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Reections on Ethical Research

in Action: Working at the Practice Edge

Michael Preston-Shoot, Veronica Wigley,
Isabella McMurray and Helen Connolly
This paper draws on the experience of one research project in action to evaluate
the usefulness of research ethics frameworks when the environment surrounding
project negotiation, data collection and dissemination is seriously disturbed by
critical incidents. The paper questions the lack of emphasis in research ethics
codes on the competence and capacity of agencies when commissioning and
sponsoring research. Using events that surrounded one project, the paper
researches the research. It explores what impacted on the creation of the
context for ethical and effective research and how the researchers responded to
the ethical challenges that emerged. Different theoretical understandings and
ethical models are drawn upon to explore how a research team translated
ethical research in theory into ethical research in practice within an organiza-
tion in turmoil.
Keywords Research Ethics; Duty of Care; Situation Ethics; Research in Action
Contemporary concern with promoting good research practice, enhancing ethical
awareness and profiling accountability focuses predominantly on what factors
should be considered and what arrangements should be instituted before
projects commence. For this purpose, and when identifying and responding to
factors that obstruct such expectations, ethical guidelines are designed to
enable individual research judgements to be informed by shared values and
experience, and to be underpinned by widely held principles (SRA 2003).
This paper, on the other hand, explores a series of interrelated dilemmas that
arose after ethical approval had been obtained, monitoring arrangements put in
place and data collection begun. It is grounded in the real world of agencies and
ISSN 1749-6535 print/1749-6543 online/08/020150-22
2008 Taylor & Francis
DOI: 10.1080/17496530802117581
Professor Michael Preston-Shoot is Dean of the Faculty of Health and Social Sciences, University of
Bedfordshire, UK, Veronica Wigley is an independent research consultant based in Sheffield, UK,
Isabella McMurray is a researcher in the Division of Psychology, University of Bedfordshire, UK, and
Helen Connolly is a PhD student in the Department of Applied Social Studies, University of
Bedfordshire, UK. Correspondence to: Michael Preston-Shoot, University of Bedfordshire, Faculty of
Health and Social Sciences, Park Square, Luton, LU1 3JU. E-mail: michael.preston-shoot@beds.ac.uk
practice, which perhaps offers a more solid foundation for the discussion of
research ethics in action. The purpose is to contribute to debates about research
ethics and governance, and to improve ethical literacy, especially within
agencies that commission or sponsor research and within higher education
institutions that must increasingly ensure ethical practice. Additionally, it
suggests that preoccupation with ethical questions whilst research projects are
being configured mistakenly sidelines the imperative of enhancing research
quality across the entire process. Indeed, recorded experiences, and the insights
they generate, may help to ground research ethics and to render them less
abstract and more practical (Alderson & Morrow 2006).
Question Definition
For researchers and managers to understand and apply standards, principles and
requirements of research governance correctly, they depend on a quality
research culture that promotes excellence and is facilitated by strong research
leadership (DH 2005) including within agencies that sponsor research. The ethical
issues addressed in this paper are twofold. What if clear and supportive
management arrangements in the field are not present or break down? How
should researchers respond when an environment no longer exists wherein all
parties can address openly and constructively issues derived from participating in
Ethical Guidance
Policy pronouncements on research ethics focus predominantly on the proposals
and behaviours of researchers and the safeguarding of research participants.
Thus, appraisal of social care proposals should include the competence of
researchers, the nature of the data sought, the appropriateness of proposed
collection methods and the utility of the research. This appraisal embraces the
privacy offered to participants and the relationship between the researchers and
those actively involved in the research, and the degree to which researchers have
considered and addressed the likelihood of harm to participants (DH 2004). The
Economic and Social Research Councils core principles (2005) include the
integrity and quality of the research, informed consent and voluntary participa-
tion, data confidentiality, storing of data and avoiding harm to participants, with
limited discussion afforded to the period after the research in the form of
dissemination of the findings. The Social Research Association (2003) and the
British Psychological Society (2006) have issued similar guidelines. The focus is
squarely on the risks to service users of poorly conducted research, and on the
knowledge and skills of the researchers, with parallels to human rights as
codified in European and UN conventions. These research frameworks sideline
any question of the competence of agencies both to commission and sponsor
research or to act lawfully and ethically in respect of service users and staff.
Some guidelines do spotlight the relationship between researchers and
funders, seeing this as the key location for responsibility for ethical awareness
(SRA 2003). Both the SRA (2003) and the Department of Health (2005) emphasize
the need for a co-operative relationship wherein responsibilities are clearly
allocated for the maintenance of standards, the safeguarding of ethics and the
implementation of the research in a conducive atmosphere. The BPS (2006)
recognizes that ethical quandaries do occur in the research process. However,
once again the focus within this emphasis is telling. In the BPS guidance (2006) it
is the psychologist researcher who has responsibility for the resolution of such
dilemmas. The identification of responsibility for sponsors, to ensure arrange-
ments for managing and monitoring research (DH 2005), highlights the research-
ers practice rather than agency location and the availability of leadership and
appreciation of research practice within it. The dominant concern appears to be
quality control and assurance of the work of the researchers; the agency context
is assumed to be benign and unproblematic. Thus, the SRAs guidelines (2003)
bemoan the absence of a comprehensive system of registration in order to ensure
researcher quality. This emphasis is further reflected in a taxonomy of research
misconduct (Smith 2000) and in the guidance relating to research misconduct
produced by some universities for their own staff. When guidelines refer to
safeguarding participants dignity, well-being and safety (DH 2005), those
principally in mind are service users rather than social (care) workers; when
they refer to people having appropriate qualifications, skills and experience, the
spotlight is on researchers but social work practitioners and managers may not
have the experience and expertise to maintain a suitable environment for
research to be undertaken and to enable dependable outcomes to be delivered.
