Qualitative Research and Ethics 

What is Qualitative research and why is it important?  

Qualitative research is a broad term, which describes a range of different data collection and analysis methods.  Qualitative methods typically involve the collection and analysis of non-numerical data. Whilst quantitative methodologies will often use large scale datasets, with information collected from hundreds or thousands of data subjects, qualitative research is often done on a smaller scale. This is because the data collected from qualitative research methods is often rich and detailed in nature.  

Qualitative research can stand alone or be used alongside quantitative research (known as mixed methods research). For example, it can be used to inform the design of the survey through question development. The aims of qualitative research are very diverse. It can be used to explore our understanding of how people think about the world and how they act and behave within it. Some of the key characteristics of qualitative research, and its benefits, are listed below.  

In-depth, rich data – Qualitative research provides us with an extremely detailed understanding of the phenomena being studied. Whilst quantitative data is often limited to “yes or no”, or several pre-chosen options that participants can choose from, qualitative data allows participants to give far more detail in relation to the questions being asked by the researcher.

Reflexive – All qualitative data is contextual – its meaning is heavily connected to the context in which it was collected. Reflexivity in qualitative research allows us not only to consider how this context influences the data being collected, but also acknowledges the role that the researcher plays throughout the lifecycle of a research project. This allows researchers to question their own assumptions, helps to hold researchers accountable, improves clarity and reproducibility of the data, and even improves public trust in the research.

Inductive Understanding – Inductive research “involves the search for pattern from observation and the development of explanations – theories – for those patterns through series of hypotheses”. This allows a researcher to learn from the data being collected, as it is being collected. This means researchers are able to learn from experience – generating meanings from the data collected in order to identify patterns and relationships to build theory.

Why does ethics matter in qualitative research? 

It is important that researchers take time to consider any possible ethical issues which could arise throughout the life cycle of their research. Researchers should start to think about the ethical challenges which may arise within a project at the earliest possible opportunity. However, no matter what stage you may be at in your research, it is always sensible to consider and discuss possible ethical issues that could arise. This applies if you are thinking about starting a new project, in the process of designing your study, or even if you have started to collect or analyse your data.  

Many of the ethical considerations associated with qualitative research approaches are similar to those in quantitative approaches. This includes confidentiality and privacy, and concerns regarding reproducibility and research quality.  It is important to consider possible ethical issues when undertaking qualitative research as the interpretation of the data and the conclusions are more subjective. This can make the reproducibility of the data more difficult to maintain. 

General ethical principles for research and statistics 

To help researchers navigate the ethical issues that arise from their work, the UK Statistics Authority has developed a set of six ethical principles. At a basic level, these principles focus on ensuring the public good  of research and statistics, maintaining  confidentiality  of data, understanding the potential risks and  limitations  in new research methods and technologies, compliance with  legal  requirements, considering public acceptability  of the project, and transparency in the collection, use and sharing of data.

Public Good

The use of data has clear benefits for users and serves the public good.

Confidentiality, Data Security

The data subject’s identity (whether person or organisation) is protected, information is kept confidential and secure, and the issue of consent is considered appropriately.

Methods and Quality

The risks and limits of new technologies are considered and there is sufficient human oversight so that methods employed are consistent with recognised standards of integrity and quality.

Legal Compliance

Data used and methods employed are consistent with legal requirements such as Data Protection Legislation, the Human Rights Act 1998, the Statistics and Registration Service Act 2007 and the common law duty of confidence.

Public Views and Engagement

The views of the public are considered in light of the data used and the perceived benefits of the research.


The access, use and sharing of data is transparent, and is communicated clearly and accessibly to the public.

This guidance is underpinned by these general principles but focuses specifically on ethical considerations relating to qualitative research which may require us to take particular care. These include the need to:

  • consider the research participant, their needs, and their relationship with the researcher(s), in order to minimise harm and distress
  • be reflexive in our approach to data collection, use, and dissemination in order to ensure that the decision-making processes within the research are clear, and that we remain transparent, and accountable
  • consider the confidentiality and privacy risks arising from the data used, both in relation to the data collected from the participant and the ways in which it is de-identified or anonymised, and potential impacts on the participants when results are disseminated.

Each of these principles, and their relationship to qualitative research, are considered in the following sections. This includes highlighting key issues related to the use of qualitative data, why these issues are important, and aspects to consider when addressing them in our qualitative research projects.  

The UK Statistics Authority also provides researchers with an ethics self-assessment tool. This is used to empower researchers to identify and review any ethical challenges in a research project. This guidance can be used alongside the ethics self-assessment tool to help you practically apply the UK Statistics Authority’s six ethical principles to your work. The guidance also provides a high-level checklist. You can use this to help ensure that the qualitative research you are undertaking is ethically responsible.   

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