I posted this in my research course forum in relation to a personal experience related by a classmate, who had been an unknowing laboratory rat some years back:
What those students did was truly, outrightly disrespectful and unethical. Unfortunately, this “end-justifies-the-means” thinking and practice seems prevalent even in the development field. The deception is more subtly executed, of course, than how you experienced it–which I believe actually makes the infringement on the subjects’ rights even worse. I have heard of community members’ complaints about having been “consulted” or interviewed for studies or proposed projects that they never hear about again after they gave all the information they could regarding their own lives. The violation is even more remarkable with children, who ironically get “studied” — sometimes even asked to repeat their stories of abuse/deprivation over and over — toward the expressed end of finding patterns and possible recommendations for the protection of their rights. As I mentioned in a previous post, social work researchers always run the risk of adopting a paradigm that excuses the violation of a few for the perceived “common good.” In keeping with the definition of social work, however (again I’m including here the link to the IFSW site that gives said definition), one cannot choose which rights to protect and whose well being to look after; a social worker—and a social work researcher, for that matter—ought to be a protector of the rights and pursuer of the well being of all.
Since research, specifically social work research, is intended to work toward improving the well being of people, it is the people who ultimately own the data that are derived from them, and therefore it is an imperative for a social work researcher to see people as participants and not mere subjects of studies. Here, again, practitioners can be quite manipulative (and subtly so); I have seen actual organizations whose definition of “participatory research” is simply ensuring the representation of various stakeholder groups in a research sample. “Participation,” therefore, is equated to being mobilized as respondents (read: still mere subjects) instead of realized through a genuine involvement of the people that enables/allows them to ask the research questions that are relevant to them; enables them to develop their own (culturally appropriate, relevant) tools for research; and facilitates the process in which they themselves can find the answers to their questions.
In reality, of course, the ideal of undertaking a truly participatory research has probably not been met by anyone as of yet, or perhaps have been met by a mere handful of researchers. As we strive to move toward it, we are at the very least expected to conduct our research process with the utmost possible adherence to ethics, especially as we are mindful of our role as social workers pursuing the well being of our fellow people.