Crossing the line with ‘intimate truths’: Can we do ethical research on sensitive topics?

By Scott Maher

Researchers are often asked to investigate sensitive topics — things that are very private, personal, embarrassing, or even incriminating to research participants. This is an ethical minefield.

I’d like to share a story about something that happened at UX Australia’s Design Research 2017 conference this afternoon, as a way in to talking about the ethical challenges of doing research on sensitive topics. (Side note: the conference was fantastic. You missed out if you weren’t there, but you can catch up when they post audio and slide decks of all the presentations soon!)

A funny (and not “ha-ha”) thing happened at the conference

In the second last talk of the day, Mary Landrak* from ThinkPlace presented some examples and reflections from research in and outside of Australia. One of the questions she raised was about methods and truth, captured here in a tweet:

To demonstrate this challenge, Mary then showed us two slides. The first contained the title “Ice (un)breaker.” And she gave us instructions for the activity: stand up, find someone next to you, ideally a stranger, and then, follow the instructions on the next slide. The instructions were:

Discuss with the stranger next to you:

When was the last time you engaged in risky sexual behaviour.

Here’s how that went for me.

When we were asked to stand, one of a group of three young women sitting in the row in front of me volunteered to be my icebreaker partner. Very kind. The only other person in my row was four or five seats away.

When the icebreaker prompt was shown on screen, a lot of chatter broke out in the room. We looked at each other and both began to blush.

Me: Well, this is awkward…

Her: [silence, looks at the screen, then at me, then at the screen]

Me (and this is my first big mistake): Uh, [nervous laughter] you go first.

Her: [silence, looks toward the other women in her row, looks at feet, looks back at me]

Me: No, you don’t have to…

Her: Well, last…[quickly tells me an answer to the prompt, then looks away, then looks back at me with what appears to be a fair bit of anxiety on her face]

Me: Oh, wow… uh, um [thinks ‘oh crap, what do I do now?!?’]. Oh, time’s up. [nervous laughter, sits down, feels shame for several minutes]

It was a visceral experience of just how uncomfortable it can be to talk about something very intimate with a stranger.

The prompt is loaded with layers of meaning: it asks participants to not just discuss a sexual experience, but specifically to talk about “risky sexual behaviour.” That’s even more loaded with moral baggage. Framing sexual behaviour as “risky” already positions it as morally wrong and irresponsible. And risky sexual behaviour may or may not be consensual: being a victim of sexual assault could easily be construed as “engaging in risky sexual behaviour.” In terms of ‘intimate truths,’ this is heavy stuff.

Let me pause here to do what I should have done in the moment:

I apologize to the anonymous stranger who volunteered to join me in an icebreaker activity and who may feel embarrassed, intimidated, or worse as a result of the interaction. I wish I had been more aware in the moment of just how bad it was for me to say: “you go first.” I regretted it almost instantly, and am sorry.

In our society, an older male telling (not asking) a younger female stranger to “go first” in divulging private, intimate information is not cool. I don’t think I need to explain here how it reflects male privilege and patriarchy.

The ethics of the ice (un)breaker

I can see both sides of an argument about whether this activity was appropriate for a conference.**

On one hand, I appreciate the chance to experience first-hand the discomfort and stress that research participants might feel. I’m a big fan of experiential learning, and given that researchers are often more privileged in general than participants (and as I’ll discuss below are almost always so in the context of research), intellectually discussing the discomfort a participant might feel is not likely to be as effective. I hope all of those present will remember this experience and use it to have more empathy for the research participants we depend on for our livelihoods.

On the other hand, we were given no advance warning that we might face a difficult situation during the talk. None of us could have consented to the activity, because none of us had any prior information it was coming, and the context and manner in which it was presented gave little opportunity to opt-out.

Further, what active teaching might have accompanied this moment was lost in the din of a crowd of researchers chattering awkwardly (and for some, with mild outrage). This could have been executed much better than it was — and even with prior information and a reminder that we could opt-out, it may have been an effective active learning experience.

I do appreciate that this experience gives me an opportunity to reflect on the ethical challenges raised in researching sensitive issues, and to write something that may be useful to other researchers.

Making this meaningful

Taking today’s experience and applying it to research on sensitive topics in general, I think there are three key things to cover: informed consent, privilege and power, and the risk of harm to participants.