Similarly, the code adumbrated by Butler (2002) contains no reference to the
responsibilities of research commissioners or hosts. The close proximity of social
work research to social work practice does, however, lead to a suggestion that
the ethical code for researchers should parallel that for social work more
generally, implying that all stakeholders should be bound by ethical frameworks
that are explicit and compatible.
Professional codes of ethics, such as those published by the British Association
of Social Workers (2003) and the International Federation of Social Workers
(2004), identify social works core values of service and promoting social justice,
the dignity and worth of the person, and the importance of human relationships,
integrity, and competence. This explicit underpinning of values, aligned to
human rights conventions, includes an obligation to contribute to social planning
and to promote public participation in the development and evaluation of social
services, work which may include research, alongside being able to account for
the ethics of their practice. The international code (IFSW 2004) does not
specifically provide guidance regarding research but acknowledges that more
specific ethical codes of practice are available at national level. The BASW code
(2003) contains specific ethical guidance for social workers when engaged in
research. The emphasis is principally upon the avoidance of harm to, and
empowering and promoting the welfare of, participants. Once again, that
researchers must be technically competent is stressed but on this occasion there
is implicit recognition that the working context may not be entirely benign.
Social workers are urged to uphold the code of ethics even though their
employers policies may not be compatible with its provisions.
For maintaining professional standards and ethical positions, codes and
guidance utilize core principles: respect for autonomy, beneficence, non-
maleficence and justice. This approach has been criticized for lacking founda-
tional theory, obstructing ethical enquiry, being Western dominated, and
promoting an individualistic bias (Israel & Hay 2006). Hardwick and Hardwick
(2007), however, suggest that situation ethics, with its emphasis upon the
contingent rather than the categorical nature of moral response, offers a useful
basis for the ethical review of social care research because the uniqueness of
contexts and the moral choices faced by researchers cannot be translated easily
into principles. This does not mean that situation ethicists are not informed by
any fundamental principles at all. Indeed, they acknowledge the need for human
conduct to be guided (as opposed to bound) by the principles embodied within
the collective moral system. However, at the core of their philosophy is the
belief that harnessing human action to any fixed body of moral precepts rather
than personal acumen can potentially serve to undermine the uniqueness of a
situation, the choices surrounding it and, ultimately, the best interests of those
involved. One such unique situation, and the choices surrounding it, forms the
springboard for this paper.
Literature Survey
The social care research literature is not exactly replete with examples of
complex practical problems with ethical implications arising during research
projects. Israel and Hay (2006) do, however, give examples of difficult ethical
problems encountered by social scientists. This has been attributed to gate-
keeping by journal editors and researchers, both of whom prefer to publish
successfully concluded designs (Alderson & Morrow 2006; Shaw & Norton 2007),
and to the uncomfortable nature of discussing research difficulties and
disappointments (OConnor 1992; Grinyer 2001). There has, however, been a
longstanding critical evaluation of the experience of researching in feminist
research in general and in ethnography in particular. Stacey (1988), for example,
talks about the ethical difficulties of managing relationships in the field:
. . . fieldwork represents an intrusion and intervention into a system of relation-
ships, a system of relationships that the researcher is far freer than the
researched to leave. The inequality and potential treacherousness of this
relationship seems inescapable. (p. 21)
This experience resonates with some of the difficulties shared, if not reported,
by social care researchers working closely with professionals in Britain.
There has been some concern about the lack of information about how
difficult ethical decisions have been made in the course of research projects.
Burke (2007), in response to a perceived lack of detailed discussion of ethical
issues in qualitative research in social work, both describes her own experiences
and makes a plea for the allocation of more space by editors for such discussion
in academic papers. Similarly, Dickson-Swift et al. (2007) draw attention to the
lack of research on the effects of doing qualitative research on researchers, but
again the focus is on reflections on their own experience rather than on the
relationship between the host agency or institution and staff or service users.
Other exceptions are papers by Grinyer (2001) and by Gallagher et al. (1995),
both of which explore dilemmas when actually undertaking research that has
been ethically approved. The authors are sanguine about the helpfulness of the
advice that may be gleaned from ethical guidelines about how to deal with
particular issues and choice points in research. Each offers some approaches or
solutions for managing such issues as informed consent, the disclosure of
confidential information and the handling of findings. Gallagher and colleagues
(1995) refer to three approaches for managing ethical dilemmas. By expedient
they mean adopting or adapting practical strategies that are likely to facilitate
progress. By value driven they refer to individual researchers negotiating ethical
dilemmas from their preferred orientation rather than from prescribed moral and
philosophical frameworks. By pragmatic they mean resolving competing dilem-
mas by employing a cost/benefit assessment that is intrinsically shaped by their
personal value system. Their solutions include seeking advice from colleagues,
using steering groups, and returning to ethics committees. For Grinyer (2001),
the discretion left by ethical codes to individual researchers is a space that can
be filled by training and by dialogue between the parties involved. Similarly,
Hardwick and Hardwick (2007) advocate situation ethics because of the danger
that procedural requirements will become givens and mean that the uniqueness
of a situation will not be appreciated. They argue for an ethical review of
research that reflects the complexities of the social world, human agency, and
the realities of the individuals and groupings involved. For them, review relies on
professional judgement and moral discernment, informed by the ethical maxims
of the researchers. It might equally be influenced by other knowledge bases,
such as service user views, research reports and theories capable of illuminating
Research Project
Two of the authors had previously conducted research within this department
(Preston-Shoot & Wigley 2005). This project was commissioned by a Social
Services Department with the overarching aim of assessing outcomes for looked-
after children. None of the researchers was employed by the department and
there were no other links, such as the provision of practice learning for students,
between the department and the researchers university location.
