‘Human subject’ as a term still found in articles discussing ethics, or ‘participant observation’ from ethnographic literature hint at the source of some of my troubles this week. There have been a host of different people who have wittingly or otherwise become involved as my research has unfolded. How should I refer to them in my thesis? Subjects? Participants? Respondents? Informants? We are not short of terms and can go on from there to include interviewees, co-researchers, collaborators and many more. To some extent, it depends upon the research tradition within which your research is located. For example the British Sociological Association ethics guidance refers to research participants, as indeed does that from the British Psychological Society. The move away from talking about research ‘subjects’ acknowledges the agency that someone invited to participate in research has in determining their level of involvement and respects the contribution they make to the research endeavour. However, the term ‘human subject’ still persists in many disciplines and still forms one of the criteria used in decision-making processes when considering one’s ethical approach: ‘Does the research involve human subjects?’
As I’ve been writing my drafts, I’ve lurched from term to term. In discussing formal and informal interviews, I’ve used both interviewee and respondent, whereas when considering forays ‘in the field,’ key informants and participants have popped up in my writing. I need to firm this up as I move through to more developed drafts, but more importantly, I need to use terms which the people behind those general terms feel comfortable with. The most appropriate default term in social sciences is participant, but are all ‘participants’ equal?
Morse (1991) provides a starting point with four different terms:
- Subject is often used in experimental studies where those involved are ‘pawns’ in the research.
- Respondent is a term used for those who answer survey designs, providing nothing more than was asked for in the questions.
- Informant arose in anthropology and acknowledged the naivety of the researcher in regards to the culture of interest. A ‘key’ informant might be a primary link, gatekeeper to the community, or someone with specialised knowledge.
- Participant indicates the most active role in which people are considered contributors to the research endeavour.
There is a sense of hierarchy here, where, as we move down the list, those co-opted into the research have greater agency in determining the output of the research. There are some who point out however, that whatever participants contribute, the researcher is the one who interprets the information generated. Even where partial or complete thoughts are offered back to participants for their feedback, the one who authors the final article or thesis is the researcher. This power imbalance between researcher and researched is difficult to overcome.
Furedy (2007) distinguishes between participants and subjects by claiming the former make an epistemological contribution to the research; they are key contributors in the generation of knowledge. In stating:
Subjects, on the other hand, whether they are animal or human, make no epistemological contribution…
It made me think about my participants and their epistemological contributions. I’ve been blessed by people participating in my research in a number of different and unanticipated, less conventional ways. They’ve commented on my research blog posts, retweeted some of my tweets, tweeted some things for me where I was reticent (like linking to my blog posts), offered to be interviewed, tweeted me blog posts and articles they thought might inform my research, and all voluntarily and unprompted. As a result, I’ve become aware of information about which I would have been completely oblivious without these additional eyes and ears. Some might ask whether these people are advocates for Twitter and are keen for it to be portrayed in a positive light; I’d argue to the contrary and from what I see, they are mostly sceptical, seeing both positives and negatives. What then would be an appropriate term to describe their involvement in the research? Participant doesn’t quite seem to do the job. Some have used the term co-researcher, particularly in respect of research which sets out to be ‘participatory’ (Bergold and Thomas, 2012) though here, the intent from the outset is to solicit the involvement of participants who will fulfil the role of co-researcher; the study has been designed as such. Co-researchers may even be involved in the design process, prior to collection, analysis and interpretation of the data, and finally production of a report. Different levels of involvement are possible, indicated by the power co-researchers have in determining the outcomes (Arnstein, 1969). I have to confess that I didn’t set my study up that way. I never went out and sought people who would undertake certain roles; I know only too well how time-poor most educators are and certainly felt pangs of guilt even when asking them to spare an hour for an interview. In what unfolded, people contributed if and when they felt able, at times to suit them and on their own terms. There was hopefully less sense of obligation or commitment, and rather one of professional interest and support. (And having just written that, I wonder whether the term ‘contributor’ or ‘collaborator’ might better describe the role?)
With any degree of participation, but particularly if the status of co-researcher is invoked, we are obliged to reflect on whether those people ought to be credited within the publication which results. Are they also co-authors? There might now be an ethical conflict if, as in some research with more vulnerable participants, their anonymity needs to be preserved. The crediting of authorship has been an issue I’ve wrestled with for a while. In a recent presentation where I wanted to provide examples of data in the form of tweets and blog posts for example, I contacted the authors of said content, explained what I wanted to do and sought their permission. I’ve always believed that even a tweet of 140 characters has been authored and person responsible deserves to be given the option to be credited. If, as in the case of a tweet, the contribution is the form of content, then there’s something concrete to refer to, but what about when a contribution is intangible (like suggestions, hyperlinks and pointers)? How to credit then?
I’d like to conclude by returning the earlier quote from Furedy which rather jolted my sociomaterial sensibility. ‘Animal or human.’ What about the epistemological contribution of the nonhumans I wondered? Leaving aside the potentially emotive discussion of animals in research for a moment, I’m not going to claim that nonhumans should be part of our ethical discussions; they’re not likely to care whether we call them subjects or participants. Actor-network theory troubles the dichotomous distinctions of subject and object or researcher and researched. If we think instead of the assemblage of which the research output is part, then the researcher/participant/interviewee, the media through which they interact, the data they generate, the reflections which are made and the texts which emerge, all influence one another. They are all entangled or interwoven, jointly responsible, more or less, in the production of the thesis, book or article. The output is not seen as the culmination of a linear sequence of events in which different actors participated at different times, but as an interwoven, performed assemblage. Named or not, all those who contributed to or collaborated in my research will be present in my thesis assemblage, intimately bound there by virtue of their ontological contribution. The thesis will be what it is because of the actors present. If one is substituted with another, then it will be enacted differently and will be a different thesis. Participant, contributor or co-researcher? How would you prefer to be known?
Arnstein, S. R. (1969). A ladder of citizen participation. Journal of the American Institute of planners, 35(4), 216-224.
Bergold, J., & Thomas, S. (2012). Participatory research methods: A methodological approach in motion. Historical Social Research/Historische Sozialforschung, 191-222.
Furedy, J., Subjects vs Participants. [Online comment responding to an article] Retrieved from https://www.psychologicalscience.org/observer/subjects-vs-participants
Morse, J. (1991). Subjects, respondents, informants, and participants?. Qualitative Health Research, 1(4), 403-406.