Informed consent

As far as I’m aware at the moment, it’s virtually universal that research involving humans requires participants to give informed consent before the research begins. People must never be compelled to participate in research activities (so, research with prisoners and other marginalised people is particularly high risk in ethical terms).

They must have sufficient capacity and information to freely agree to participate in the research (so research with children requires more careful scrutiny, and deception about the purpose, process, or topic should be avoided unless it is absolutely necessary and the benefits outweigh the risks).

Researchers must also always recognise and respect the right of research participants to not answer a question, to not participate in part of the research, or to end the interaction altogether. No means no, and stop means stop. And we must not penalise participants for exercising this right.

Privilege and power

As researchers in businesses, governments, non-profits, or academic institutions, we often feel less-than-powerful. We’re typically small (underfunded, underappreciated) fish in a big pond.

In interactions with research participants, things are different. Where participants are promised incentives, we may appear to hold the power over whether they receive the incentive — thus making people feel compelled to continue through discomfort or distress, even if we don’t intend it.

As representatives of corporations, governments, universities, or other institutions, we may also carry the air of authority and power by association. In those instances, we are the institution, and the participant is often much smaller and less powerful — they are patients, customers, citizens, employees; Davids to our (implied) Goliath.

We must always remember — as I obviously forgot in today’s icebreaker — the role of gender, age, race, status, education, position, ethnicity, etc, etc, in shaping the relationships, even (especially?) fleeting ones between researcher and participant. Are there social and/or cultural forces in play that disempower participants and empower researchers when it comes to the information produced in our interactions? Yes, always! And be careful you don’t exploit those.

We must remember that as researchers, we are not extracting confessions like the CIA or the Spanish Inquisition. We must behave in ways that realise the inherent human dignity of research participants. We have to hold ourselves to a higher standard in the context of research than we do even in our day to day lives.

Do no harm

The Do No Harm principle is huge and complex in itself. It’s the first of the seven Principles of Professional Responsibility of the American Anthropological Association (AAA) for good reason. It’s also an area of significant ambiguity, which allows for debate and should guide deep consideration for any human research project. I would argue it should also be a guiding principle of business and innovation, but that’s a bit out of scope for today.

For the AAA, researchers must carefully consider what harm might come of a project before starting any research, and they must continually assess whether the risk of harm changes during the course of a project. They also recommend that “anthropologists should not only avoid causing direct and immediate harm but also should weigh carefully the potential consequences and inadvertent impacts of their work.” This holds whether the research is a purely academic endeavour, or intended to bring about some sort of positive change in the world. Unintended consequences can be just as — if not more — harmful as intended outcomes.

Harm can be understood and measured in many different ways — physical harm like inflicting temporary pain or doing longer term physical damage are the easy ones. Much more difficult are cases where social, emotional, or psychological harm may be involved. Are you discussing things that a participant would be embarrassed if other people found out about them? Then you need to be extra careful with confidentiality, at the very least. Are you asking people to tell you about traumatic experiences from the recent or more distant past? Red flags here!

Even when research is intended to support outcomes that improve participants’ and other people’s well-being, researchers and our sponsors/clients must weigh the potential benefits of a research project against the risk of harm to participants. Academic research ethics boards often do this very conservatively, and in that setting research is most likely intended to produce social good. In business settings, we should be weighing the risk of potential harm to research participants and customers (heavily) against the potential benefits to society and the business.

So what do we do about ‘intimate truths’?

Getting back to the methodological and ethical question at hand — we know that there are many reasons to conduct research about topics or experiences that might be sensitive, uncomfortable, or inherently risky to discuss. So how do we go about it, ethically?

Can we get intimate truths in an exploratory interview? Maybe. Can we do it without imposing our privilege and exploiting participants, however subtle that may be? Hmmm.

We must respect the dignity of participants, and their right to informed consent and to withdraw from research at any time. We must also be prepared to mitigate harm done by the research we undertake — and not just in terms of liability to ourselves, our clients, or our institutions.

Where researchers need to uncover intimate truths about people’s behaviours, attitudes, and experiences, we must be prepared to invest time and energy in developing trust. Trust is what makes it possible for people to share accurate information with us about their intimate lives, their secrets, their insecurities. Trust — not power — helps us get at truth.