Three stages were envisaged for the project, each building on the information
already gathered. Stage 1 would provide information regarding the different
forms of residential care offered within the authority, the aims of different forms
of provision and the extent to which they were meeting the needs of children and
young people in their care. The next two stages were conceived as a longitudinal
multiple case study design over a five-year period. Stage 2 would identify
baseline measures, the prevalence of risk factors and the initial outcomes for
children who became looked after in the course of this stage, coupled with
outcomes for those who were at risk of becoming looked after but were currently
living with their family. Importantly, it would also provide information about the
perspectives of those involved, focusing mainly on children, parents and social
workers but including foster parents and residential workers where appropriate.
Stage 3 would evidence the longer term outcomes for the sample of young people
engaged in stage 2, continuing to explore factors related to the social worker,
residential worker, parents, and the child themselves, and the settings in which
the young people lived, in order to see how these influenced the outcomes for
the children or young people. Ethical approval was given by the University of
Bedfordshires Institute of Applied Social Research and by senior managers in the
organization sponsoring the research. A steering group, comprising senior
managers, social workers, foster carers, residential workers and managers, and
looked-after young people, met throughout the project and routinely focused on
ethical issues, such as preserving confidentiality for participants when presenting
reports and obtaining informed consent from young people and parents when
describing research objectives.
Stage 1 was concluded successfully. It used qualitative methods, augmented
by data derived from standardized questionnaires to gather information about
young peoples behaviour and emotional state. Information was gathered from 22
young people, care staff and managers in residential homes, and from social
workers. At the beginning of stage 2 social workers were asked to examine their
case lists and identify children and young people whom they perceived as being
at risk of becoming looked after. Social workers were provided with a list of risk
factors aggregated from child protection literature (Powell 2003; Preston-Shoot
2003) as well as being invited to add children they felt were likely to become
looked after but who did not meet any of the criteria listed. They were asked to
identify risk factors for these additional children. After consultation with social
workers it was decided that some children should not be interviewed as it might
be detrimental to their well-being. Although the final sample was selected
through an informal assessment of being at risk of becoming looked after, it
was representative of the departments overall work with children in need and
children requiring protection in terms of age and gender.
Outcomes were broadly defined as those set out in the Framework for the
Assessment of Children in Need and their Families (DH 2000). Using this
assessment framework as a platform for discussion, semi-structured interviews
were conducted with 32 social workers. These interviews were designed to
gather information about and understand the holistic well-being of this purposive
sample of 52 children (31 males and 21 females, aged between 0 and 16) who
were looked after or at risk of becoming looked after. Various standardized
measures were also used to gauge perceptions of a young persons strengths and
difficulties, well-being, self-esteem, locus of control and self-efficacy.
The processes that are analysed below occurred during stage 2 and resulted in
the project being halted during data collection for that stage. Although
anticipated as a short-term measure, in fact the project has not recommenced
as the department has engaged in a major review of its child care policies,
procedures and practices, led by newly appointed senior managers.
Creating the Context for Ethical Research
The focus of ethical guidelines for researchers quite reasonably draws attention
to their reasons for undertaking particular projects. Some motivations may
revolve around a desire to empower service users and to improve services by
providing useful findings; others may centre on pursuing particular lines of
enquiry, achieving personal and/or professional development, or contributing to
a university departments research rating. Purposes may be concerned with
effecting change and/or knowledge production, and focused upon clinical work
or the experiences of those receiving services (Glasby & Beresford 2006; Oliver
1999). Faulkner (2004) consulted mental health service users and survivors in
order to develop ethical guidelines for research carried out by or with them, but
describes the guidelines as useful for research involving service users in general.
Participants in the research concurred with suggested widely accepted principles
but also added that a commitment to change was a critical element of ethical
research. All this points to the importance of researchers understanding their
context, and their own place within it (McAdam & Lang 1994), especially the
kinds of influences that context exerts.
However, if research is to be ethical, the commissioners reasons for
supporting particular projects must be valid ethically, as must the context in
which the research is undertaken. Some social care research may be commis-
sioned in order to use the findings to improve services; in other instances,
however, the motivation may be to provide a rationale to delay decision making
or to justify a proposed policy shift. Indeed, the aims and aspirations of
commissioning agencies may not always be made explicit (Shaw & Norton 2007).
Nor might the contextual factors likely to affect data collection and implemen-
tation of the findings*/political, organizational, structural, financial and rela-
tional (Matland 1995)*/be fully understood or considered. Thus, ethically literate
researchers might seek to understand how a research request fits with an
agencys tasks, context and the services it offers (McAdam & Lang 1994), and to
question whether an operational rather than a research response might be more
Perhaps crucial for ethical research is what happens at the researcher/
commissioner interface. Humphries (2007) draws attention to the danger of
social work researchers becoming enslaved by the demands of their paymasters.
