Informed Consent

In her fourth year at Brennan, Esther was finally granted the permission to run an ethnography unit. She had mentioned her desire to teach ethnography back when they first hired her. But her contract then had only been for ten months and she, a new, shiny, untried member of staff. Her contract had been renewed three times since then and she was no longer untried, shiny or even very new. In these times of normalised precarity, Esther knew her repeated fixed term contracts were, if not the envy of many, at least an improvement upon hourly paid teaching. And now she had ethnography.


Her plan was a follows: the students would do and write an ethnography. This meant urban participant observation in the city of Brennan. They would choose a fieldsite: The Wharf, Wolf Alley, Chapel Green, the Cathedral for example and spend at least five hours a week for five weeks getting to know the feel of the place, the rhythms, the movements of the people. They would write the observations in their fieldnote diaries (red moleskin diaries Esther had received teaching funding for) and bring them to class and share the challenges of fieldwork with their fellow students. It was a golden opportunity for students to interact with the city they lived in and see another side to it; other people and different histories. Ten students had signed up. A golden number for a research-intensive unit and perfect for intimate and supportive conversations.


The week before term started, Esther received an email from the Chair of the Ethics Committee.

Dear Esther,

I hear that you are planning on having fieldwork as part of your Ethnography module. As long as the students are only engaged in observational work, this will be fine. But any interaction on the part of the student with their environment/people will risk breaching Brennan’s ethical rules. Our undergraduate students are not fully equipped or trained to deal with the real-life challenges of doing participant-observational research.

Let me know if you want to discuss any of this further.

Best wishes,



Esther liked Patricia. Patricia was the first colleague Esther met on her arrival into the rarefied and elite halls of Brennan who made her feel welcome and normal. Esther replied requesting a face to face meeting. Esther’s experience at Brennan had taught her that face to face meetings resolved (most) issues quicker than the relentless ad-nauseum back and forth of emails. A meeting was scheduled for the next day. Esther knew that for her ethnography unit to have any chance of including participant-observation in it and not just observation, she would need to marshal excellent reasons for why this should happen, but most importantly a framework for enabling it to happen. First she called the Anthropology department at Brennan asking a senior Professor how the anthropologists taught their students participant observation and made them aware of issues around informed consent. The senior Professor she spoke to was clear: the anthropology students did not do any form of fieldwork till their third year dissertations when they had to all submit the standard ethics forms for approval. ‘No fieldwork at all?’ Esther asked in astonishment. ‘Well the core methods unit they do in second year is about them walking around the city, but they do that much more from a material culture perspective and so don’t engage with any people.’  People it seemed posed an insurmountable problem for the Brennan ethics committee, buildings in contrast did not.


Esther’s next call was to a former member of Brennan staff now working at a funky, much newer and less elite university in London. The department was known to be innovative about all things ethnographic and Esther had no doubt they had come across and addressed multiple issues around ethnography, the ethics of informed consent and student skill (or lack thereof). She was not wrong. Their urban ethnography unit was flourishing and engaging, with little to no ethical oversight. When hearing about Esther’s ethics issues, Milly just laughed: ‘so typically Brennan to make things as difficult as possible’ she commiserated. ‘The tragedy being that if you don’t get this passed the ethics committee the students will miss a wonderful opportunity, probably the most exciting learning opportunity of their entire student careers.’ No pressure then, thought Esther.


Sitting opposite Patricia the following day Esther suggested the following:

  • Students would fill out ethics forms detailing their fieldsites, times they planned to be there, supply emergency contact details and would sign an agreement to engage (where appropriate) in oral informed consent with participants.
  • A week of the course would be dedicated to ethics (University related, subject specific and linked to case study reading).
  • Ethics and the need for informed consent would be critically explored. The ethics form students had to sign would be one of the starting points for ethical discussions.
  • A walking tour of the fieldsites would be engaged in and the ethics forms signed at the end and handed to Patricia for approval.
  • Any problems that arose from this would be the responsibility of Esther.

Patricia agreed that these were all sensible solutions, though did quibble over the oral informed consent as opposed to written consent. Esther pointed out that it was simply not feasible to ask every person walking past you on the street for written consent as they were, quite literally, just walking past you. It ran the risk of students being mistaken for market researchers. Both agreed that this should be avoided at all costs. The conversation about informed consent evolved into a discussion about the politics of oral versus written consent. Esther knew she had won. The argument had become academic rather than about student competency. On her way out of the office Esther did an internal victory cartwheel down the hall. Her ten students would do actual practical participant observation in the city of Brennan. They would get to read ethnographies as well as write them. Esther was elated.


When week 3 of her Ethnography unit arrived, Esther met her students in a local coffee shop. There they read over Brennan’s institutional ethical procedures and discussed the challenges around informed consent more broadly and the practical issues of gaining consent when doing fieldwork in a busy urban environment. Esther thought these challenges fascinating. Esther’s students thought they were terrifying. Esther thought it likely that as result of this discussion her students would avoid speaking to anyone. She was right. Students wrote about temporal rhythms at the Wharf, pigeons in the bus station, silence in the Cathedral, graffiti in Wolf Alley: but of actual tangible conversations with the people that lived in the city the ethnographies were woefully thin. Esther didn’t really mind. The students were still overwhelmingly positive about the experience, even if they were often bored or cold. Esther realised that her ethics week had become a brilliant way to unpack the power and politics of institutional ethical frameworks and its silencing effects upon the novice ethnographer. She thought about rewriting her ethnography unit and having ethics as the overarching framework and problem. She came up with all sorts of ethical problems and conundrums for the students to debate and think about: Can you gain informed consent (oral or otherwise) from someone who is on drugs/homeless/non-verbal? Who decides? Who has the authority to assign power and vulnerability? Esther got very excited about these debates. But after a bit of thought (and a couple of glasses of wine), realised that this might send the entire ethics committee into free fall and severely strain her excellent understanding with Patricia. Perhaps she should re-think the ethnography assignment? How about getting the students to do some collaborative writing? Maybe if they did their fieldwork in pairs they might actually speak to people and could then write a joint ethnography? If she was around next year, Esther thought she might suggest this to the students. She did not imagine that there could be any issues with that …



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