To develop trust, we almost always need to develop relationships and engage in reciprocity, with patience, sensitivity, humility, and most of all respect for the people whose lives we enter.

Fortunately, several of the talks at today’s conference highlighted these points. It’s a good start.


*When I first published this essay, I also wrote to Mary directly to thank her for her presentation and tell her about my mixed feelings with the activity she used. I also wanted to send her a link so she could read what I had written.

Mary’s reply was thoughtful and professional, and she both clarified her intention and owned her misjudgement of the audience’s response. She acknowledged that the exercise had gone very differently for some of us than she had expected when planning it, and that she regrets the offence it caused.

She also explained that her intention was to highlight the complex challenges we face as researchers when we need to elicit and explore deeply personal experiences and behaviours. This activity was meant to be an engaging moment for the audience at the conference and a means to open up discussion.

With the benefit of hindsight, we can all say that this situation could have been constructed differently to achieve those goals.

**UX Australia, in their event wrap-up email, apologised to attendees for any discomfort caused by the activity. They noted in the email that they have processes in place to prevent this sort of thing, including asking “all speakers to discuss with us anything that might be sensitive or cause discomfort for attendees.”

They also wrote that “We have spoken to the speaker about it and she is not welcome to speak at one of our events again.”

This post originally appeared on

Violence Isn’t An Easy Subject – We Need to Approach It and Teach It With Nuance and Context

By Anna J. Osterholtz, Anthropology and Middle Eastern Cultures, Mississippi State University

I was asked recently at a dinner party, “What is violence?” I honestly had no soundbite-worthy response except to quote Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, “I know it when I see it.” I went on to explain that what I think of as violent is not what someone in 8th Century Colorado might think is violent or what someone living in modern-day Syria might think is violent. This illustrates a common problem of studying violence. Violence is intrinsic, but it is also difficult to define and sometimes difficult to identify. Merriam-Webster defines violence as “the use of physical force as to injure, abuse, damage, or destroy” with secondary definitions of “injury as if by distortion, infringement, or profanation” and “intense, turbulent, or furious ad often destructive action or force.” The primary definition calls for physical force of one person on another person or thing, it is an action. Within our own society, it is easy to identify examples of violent acts, but a holistic definition encompassing everything that violence is and does in all times and all places is difficult for us, particularly in anthropology where we are trained to be relativistic. What we consider violence will vary based on our cultural perspective, as well as our experience with violence on intersectional levels (e.g., class, race, and gender-based violence). In line with Whitehead (2004, 2007) I argue that violence serves social functions related to the construction and negotiation of cultural identities. As a larger process, it is de-structive and con-structive, de-generative and re-generative. Our understanding of violence is both culturally and historically constructed, rife with meaning. Violent acts give meaning and support to social structure, creating and reinforcing social relationships and allowing for changes in social status. It is important to teach this nuance and relativism to our students. Understanding cultural differences with respect to violence will allow for a better and richer understanding of lived experience, even if that lived experience isn’t our own. It might just facilitate communication between groups.

Oversimplified Popularized Notions of Violence

Numerous researchers in other disciplines have examined the social role of violence, but they are lacking the relativist approach that we bring. The drive to understand how violence works within particular societies is important. This desire to understand how violence is used to create social capitol and status allows for the integration of violence into a larger understanding of lived experience both in the present and in the past. A recent study published in Nature, Watts and colleagues (2016) examined the evolution of human sacrifice (a practice most would agree is violent) They tested the idea that human sacrifice was used by the elites as a form of social control over those governed (the social control hypothesis) using Bayesian phylogenetic analysis of 93 Austronesian cultures. They state that they were able to account for common cultural ancestry, patterns of co-evolution and “infer the direction of causality based on the order that traits evolve in” (Watts et al. 2016, 228). Their statistical analysis confirmed that human sacrifice co-evolved with social stratification. While this may occur, a statistical analysis that simply measures the degree of social stratification using what amounts to a band/tribe/state unilineal model of complexity and hierarchy is somewhat simplistic to our understanding of cultural processes. The analysis lacks anthropological nuance, lacks an understanding of culture change and the impact of colonialism (and its inherent violence). The approach is scientific, though, and therefore seems to provide a finite and distinct answer. It gives a posterior probability for cultural evolution, but lacks the understanding of those cultures. All 93 of these developed along different lines with different pressures (both environmental and social), and had different culturally specific methods of dealing with those pressures–some of which may have been violent. They were likely violent in different ways from each other as well, something that does not show itself in this statistical analysis.