Compromises in research design may be negotiated or, indeed, imposed by
sponsors because of timeframes for data availability, levels of accessible funding,
and directed objectives or structures into which the researchers have to fit
(Lloyd et al. 1996; Braye & Preston-Shoot 2005). Drawing on principles of
systemic practice with families and organizations (McAdam & Lang 1994),
researchers might usefully respond to requests by giving close attention to how
they themselves are perceived, to the stories and events, ideas and beliefs that
have led to their being commissioned. This research team was already well
known to the commissioning agency, such that it might have been trusted with a
troubling, even painful, brief, or perceived as likely to be less directly
Equally, researchers will frequently be working within councils with social
services responsibilities whose track record of acting lawfully and/or unethically
is highly variable, judging by judicial review outcomes, health and safety at work
case law and reports from the Commissioner for Local Administration. These are
also the contexts where research indicates that managers and practitioners may
collude in respect of unacceptable service provision (Machin 1998; Horwath
2000). Such contexts reinforce the importance of seeking to understand, rather
than draw a veil across, the research setting and, therefore, the rationale for
conducting a particular project at a given time.
However, although recognizing that relationships are pivotal to effective and
successful research outcomes (Israel & Hay 2006), in this project the researchers
initially accepted the commissioning agencys stated goal. This was to use data
on the outcomes for looked-after young people to reconfigure the balance of
settings in which care was provided, rather than to interrogate how managers
and practitioners in that agency, together with residential and foster care
providers, appreciated the context in which they were working. In common with
other projects (Braye & Preston-Shoot 2005; France 1996), discussions on the
research brief centred on safer dilemmas, such as timeframes and methodolo-
gical debates, and took place within the commissioner system rather than across
all the levels and with stakeholders within and beyond the funding agency.
Positions and perspectives were not entirely unknown in this example. The
researchers knew how some senior managers viewed strengths and weaknesses
within child care teams and services for looked-after children. Indeed, the
researchers had previously been critical of the standards of social work practice
in the same agency (Preston-Shoot 2003). However, whilst this might have
triggered further cautious reflection within the research team and between it
and the agency within which they were working, it did not appear to question the
integrity of the project at this point. Equally, as stage 2 was being negotiated,
the commissioning agency had already used stage 1 findings in contractual
negotiations about the future shape, provision and delivery of residential care
services. Stage 1 had concluded that looked-after young people received good
physical care but variable responses to their emotional needs. The interface
between social services and both education and housing required urgent
attention at strategic management and operational levels. There was a lack of
clarity about role expectations and role requirements at all levels, especially in
relation to assessment and decision making, care planning and recording. There
was a lack of information in social services systems about peoples needs, with
additionally significant gaps in service provision and shortcomings in planning for
young people and levels of partnership.
The researchers also knew that some social workers were cynical about the
likely impact on resources of the research and about the use by managers of
consultants and researchers. To some degree the researchers shared such
scepticism, having been concerned historically about the degree to which
findings had been used or shelved. Nonetheless, the researchers did not follow
advice (Grinyer 2001; McAdam & Lang 1994), namely to understand how research
is perceived by all those involved. The researchers did not explore how
perspectives about child care provision or the proposed research played out
within the commissioning agency, nor indeed how low morale had become in
parts of it, nor what the impact had been in terms of relationships of the
contractual changes made in contracts for the provision of residential care. Why,
then, at the point of research negotiation did the researchers not discuss the
commissioning agencys commitment and ability to act on the evidence
obtained? Whilst agreeing with the commissioning agency the content or task
of the project at stage 2, what took the researchers away from a position of
curiosity (Cecchin 1987) or space for reflective consciousness (Hardwick &
Hardwick 2007)? This would have encouraged self-reflexive analysis in terms of
what was happening to the researchers, and relational-reflexive analysis in terms
of how the participants could develop and use the opportunities provided by the
research to engage with each other to explore ways in which they were relating
and to elaborate the potential in their working together. At least part of the
answer lies in the context for and dynamics surrounding this particular project.
Systemically, a secret in a family and/or professional system is something that
everyone knows but nobody is allowed to discuss. The secret, which it is not open
to people to explore, may be particular beliefs or the way people behave and the
problems they have developed in the context of people and things around them
(Stratton et al. 1990). At least four secrets were operating in the context
surrounding this project. One was the authoritys geographical context, and the
insularity this created. The impact on child protection systems of insularity has
been noted (SWIA 2005). The pool of professional expertise may be smaller,
especially as resources may be limited and complex cases not routinely
encountered, and training opportunities may be more limited. Furthermore,
recruiting high-calibre staff can also be problematic. Moreover, staff work closer
to communities in respect of whose members they may have to take unpopular or
difficult decisions. As recommended in the SWIA report, this authority had
engaged several consultants and research teams but effecting change was not
The second secret was the degree to which the senior management team in
the commissioning agency had the change leadership skills necessary. These are
the different attributes required in order to manage the diverse tasks and
processes involved in managing change. Personal communication with members
of the team indicated strengths in initiating ideas and work but weaknesses in
keeping track of progress, monitoring and responding to the emotional climate,
and completing tasks.
The third secret was the lack of corporate responsibility within the authority
as a whole for the well-being of young people and adults requiring care and
services as a result of being in need or concerns about protection. The interface
between social services and other departments within the authority had been
raised both in stage 1 and in the planning of stage 2, and in earlier research but,
as the research had been commissioned by social work managers, the researchers
did not have direct access to other departmental managers or with political
decision makers and could only suggest data collection and dissemination
methods that would involve them.
The fourth secret was an ongoing inquiry into the policies, procedures and
practices surrounding an incident which was widely expected to be exceedingly
critical of the standards of child care social work within the organization. Whilst
outwardly the agency presented as business as usual, such that its functioning
appeared stable, behind the surface lay internal intra-personal distress and
anxiety, and inter-personal tensions.
In order to avoid difficult emotions and behaviours these secrets were not
confronted openly but were regulated instead through the use of distance
regulators (Stratton et al. 1990). For example, the layout of the spaces occupied
by managers and different social work teams made face-to-face communication
difficult. Senior managers in social services controlled the boundary between
themselves and the wider authority of which they were a part, meaning that the
researchers had very few opportunities in which to use research findings to
challenge the degree of expressed system corporateness for young people and
their families.
