Ethics of Fieldwork


Like it or not, campus-community partnerships carry some risk. Entering an unfamiliar environment, we can put ourselves or others in harm’s way.

The greatest risk may be to the community partners. For example, a student placed at an HIV treatment center or a shelter for battered women immediately learns information that can put other individuals at risk.

Consider the Following:

  • Community members will only seek services at agencies where they feel safe.
    • If a partner from campus is careless with personal information, the agency loses and the community loses.
  • Revealing personal information can have very serious effects.
    • Agencies often focus on helping individuals with very sensitive issues. Sensitive information includes, for example:
      • HIV status
      • religious beliefs
      • sexual history
      • where someone lives
      • information about drug use
      • information about prescribed medications
    • Revealing sensitive information can affect family and social relationships. It can cause someone to lose access to health insurance and health care. It can also cause someone to lose a job.
    • Abusers may be actively searching for information about those they have abused. This means that breaching confidentiality on the bus, talking on a cell phone in public, on a website or in a campus newspaper could have very bad effects.
    • Simply put, it is important to respect privacy and keep information confidential.
  • We each have responsibility for what we bring.
    • Think about how your behavior affects others. Learn about the culture of the community you are working with. For example, how you dress can affect how people react to you.
    • What behaviors would be disruptive or disrespectful at your community placement? Are these the same behaviors that would be disruptive or disrespectful on campus or in the community where you grew up?
  • Even simple research tools such as questionnaires and interviews can cause harm.
    • Asking questions can be disruptive. It can cause people to doubt their lives, or to re-live difficult events and feelings. It can interrupt routines in good ways or in bad ways. Consider how what you do might affect the people you encounter.
  • The IRB (Institutional Review Board) is experienced at helping researchers identify and avoid risk.
    • The IRB provides support to research projects, so pick their brains!