Methods and Ethics

Methods and Ethics

Traditional medicines

My undergraduate training emphasised quantitative methods – long before SPSS and desktop computers. I have occasionally used these in collaboration with quantitative researchers. However, most of my own research has used qualitative methods: direct observation, sometimes supplemented by audio or video recording; interviews; and the analysis of images, texts and documents. This reflects my interest in the processes by which order is constructed and maintained rather than just describing the outcomes. I want to know how the world comes to be the way it is. Qualitative methods tend to be more appropriate for this goal.

My writing about methods has been particularly associated with scepticism about the value of interview and focus group data compared with data from direct observation or ‘found’ sources – documents, images and artefacts – that have not been produced for the purposes of research. Sometimes we may need to use second best sources to study otherwise inaccessible areas of the social world, but we should be very cautious about interpreting them. This applies particularly when we suppose that studying the same topic using different methods – sometimes called ‘triangulation’ – gives us more valid or more accurate understanding. This can leave us with the difficult, if not unanswerable question, as to what to do when different quality methods give us different answers.

Like many qualitative researchers, I have a strong interest in research ethics. Some countries have installed regulatory regimes with the declared aim of preventing unethical research by reviewing studies in advance. These have many flaws. They have had a particularly negative impact on qualitative research. Ethical regulation has created areas of ignorance and favoured second-best methods, like interviews, which are easier to pre-approve. My writing has looked more towards what is now known as a ‘virtue ethics’ approach. This emphasises the professional integrity of researchers and their ability to make sound moral judgements when challenges arise in the course of their fieldwork.

Sample Publications

(E. Murphy, R. Dingwall, D. Greatbatch, S. Parker and P. Watson), Qualitative Research Methods in Health Technology Assessment: A Review of the Literature, Health Technology Assessment 2, No.16, Southampton: National Coordinating Centre for Health Technology Assessment, 1998.  Downloadable from

‘Accounts, interviews and observations’.  Pp.  5165 in Miller, G. and Dingwall, R, eds.  Context and Method in Qualitative Research, Sage, London, 1997. Reprinted in Smart, B., Peggs, K. and Burridge, J.  Observation Methods, Sage, London 2013.

‘Ethics and ethnography’, Sociological Review, 1980, 28; 4: 871-91. Reprinted in E. Bell and H. Wilmott (eds) Qualitative Research in Business and Management, Sage, London, 2014.

‘The Social Costs of Ethics Regulation.’ Pp. 25-42 in van den Hoonaard, W. and Hamilton A., eds, Ethics Rupture: Exploring Alternatives to Formal Research Ethics Review. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2016.