The Referring Person
A research referral may be motivated as much by the desire to avoid anxiety
and to maintain a professional position as to achieve change. The referrers
objective may be to take the heat out of problematic relationships by calling in
an expert who is invited to move between the referrer and the other
participants, such that direct communication between members of this dyad is
instead detoured through the researchers. Effectively the system remains
unchanged. This suggests a focus for researchers on the position of the referrer in
the system being presented as the research location, and on interactions within
and between organizational systems in order to avoid becoming triangulated or
incorporated into an agencys relationship patterns (Preston-Shoot & Agass
1990). This interactional focus, especially where all participants are brought
together, allows researchers to avoid the pitfalls of becoming enmeshed in
secrets and alliances. Enmeshment means a loss of leverage because researchers
become associated or allied with one aspect of a dyad, namely the commis-
sioners, rather than facilitating dialogue between them and others, in this
instance social workers or senior managers in other departments of the agency. It
allows researchers to address relationships and interactions surrounding the
referral, and to ask questions that will answer whether or not research is
contraindicated, perhaps because everyone engaged does not have the con-
fidence or capacity to deal with ethical matters or to manage matters ethically
(Girling 2007). There are key questions (Stratton et al. 1990; McAdam & Lang
1994) when convening the system. What is the context? What is the problem? Why
is it a problem now and who is it a problem for? At what point did the research
idea emerge? Who else should be involved? What is the position of everyone in
this system of concern and what solutions would assist the position they start
In this project, the failure to convene the organizational system at the outset
allowed some people to disengage and probably reinforced resistance to, or
scepticism about, the research. This was not just because, as often lies behind
research fatigue, it was seen as a distraction from practice and unlikely to have a
noticeable impact on service provision (Harrison 1999). It was also because
research was viewed as an external imposition, greeted with apathy or anxiety
which, in the context of unexplored secrets and relationships within the
commissioning agency, was left uncontained (Obholzer & Zagier Roberts 1994)
and also because the research engaged with only one definition of the problem.
Additionally, and especially reinforced in the context of the ongoing inquiry, the
research request moved individual and organizational practice from the private
to the public realm, besides being an exercise of power in describing the problem
or concern in a particular way and locating it in particular systems (the
appropriateness of types of residential care and the thoroughness of social
workers assessments, for instance). If unaddressed, research may trigger both
anxiety and resistance. It may reinforce the taking of positions rather than
moving beyond how problems are presented, even pathologized (McAdam & Lang
1994), towards a space where a more consensual, co-operative domain may
Put another way, experience in this project highlights the significance of
continual scrutiny of triangular relationships, and the way research sets up
or reinforces existing relationships. Some social workers were already wary of
talking to managers or of being openly critical of the organization. Since the
researchers talked only with senior managers when agreeing the specification for
the research, rather than negotiating more broadly, this arguably accentuated
wariness. As some social workers then distanced themselves and the looked-after
young people on their caseloads from the research, for example by cancelling
booked interview appointments, the researchers became aligned even more
closely with the commissioning managers in attempting to enforce co-operation.
The anxiety then passed around the organization was that relating to their
unfulfilled expectations of the research, leaving the internal state of individuals
and systems untouched. A vicious circle was therefore created (Preston-Shoot &
Agass 1990), with several increasingly forthright attempts by managers to secure
some social workers participation in the research. This represented a more of
the same intervention rather than a stepping back to consider distancing as
information, as a reasonable response to a perceived unreasonable situation.
This illustrates that who is engaged when the research is being proposed will
influence how the problem is constructed and whose needs are (perceived to be)
met (Humphries 2007).
Uncontained Disturbance
Increasingly, as data collection in stage 2 progressed, it became apparent just
how stressed and defensive some social workers felt, and how potentially
dangerous some practice was. There was a clear lack of trust and an experienced
absence of support between practitioners and managers, and no sense of the
containment necessary (Obholzer & Zagier Roberts 1994) to enable practitioners
to engage with the emotions, dilemmas and complex relationships encountered
within child care and child protection. Social workers felt unsafe, describing how
the organizations priorities were changed weekly and how managers were not
questioning decisions but were making decisions more because of what they
would look like in public than based on child-protection issues. They increasingly
spent much of the interview space discussing adversities in the work environ-
ment, describing the authority as having an atmosphere of mistrust, so much so
that some social workers made notes of all discussions they had with colleagues.
The mood and malaise is captured by the following extract from one research
interview with a social worker:
You want the truth . . . I have had supervision once since I have been here . . . I am
a newly qualified social worker and I have only had supervision once in 3 months
and in my opinion is unacceptable . . . I have been thrown in the deep end and left
to swim . . . I do not know what decisions are mine to make and what arent . . .
They [the managers] would not want to hear the truth anyway so I wouldnt tell it
to them. You know it is very odd here. You have to be very careful . . . It is the old
school, who you are friends with . . . It is really weird. There is an undercurrent
of, be careful who you talk to and it will get back . . . We just lost a social worker
yesterday because she was like this is too dangerous here . . . Everyone is scared.
The management are scared and you can feel it.
