Integrity in qualitative research

Watts, Jacqueline H. (2008). Integrity in qualitative research. In: Given, Lisa M. ed. The Sage Encyclopedia of Qualitative Research Methods, Volume 1. Thousand Oaks, California: Sage Publications, pp. 440–441.



Integrity is honesty and probity within the conduct of qualitative research and underpins ethical practice in all the activities that comprise data collection and analysis. It is characterised by openness and wholeness on the part of the researcher and can be understood as a type of ‘straightforwardness’ or ‘moral uprightness’ that rejects intentional duplicity and deceit. Integrity is central to ethical research principles that focus on the responsibility of researchers to do no harm, to gain informed consent from participants and to represent respondents’ views as accurately as possible, as part of the epistemological process. Integrity within empirical research is not an abstract concern; it directly informs the choice of methods as part of legitimising knowledge production within an ‘appropriate’ theoretical framework. These methods may include in-depth interviews, focus groups, participant observation and non-participant observation and all entail different forms of ethical rigor in their execution that is centred on taking participants’ accounts seriously.
The collection of qualitative data that describes meaning and experience is rooted in a subjective paradigm that is not value-free and is inextricably linked to the goals of the researcher who may not be emotionally detached from the topic of enquiry. In this sense qualitative research is not neutral or objective and acknowledgement of the values and assumptions that frame research is an important feature of integrity. Openness, however, is not always fully achievable in the process of connecting experience to understanding and the sharing of information between researcher and participants can be problematic and a negotiated process. Integrity can thus be complicated and compromised and is always political.

Politics of integrity

Balancing rights and responsibilities in the qualitative research process entails equalising the search for knowledge with concerns about vulnerability, confidentiality and intrusion in the lives of participants. These concerns are connected to the power dynamics that are likely to be present in research and relate, not only to the power relationship between the researcher and the researched, but also to that between researchers and funding bodies/host institutions. There is much in the literature about the personal empowerment of research subjects through their contribution to heightening awareness about a particular social issue but less about the empowerment of researchers that can be constrained and sometimes disenfranchised by the requirements imposed by research funders. These requirements can intrude into and color both research conduct and output with researchers feeling obliged to take account of the political positioning of funding bodies. This suggests that acting with integrity is not a linear construct but points to the reality of ethical research practice that is complex and often multi-faceted.
Working with participants who are unsympathetic or resistant to the aims of a research project can challenge both the integrity and resilience of researchers and can be stressful for both parties. This raises the question of whether integrity can be seen as conditional and, if so, what are the caveats or constraints that inhibit full openness. Examples from the feminist literature illustrate that the ‘ideological distance’ between researchers and their subjects can be bridged by revealment strategies on the part of the researcher that are partial, staged and characterised by reference to the more general rather than the highly detailed and specific. In some circumstances full openness has to be sacrificed to the needs of effectively completing research and this may involve some measure of unexplication of the researcher’s agenda. This does not signify the collapse of ethical rigor but points to relative and contextual understandings of ‘truthtelling’ that inscribe empirical work within the human and social sciences. Integrity is itself a social construct that, if it is to be an effective safeguard for researchers and participants alike within sociological research, cannot be self-serving. Ethical research processes, to be meaningful, must be pragmatic and responsive to the circumstances of the research and adoption of a narrow purist model may leave areas of human experience hidden and neglected.

The role of intention

Integrity within qualitative research is not just an issue at the design stage but a continuing practical concern throughout the entire research process including the analysis and reporting phases where issues of interpretation are key and now seen as part of postmodern intellectual licence. Although it is incumbent on researchers to be cognizant of the implications of research both for participants and for policy, it is intent rather than the consequences that determine whether or not research behaviour can be seen as moral. This is because qualitative research is often messy and unpredictable and researchers cannot be held to account for outcomes that could not have been expected even with the best-formulated plans. The synthesis and analysis of personal experience for public consumption that characterises much qualitative research, carries with it a particular obligation for the researcher to adopt an ethics of care approach to ensure that respondents are not subject to exploitation and positioned only in terms of their utilitarian value. This can be challenging for researchers, not least because any harm that may accrue to respondents from participating in research may not be immediately evident. Being clear and transparent about the extent of the commitment expected from participants together with adherence to confidentiality practices can minimise adverse effects, but cannot be a guarantee of ‘pain-free’ outcomes.
The above has discussed the main constitutive features of integrity within qualitative research that contributes to ethically sound research practice. Whilst research must be rigorous if it is to be regarded as intellectually compelling and politically persuasive, it must also be open to scrutiny in terms of method and process. Probity forms part of an ethical continuum that entails an uncertain slippery path of forwards and backwards across all the stages of knowledge production but it must be remembered that integrity is contingent upon context and situation rather than abstract principles.

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