You can ethically conduct research, even on sensitive topics.

1. Be respectful of persons, their culture, and their institutions.

As an underlying principle, you are required to treat people as valuable and worthy of trust. This brings up issues of your personal  ethnocentricity and prejudices, potential favouritism toward some individuals, and your bias toward some viewpoints.

Clearly, you do not need to agree with everything that people say and do, and you could be exposed to practices that may be seen as grossly immoral. Nevertheless, your starting point is your respect toward them.


2. Get people's permission if they are to be your informants.

You only need to need to ask them orally; in fact anything more might make them suspicious or act unnaturally. For example, "I'm new here and I'm learning your culture. I don't understand some things. Could you help me please?" (Of course you'd adapt the example to your situation.) Then, as much as possible, keep interviews to friendly conversations and make notes immediately afterwards, not during the conversation. Technically these are called "free informal interviews". They also enhance your security.

Some interviewees give permission to be quoted with their names, especially on matters that are not sensitive and perhaps enhance their prestige. You can reference them fully as formal interviews.

In some countries, privacy laws require you to obtain the written consent of informants, but the general trend this that this does not apply to free informal interviews if you keep specific identities confidential.

Some topics become impractical if laws require you to disclose fully the nature of the research project for getting informants' or subjects' permission. In many cases, providing that information is just unscientific, because it predisposes people toward particular responses, making your conclusions invalid.


3. Do not make identities public without their explicit consent.

Keep people’s personal information private and confidential unless they have authorized its release. This is also a legal requirement under privacy laws.

Unless you have explicit consent, you should keep informant's quotes anonymous in the final work, and maintain the integrity of the informants' information by keeping it distinct from your analysis and comments.

Readers should not be able to identify your informants from the way you have written about them. Informants might also validly perceive audio or video recordings to be a risk. "What if someone recognizes my voice? Or sees my face?" 

It is generally better simply to add a note in your introduction that informants are not identified for ethical reasons. You might find pseudonyms helpful.

However, you should record identities (as much as you know), places, and times of interviews in your field notes. These records are helpful when you need to establish the authenticity of your field information with your supervisor, but these records must then be handled according to security procedures.

Similarly, you may not mention in a public document an organization by name without its permission unless its activities are on public record in the location of their activities. Some organizations need to operate out of the public eye, and being mentioned in a public document may endanger their personnel or their activities.


4. Protect the interests of your research subjects.

First, avoid any way in which informants' cooperation and personal information could be used against them. In some cases, people can be arrested and imprisoned based on your information.  For example, Spradley's ethnography of the homeless in the US could have been used to arrest many of his informants had it been published locally. The danger is even greater in countries with oppressive regimes or persecution policies.

Your research could lead you to knowledge of illegal activities. Your commitment to your informants generally means that you should prefer to protect their interests. In some cases, you might even need to pull the plug on your research to protect a victim. Besides, simply by being present and observing an illegal act may lead you to be deemed an accomplice.

Second, your research, including your relationships with informants and any means used to acquire information, may not be exploitative, or seen to be so. Besides the obvious problems of inappropriate relationships (e.g. romantic entanglements), your information gathering gives you the ability to become power-broker or mediator, which is a potentially exploitive position. You also have a duty to protect them from exploitation.

Third, maintain a safe environment for yourself and others. Kind of obvious, with the emphasis on WHS and the current aversion to risk.


5. Your information must accurately reflect your sources.

Your reporting needs to be honest and representative of what you have observed, read, and heard. You need to protect the intellectual property of authors, informants, colleagues and research assistants.

The list of prohibitions is more illustrative of the kinds of potential problems:


6. You may not use deceptive means to obtain information.

While it is normal to select information that you should disclose, you may not provide misinformation.