The environment had elements of what one judge, when quashing a local
authoritys care plan in respect of a disabled young person (R on the application
of CD (a child by her litigation friend VD) v. Isle of Anglesey CC [2004] 7 CCLR
589), compared to a computer virus, a demon that had affected local authority
decision making. What was emerging through meetings with social workers was
clear evidence of a loss of personhood when institutions subvert professional
judgements (Dombeck & Olsan 2007) and of the depersonalizing effects of an
institution because of the breakdown of containing and reflective mechanisms
such as supervision where individual and organizational internal states could be
held and discussed. The earlier quotation provides one illustration. Below is
One of the cases I have concerns . . . the decisions made in a child protection
conference were overturned, the three to five or six decisions that we all
agreed . . . but as soon as the mother started kicking up, its like no, just give in,
so the decisions I made have been overturned. So, I dont have any control over
this situation . . . I couldnt say to my supervisor, I am feeling unsupported. Why
did you do that to me? I couldnt do that, I was saying everything its fine . . .
because who shes friends with . . . When something happens here, people are
afraid of everything, so it is cover your own back . . . I know like I feel unsafe
because I know if something goes wrong, I will be blamed.
These quotations raise a question about the degree to which informed consent in
the choice of cases where there is a sample was prejudiced in this instance.
Social workers had no say in which cases they would be asked to discuss as the
researchers selected the sample, albeit from data provided by social workers
where they were able to select from amongst their cases those young people they
believed to be at risk of becoming looked after by the authority. Social workers
may be comfortable and give consent to discussing a case where they feel that
practice was good but may feel less comfortable when they have concerns about
how work on the case was conducted. If social workers are to give informed
consent, should they know which cases are to be discussed before consent is
given? Furthermore, to ask professionals to identify how, when and why specific
decisions were made exposes their practice to their own reflective thinking and
also to questioning and evaluation by others, including the researchers and those
who read project reports. That this will happen in the processes underpinning
this type of research is inevitable but the extent to which it will happen, and the
stress that this might occasion, may not be recognized by social workers.
Exposing staff to stress while researching practice, whether or not this can be
recognized by them beforehand, may be justified by researchers in terms of
potential gains for, as here, looked-after children. However, if research proceeds
when participants may not be fully aware of the stress that involvement may
cause them, there are additional obligations on researchers. This is because
respondents are exposing their perceived lack of safety within the organization
whose responsiveness in management of practice, and implicitly therefore their
likely reply to research findings, is being criticized.
Questions, therefore, began to emerge surrounding the integrity and viability
of the research.
When is a Research Space Not a Research Space?
The quotations illustrate a subtle shift that meant at least some research
interviews came to resemble supervision sessions. The opportunity to talk to the
researchers about a case in depth and confidentially was valued explicitly by
many participants but the time this took had to be weighed against the case work
that could have been done in that time. Given the nature of their work, this was a
very real concern for several participants. Both the researchers and managers
justified this use of time in terms of the greater good, or beneficence (Butler
2002)*/improvements to services for looked-after children and individual
practice. Such justifications relied on optimistic assumptions that the findings
of the research, including understanding that emerged from within these
interviews, would be both relevant to practice, which was a fundamental
concern for the researchers, and would be used to develop services. However,
the researchers had no control over the formulation or enactment of policy
changes made as a result of research findings, and limited opportunity to check
back with participants on the use they had made in practice of insights derived
from the interviews.
A related question revolved around the validity of the data obtained in these
interviews. The extent to which it was legitimate to use these data, the degree
to which the focus of the study was changing, and even whether it was possible to
maintain focus on the interview questions in the privileged situation of an
encounter between a researcher and social worker (Grinyer 2001), exercised the
researchers. Some of the research team felt that the data would have limited
utility, as a result of the agency being distracted by organizational dysfunction
and anticipating upheaval after conclusion of the inquiry. Others emphasized the
social benefits of the research, if not immediately but as information to
influence reorganization after the inquirys conclusion (cf. Gallagher et al.
The potential benefits and hazards, including psychological and disclosure
dangers, for both the social workers and the researchers from their participation
emerged for consideration, for instance around how to protect confidentiality of
respondents in such a small authority. Humphries (2007) refers to the tensions
amongst stakeholders when they hold competing objectives, for instance about
the use of findings to inform policy and practice. Here, the extent to which social
workers were able to make an uncoerced choice about whether or not to
participate in the research was affected by a number of issues. The research was
commissioned by their employer and was presented as a critical plank in the
development of services for young people. Social workers knew that not taking
part would be seen as obstructive. The issue here is the extent to which an
employer has the right to demand staff participation, and whether ethical
research is prejudiced where participants feel that they have little choice about
whether they engage. While it is clear that managers have a duty to provide
services that are as good as possible, and therefore must have a duty to gather
information on which to base service provision decisions, the rights of staff are
less clear and therefore the onus is the greater on researchers of non-
maleficence, of avoiding harm (Butler 2002) in situations where the interests
of managers and social workers do not coincide.
Report or Action-oriented Research
Social workers did not appear to have much faith in their managers, as the
following quotation illustrates:
I dont think managers at the basic level get to manage properly. They are not
given the time, the opportunity to manage us . . . Anything that we seem to do is
still crisis level. We cannot plan anything . . . They [first-line managers] are too
integrated into the higher levels of management . . . their role [should be] more
operational . . .
The mandate from the commissioning agency was to provide information through
a sequence of interim and final reports. The research was not conceived as an
action research project and the researchers did not negotiate a mandate to work
for organizational change. When faced with the extent of disillusionment within
the organization, the question facing the researchers was whether, and if so how,
to act either as emissaries for the research participants to the commissioners
(Grinyer 2001) or as mediators in this dyad. The researchers wanted the voice of
young people and their parents to be heard. However, they were uncertain of the
degree to which their responsibility included connecting people to their
organizations (Dombeck & Olsan 2007) so that problems could be aired, and
doubted their ability to use the research as an opportunity to engage in social
change in this institution, partly because of how the research had been
established and partly because of the pain and anxiety that existed at different
levels within the agency.
