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Protecting human subjects in qualitative research

Doing a class assignment vs. your own research project

The fieldwork you are doing in this course is an “instructional assignment.” The purpose of the assignment is to help you learn something about doing field research, which is not quite the same thing as “doing field research.” If the work you were doing were a research project per se, the purpose would be to develop new knowledge that you could and would communicate to other researchers and the public. Hopefully, your fieldwork assignments will lead you to some new knowledge, but your fieldwork assignment does not extend to making public reports.  To the contrary, the only reports you should be making about the field work assignments you complete for this class are the oral reports you make in class and the papers you turn in to your instructor or share with other students in the course.

The distinction between an “instructional assignment” that involves field work and a bona fide project of field research is an important one in several respects: First, as an instructional assignment, the instructor is responsible for how your field work is designed and evaluated. Among the more important instructor guidelines are (a) a requirement that students conceal the identity of research subjects; and (b) refrain from sharing identifying details of their own field assignments (or the assignments of any other students) with people who are not enrolled in the class.  Second, the audience for your research is the class itself–not the larger public.  These audience and access restrictions are important for two quite different reasons:  (a) they hopefully create a safe place for students to experiment with different ideas about their field work observations and interviews, a kind of experimentation that is essential to enriched understanding; and (b) they provide a safeguard against potential reputational harm to the people students observe and interview as part of these assignments.

Three key principles

If you were conducting fieldwork as part of an independent research project, and not as a class assignment that you instructor is supervising, you would need to file an application with the UC Davis Committee on the Protection of Human Subject’s, IRB (Institutional Review Board). In that application, you would describe the purposes of your study, your research methods, the potential risks that these might involve for the people you are proposing to study, and how you intend to minimize these risks.  You would also need to describe how you would ensure that people could freely choose whether or not they want to participate as subjects in your study. Assuming you did a good job of describing all this, and the risks to subjects were relatively low compared to the value of what you might learn through, the Committee would approve your “protocol” and you could then proceed with your research.

If you are completing a field assignment for a class, you don’t need to file an application with the IRB, but you do need to follow some guidelines I’ve established for ensuring that your field work minimizes risks to the people you are observing or interviewing and that it also reflects three key principles: (1) respect for persons as autonomous individuals; (2) beneficence; and (3) justice. As spelled out in the “Belmont Report” (1978), these three principles serve as a foundation for current thinking about the protection of human subjects, at least some of which has been codified in government and institutional regulations. 

Guidelines for the interview and field observation assignments in this course

We will discuss throughout the quarter how these three principles might apply to different forms of fieldwork. We will also try to follow some specific guidelines.  Along those lines, please share the following information with the people you would like to observe or interview. If these guidelines are agreeable to them, proceed with the observation or interview.  If the person does not find these guidelines agreeable, look for someone else to interview or observe, or consult with me about making other provisions.



    1. I am a student at UC Davis. I am doing this fieldwork as a class assignment for a course in qualitative research that is taught by Jon Wagner for the School of Education. If you have questions or concerns about this assignment, you can contact the course instructor:

    Jon Wagner, School of Education, UC Davis, Davis, CA  95616

    PH: 530-752-5387 Email:

    2. Privacy and confidentiality: I will not attribute anything I observe or hear during this fieldwork assignment to particular persons. In preparing reports based on my observations and interviews I will remove or conceal any references to your identity. The reports I prepare will be shared with the instructor of this course. Following the instructor’s guidelines for ensuring privacy and confidentiality, some parts of my reports may also be shared with other students taking the course this quarter or in the future.

    3. To go ahead with this observation or interview, I need to know that you are willing to participate and that your choice to do so is entirely voluntary. Along those lines, you can choose to not answer any questions I ask, and you can choose to end the interview at any point. If you ask me to stop observing, taking notes or interviewing, I will stop. Does all this sound agreeable to you?  If so, let’s move ahead.  If not, let me know what your concerns are so we can examine those before we get started.


Who should know what about what in this course?

The table below summarizes the kinds of information that different groups of people involved with this course should have about each other if students follow course guidelines in preparing reports based on their field observations and interviews:

    . . . will have access to


    . . . will not have access to


    Individual students enrolled in this course...

    The names of people they observe or interview personally

    The identity of other people named in the interview they conduct

    The identity of people named as responsible for particular functions

    The identity of other students conducting interviews


    The names of people interviewed or observed by other students in the class

    The identity of other people named in interviews or observations conducted by other students

    Other members of the class...

    The identity of people named in other interviews as responsible for particular functions

    The identity of other students conducting interviews


    The names of people interviewed by other students in the class

    The identity of other people named in interviews conducted by other students


    (Including people being interviewed or observed)

    The name of the student who interviews them (if they are interviewed)

    The name of the course instructor and the name of the course


    The identity of other students conducting interviews

    The names of other people interviewed by students in the class

    The identity of other people named in other interviews conducted by students in the class

    The identity of people named in interviews as responsible for particular functions

Using assignments for this course in other research projects

Many students have asked, “After completing this class, if I conduct a research project of my own design, and I want to use data from this class as part of that project, how could I go about doing that?” You have two options for using the observations and interviews completed as class assignments for a bona fide research project: 

    (1) You can go back to the people you observed or interviewed and ask for their informed consent to use the observations and interviews you’ve already conducted as data for your new research project.  Keep in mind that for consent to be well “informed,” these people would have to understand the purposes and methods proposed for your new project and how the materials would be used.  You can’t really get their informed consent for this now because you have not yet designed that project.  However, as soon as you had an approved design for a project involving the kinds of interview and observations you’ve already conducted, you could solicit informed consent form the people you’ve already interviewed and observed.

    (2) You can treat the interview and observations you’ve already conducted as a form of “existing data” that you want to use for purposes other than those for which it was collected.  In this case, the data in question were “collected” as a course requirement and used to evaluate and guide your work as a student.  To use this data for purposes of a research project, you would need to include a section about this “existing data” within your application to the campus Human Subjects Committee, or IRB.  For that component, you would need to describe what risks might be involved for subjects if you used this data, how those risks would be minimized, and so on.  Depending on the kind of information involved and the kinds of protections you could build in, you might be able to use your interview or observations without having to go back to your original subjects and ask for their consent. 

In general, the higher the potential risk, the greater the possibility for identifying particular people, and the greater the differences in purpose between your initial class assignment and your proposed study, the more likely it is that you would need to ask subjects explicitly for permission to use the materials you’ve already acquired.