentiality and transparency
These three concepts are often seen as the foundations of ethical research. Consent (giving permission), confidentiality (the right to be protected) and transparency (the agreement not to be tricked or deceived) are keys to any form of research. It is important that participants understand that these three ‘things’ are there to protect them. When we say that we are going to use what they tell us to shape our practice and our thinking in the future they need to know they are safe. They need to know that when we say we want to know the good and the bad stuff that there aren’t consequences. They need to know that they won’t suffer if they tell us they don’t like our practice. They also need to know that we won’t chat with others about them and tell them how nuts they are driving us. There’s a reflective wakefulness to ethics that reminds us, daily, of our need to be good human beings.
Purpose and Audience
If the purpose of my practitioner research project is to be the best teacher/coach I can then that’s one type of ethics. It involves only the spaces in which I work and the people (young and old) with whom I work. But if I’m looking to publish beyond that space then that’s something different. Whilst academic publishing might not be on your radar, a blog or a podcast or a tweet might be. As soon as you move from purpose to audience you need to think differently. If you are undertaking postgrad study then that is another form of publishing/audience – even if it’s only your supervisor(s).
You need to have an audience in mind in your research. You need to conduct yourself in an ethical way and remain awake to your commitments. You need to consider how you frame yourself. Can people easily discover where you work and with whom? The closer to home your audience is the easier it is for them to identify your participants and the easier it is to damage that ‘friendship’ or risk that agreement of consent, confidentiality and transparency.
Do you/we ever consider the ethics of blogging or podcasting? Or the ethics of talking to a parent/teacher association? Or a colleague at a conference? When we negotiate ourselves into a research space what have we promised and are we always keeping those promises? Can we maintain this ‘friendship’, can we be a critical friend or strive for the simply purpose of improving our teaching? In short, can we use the ethical process (formal and informal) to act as a proper human being even when it doesn’t always make things easier for us?
In conclusion, ethics are messy, grey and fundamental to all types of practitioner research. Just doing no harm is not enough. We need to consider the Ethics and ethics of practitioner research. Do we prioritise of participant’s needs, do we nurture the relationship over time, do we handle potential conflicts quickly and openly, do we meet the needs of friendship and research with consent, confidentiality and transparency and do we maintain the relationship even when the research part is over? If we do, and we remain awake to our responsibilities, then we can probably be said to be acting ethically. It’s no small ask but it lies at the heart of everything we do as practitioner researchers.
Casey, A., Fletcher, T., Schaefer, L. & Gleddie, D. (2017). Conducting Practitioner Research in Physical Education and Youth Sport: Reflecting on Practice. London: Routledge.