Moreover, maintaining confidentiality and ensuring that participants could not
be identified (unless they gave prior permission) in written and/or verbal reports
was a fundamental ethical commitment made to participants. While this poses
few problems in academic publications, it does create difficulties in research
carried out and reported to one department. Where people know each other well
it can be difficult to anonymize data sufficiently for such data to be
unattributable. Yet omitting these data might reduce the value of the research
to commissioners and, ultimately, to client groups. The researchers used a
steering group, which included social workers and service users, to advise on
whether cases and/or workers might be identifiable in draft reports, but this in
itself constituted a breach of confidentiality if cases and/or staff were
Finding the Edge of Practice
Since the client group consisted of vulnerable children and their families, the
commitment to confidentiality explicitly excluded any information provided
about actions by social workers, which could place a child or family at significant
risk of harm. While there was much good practice in the department, examples
were not infrequent of lack of care and concern about young people and their
families, lack of adequate records and inadequate professional knowledge and
analysis of practice in relation to cases for which social workers were
responsible. For example, one young person had a score on the adolescent
well-being scale that was predictive of a depressive disorder but the social
worker disregarded this finding, saying that the young person was seeking
attention and had refused child and adolescent mental health services in the
past. One young person referred to bullying by residential workers but did not
want this information disclosed to social workers for fear that it would
jeopardize plans for independent living. In another case, concerns arose about
the likelihood of a young person abusing other children in different settings. One
social worker refused to act on the basis that it was not their case; another did
not include this information in a research interview but the residential worker
did in the context of feeling unable to share the information with social services.
Decisions were not easy in relation to the point at which poor practice puts
children at such risk that confidentiality should be breached. The overriding
reasons to disclose might not always be clear (Grinyer 2001). In practice the
researchers relied on early reporting of anonymized failures to meet their ethical
obligations, but was this good enough? In reality the researchers were working
with a department under considerable strain and in retrospect (and even at the
time) it seemed unlikely that positive actions would be taken to address the
relationship, procedural and structural failures that were reported.
Some members of the research team, from a utilitarian viewpoint, argued that
continuing the research and not prejudicing the collaboration of the social
worker participants would enable the project to provide data on which
improvements to services for all children could be built. Others believed that
the safe edge of practice had been crossed and that the department had become
dangerous, such that disclosure to regulatory bodies should be made.
To Research or Not to Research?
The splits that emerged in the research team, around the validity of the data
collected and ultimately the integrity of the project, mirrored the splits in the
organization that had commissioned and hosted the research. Psychodynamic
and systemic theories recognize that dysfunction in one system can evoke
disturbance in another adjacent system, through a process known as
re-enactment, mirroring or parallel process (Preston-Shoot & Agass 1990). The
split based on this mirroring most clearly emerged when the researchers
discussed whether to terminate the project. Whilst the tangle was not fully
appreciated at the time, and whilst it did not undermine the teams work, it was
both a source of information about the agency where the research was located
and about unresolved anxieties, needs, disappointments, and relationships in one
or other, or both systems.
Ending as Another Beginning
Guidance (DH 2005) suggests that substantive changes to research projects
should be submitted for ethical review and sponsors agreement. The commis-
sioning agency, as represented by senior managers, did agree to the researchers
proposal that the project be suspended. Moreover, it is arguable that the nature
of the contract between the research team and the commissioning agency would
have allowed the researchers to withdraw on the basis that the project was being
frustrated. This is a term from contract law to recognize that problems may
arise that cannot be eliminated and that render it impossible to complete the
proposed work in a context where renewed planning is unlikely to resolve the
outstanding concerns.
However, deciding whether or not to continue or to withdraw from research,
which is of potential benefit, is not straightforward because in itself it is an
ethical issue (Gallagher et al. 1995). Not surprisingly, then, the research team
remained divided even after the decision was made. Gaps in knowledge about
outcomes and professional intervention, coupled with the objective of providing
data to inform service improvement and the recognition of the vulnerability of
looked-after young people, had to be balanced against the vulnerability of other
respondents, especially social workers, and concerns about the safety of social
work and research practice in this agency context. Ultimately, the researchers
took the view that gaps in knowledge could be rectified more effectively once
the organization commissioning the research was better able to move forward.
Nonetheless, the way the contract was originally set up continued to create
difficulties, leaving the researchers holding a conflict of interest between their
obligations to participants and their sponsors. Different codes of conduct
highlight the need for researchers to debrief or disseminate the findings of
research to the participants (SRA 2003; BPS 2006). The research governance
framework (DH 2005) also names as the sponsors responsibility the making of
appropriate plans for the dissemination of research findings. However, the
department did not initially release the reports prepared on stage 2 or respond to
the researchers request for clarification about how and when the reports could
be released, which was triggered by a request from one social worker and one
service provider for further information on the findings.
Equally, the researchers struggled with how to explain to participants the
reasons behind their withdrawal, at least temporarily, when practitioners,
managers and families must continue to work together. The question here is
how to balance justice, or dealing fairly, with non-maleficence or the avoidance
of harm. This is similar to the ethical issue, again based on a concern about the
potentially deleterious effects of disclosure on the relationships between
families and social workers, of declaring explicitly and precisely all details of a
research project when providing information. The researchers justified their
decision to circulate a summary of the findings and to link postponement to the
pending inquiry report, knowledge of which was widely known, by reference to
the principle of avoiding harm, which fuller disclosure of the agency context was
likely to cause.