Steven Pinker (2012) has had great success in his book on violence, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why violence has Declined. He presents what may best be described as franken-data to argue that violence as an action has decreased with time since our early ancestors. Amongst other problems, his approach is a-historical and non-contextualized, and his idea of violence centers primarily on war. He examines the overall deaths in combat as a percentage of the overall population as a way to argue that we have become less violent over time. In doing this, he neglects the deaths of non-combatants and secondary causes of war such as famine, displacement and disease (all of which still kill many individuals). But he also presents information as simple to understand. He gives graphs that seem to show a steady decline in violence through time. He makes it seem that violence is a universal concept that can easily be understood.

Yeah, But… One Man’s Freedom Fighter is Another Man’s Terrorist 

The anthropological study of violence is important for its nuance and its relativism. First and foremost, we don’t seek to find easy or universal answers. There will always be things that we cannot know or cannot ask. There will not be a posterior probability that allows us to understand the complete lived experience of every individual within a given society. We don’t seek to find a universal understanding for all violence in all places. Increasingly, there is an understanding and a push toward a nuanced approach that examines the overall role that violence plays within a specific and particular society (e.g., Whitehead 2007, Martin, Harrod, and Pérez 2012, Martin 2016). How do we begin to understand ISIL’s publicized executions and narco-terrorism on the US-Mexico border? Decrying the violence of the actions and saying that we cannot possibly understand them doesn’t explain their presence nor does it address the underlying purpose they serve within their own societies or to the larger world. It does, however, create distance between ourselves and those perpetrators of violence. Understanding the emic value of violence and the role it plays in society allows for a better understanding of the social goals and aims of that violence and might allow for an appropriate response or mitigation of that violence. We need to seek to understand other cultures’ systems, not simply use their displays of what we consider violence as a way to define ourselves as better or more understanding. Essentially, we use social constructs of violence to other social movements or cultural groups. To us, acts such as public execution are violent, and they might be intrinsically violent to them as well. But the violence serves a real function, it has a real importance to the construction of social standing and social relationships that is important for us to understand. Unless we begin to look for those underlying social roles of violence, we cannot begin to mitigate the impacts of those acts of violence.

Teaching Nuance in a Violent World

As instructors, we owe our students a more nuanced approach to the study of violence. Saying that an act is just violent and that we as Americans could never condone such a thing creates a distance between us as peaceful people and others as violent and less deserving of understanding. If we don’t see the cultural importance of violent acts, how do we begin to talk to others that perform those violent acts? And how do we begin to understand the cultural systems of violence? It must begin with nuanced instruction in the classroom. It is the ethical choice for us as instructors to approach violence with a nuanced, historical understanding that the concept of violence is one that we should seek to understand with an insider’s perspective.


Martin, Debra L. 2016. “Hard Times in Dry Lands: Making Meaning of Violence in the Ancient Southwest.”  Journal of Anthropological Research 72 (1):1-23.

Martin, Debra L., Ryan P. Harrod, and Ventura R. Pérez. 2012. “Introduction: Bioarchaeology and the study of violence.” In The Bioarchaeology of Violence, edited by Debra L. Martin, Ryan P. Harrod and Ventura R. Pérez, 1-10. Gainesville: University of Florida Press.

Pinker, Steven. 2012. The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why violence has declined. New York: Viking.

Watts, Joseph, Oliver Sheehan, Quentin Atkinson, Joseph Bulbulia, and Russell D.  Gray. 2016. “Ritual human sacrifice promoted and sustained the evolution of stratified societies.”  Nature 532 (14 April 2016):228-231.

Whitehead, Neil L. 2004. “On the Poetics of Violence.” In Violence, edited by Neil L. Whitehead, 55-78. Santa Fe: SAR Press.

Whitehead, Neil L. 2007. “Violence & the Cultural Order.”  Daedalus 136 (1):40-50. doi: 10.2307/20028088.