Rethinking Vulnerability and Sensitivity

Research ethics committees are very concerned with the potential vulnerability and sensitivity of research participants. So far, so laudable – but I don’t think they show their concern in particularly useful ways. Gaining formal approval from a research ethics committee is a hoop many researchers have to jump through, but then the real work of ethics begins.

For most research ethics committees, vulnerability is an attribute of some groups and not others. Groups who may be deemed to be vulnerable include children, older people, or adults with learning disabilities. These categories are specified by UKRI who oversee government-funded research in the UK. But if you look at this in more detail, it doesn’t stand up. Take children. Say a competent 14-year-old is a young carer for their single parent who lives with severe and enduring mental health problems and drinks alcohol all day. Which of those two people might be better able to give informed consent to the child taking part in research? Conversely, people are not necessarily vulnerable because they are older. President Biden is 79 and I can’t imagine him being seen as vulnerable. Learning disabilities don’t necessarily make people vulnerable either, as some of my dyslexic friends would no doubt agree.

Vulnerability is not an attribute, it is a state we all move into and out of in different ways. The start of the Covid-19 pandemic made this abundantly clear. Quite suddenly we were all vulnerable to illness, perhaps death; to increased anxiety; to fear for loved ones who fell sick; to bereavement. Heads of state were no safer than ordinary people living in apartments or suburbs, and researchers were every bit as vulnerable as their participants. Perhaps one small positive side-effect of the pandemic is this: we can see more clearly that we are all vulnerable to changing circumstances resulting in trouble or trauma. Which does not mean we are all vulnerable all the time – but that any of us may be, or may become, vulnerable at any time. As researchers, I think it is essential for us to be aware of this, and ready to face and manage it when it occurs.

Vulnerability and sensitivity have something in common. Just as it is not possible to predict from group membership who is and is not vulnerable, so it is not possible to predict who will and will not be upset by a topic. Of course some topics are likely to be upsetting: female genital mutilation, suicide, sex work, and so on. And we need to put whatever precautions we can in place if we are investigating topics like these, that are evidently sensitive: to make the experience as safe as possible for our participants, and for ourselves. But we cannot be sure that everyone will find these topics equally sensitive; there are people who can take such topics in their stride.

Conversely, some people may be upset by apparently innocuous topics. Suppose a market researcher is investigating people’s perceptions of homewares. In one interview, the researcher asks their question about teapots, and realises their participant is struggling to hold back tears. The participant explains that the last gift ever given to them by their beloved mother, who died exactly one year ago, was a teapot. Perfectly plausible; impossible to foresee.

So, we can’t always predict everything everyone will be sensitive about, and we shouldn’t pretend we can. But, again, we need to equip ourselves with the mental and emotional intelligence and dexterity to be able to deal with the unexpected. Because if there is one thing we can predict, it is that at times we will face the unpredictable.

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