Concluding Discussion
Hardwick and Hardwick (2007) suggest that situation ethics will illuminate an
understanding of complex processes and allow for values to guide how a
relationship of care should be expressed. They place considerable store on the
researchers ethical maxims and on openness to listening to the situation as key
signposts in searching for an appropriate response. However, ethical models and
codifications of values differ within and across professions, such that how and
when to intervene may not appear straightforward. Equally, as demonstrated in
this paper, other sources of knowledge may prove helpful signposts.
Gallagher and colleagues (1995) offer two suggestions to researchers for when
research in practice becomes ethically complex. The first is referral back to a
research ethics committee. This may provide an opportunity for critical
reflection by virtue of the committees detachment. However, research govern-
ance structures in the agency at the time of the project were limited and the
project itself had received ethical approval through the universitys own
structures and from senior managers in the organization hosting the research.
Thus, referral back in this instance seemed to offer little. In practice, the
outcome of any referral would also have been affected by two factors. Firstly,
the degree to which any committee was risk averse, oriented towards minimizing
organizational risk (Israel & Hay 2006). Secondly, by how procedural ethics,
achieving sound processes at the outset, were balanced against ethics in
practice, the complexity of issues surrounding participants in an organization
in crisis. Outcomes would also be affected by the ethical literacy of the
committee, and the ethical frameworks it privileged, which may or may not be
transparent. Ethical committees with a member who is a professional ethicist are
rare but including one could inform ethical decision making. Perhaps consulting
an ethics committee on issues arising in the process of the research might be
useful, if the emphasis is on consultation rather than giving the power to make a
decision to the committee. As members of ethical committees are usually
experienced researchers it is difficult to justify privileging their views where
equally experienced researchers are doing the research.
Their second suggestion is to utilize steering groups. The researchers had
brought together a steering group for this project, comprising a senior manager,
two social workers, a looked-after young person, foster carers, and residential
workers and managers. Looking at the composition of this group, to varying
degrees members were part of the problematic dynamics about which the
researchers had become increasingly concerned. Some issues were discussed in
the group, such as how to ensure the safety of researchers when visiting
participant families in their own homes, how to preserve confidentiality for
participants in a small authority in reports prepared for the agency, and how to
secure the co-operation of social workers. However, issues of trust in what the
researchers came to see as an unsafe and conflicted environment, the possible
impact of the inquiry findings, and the concerns about practice standards felt
increasingly difficult to raise. Perhaps this was out of (misplaced) loyalty or
protection to especially the senior manager and the social workers in the group.
Perhaps it derived from the researchers increasing awareness of covert alliances
and relationships in the agency. Perhaps there was a growing sense that key parts
of the organization were not represented and thus the steering group did not
have sufficient authority to intervene. Thus, the researchers decision to suspend
the research and to withhold data dissemination until after the inquiry findings
had been published and worked through was not shared with the group.
As with Gallagher and colleagues (1995), ultimately pragmatic considerations,
informed by a systemic and psychodynamic understanding of organizations in
difficulty, guided the decision to suspend the project. Promoting the well-being
of young people and their families by disseminating data about practice
outcomes had to be weighed against the capacity of the sponsoring organization
to make use of the findings at a time of crisis and the ability of the researchers to
engage all the participants sufficiently to ensure the integrity of the researchs
design. Ethical codes and the researchers professional values, ethical research
in theory, helped to shape understanding and action. The researchers sought to
apply ethical principles in their management of day-to-day relationships with
project participants, ethical research in practice. However, the crucial dilemmas
for this project occupied a different space, ethical research in-between (Jenness
& Grattet 2005). How ethical research theory, as embodied in codes and
professional values, was translated into practice was worked through by drawing
on experience and knowledge, and was affected by the growing appreciation of
the environment in which the researchers found themselves. It was also affected
by the perviousness of different layers in this organization and their susceptibility
to engagement with ethical research, project objectives and critical perspec-
tives on policy and practice. Arguably, codes are less helpful for ethics in-
between, this space between theory and front-line practice, where maintaining
sound processes and achieving successful outcomes confront responses to
practice complexities.
Put another way, codes fail to solve situational ethical issues in the field
(Grinyer 2001). Social work research has the practice of social work as its
operational domain (Butler 2002), with all its dilemmas and conflicting
imperatives. This renders universal principles of limited value. Rather, it requires
an ethical literacy which enables problem solving (Girling 2007) based on
understanding, informed by an appreciation of what constitutes ethical research
and management of problems ethically, but developed and applied in a unique
context. This is one aspect of the reflective researcher (Banks 2006), taking a
critical stance towards practice via dialogue and questioning.
This article has not discussed other ethical dilemmas which arose in this
project and which frequently challenge researchers (see Gallagher et al. 1995),
such as how to obtain informed consent from young people and parents, and
what information to provide when seeking this consent about project focus and
aims, which could be seen as casting doubt either on the ability of social services
to safeguard and promote the welfare of children, or on the likelihood of families
being able to respond appropriately to the needs of children. One aim here has
been to explore a problem about which the research literature has been
conspicuously silent but which judicial reviews, ombudsman investigations, and
research and inquiry evidence (e.g. Horwath 2000; Machin 1998) continue to
expose, namely unlawful and/or unethical and/or unprofessional relationships
and practices. Another aim has been to focus on researching research as a source
of learning. Ethical research is not just something on which to focus when seeking
approval for a project (Israel & Hay 2006). Admittedly, greater attention should
be paid when reviewing the fitness of the organization that is hosting the
research and the contractual negotiations between all the parties. However, the
essential message from the experience reported in this article is that greater
attention needs to be given to how researchers behave after project approval
and to how the ethical demands of research in-between, the translation of
principles into a project, and then research in practice respond to the unfolding
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