Global Context

Informed Consent and Anonymity and Confidentiality

Informed Consent ¦ Anonymity and confidentiality

Informed Consent

Gaining legitimate informed consent from participants is central to social research. For a general outline of issues relating to informed consent, readers are referred to the discussion in the ‘Core Issues’ section [. While much of the material in that section applies to research both inside and outside the UK, there are additional issues that the researcher needs to consider when conducting research in different contexts. In particular:

  • Local ethical norms and linguistic issues should be taken into account when deciding how to go about obtaining legitimate informed consent.
  • In some political and social environments participants should be informed about the potential dangers of involvement.

(See also the general discussion of informed consent in the Core Issues section and Decorum, Context and Awareness of Laws in this section.)

Informed consent means consent which is given in possession and understanding of all information likely to be material to a person's willingness to participate. This includes what the research is about, who is funding it, what will be involved for participants, how the findings will be used, possible benefits of the study and how data will be used in the future.

Participants should be made aware of any dangers to which their involvement could make them vulnerable. This can be especially important if working with minority or dispossessed groups to whom the political regime is hostile. In particular, any foreseeable limitations on anonymity and confidentiality should be made clear. The researcher has an obligation to ensure that participants understand the legal status that anonymity and confidentiality has in their country and any scenarios in which the researcher could be forced to reveal information.

It is important that participants understand the data recording methods employed and appreciate the implications that these have for storage and future use of the data. They should be made aware that they have the right to reject any data gathering method (e.g. video recording or the tape-recording of interviews) with which they are not comfortable. Participants should also be informed of their rights under any copyright or data protection laws of their country. Moreover, the researcher must ensure prior knowledge of how long the research data will be kept and likely uses including publication, further research by others, education and dissemination through mass media. However, as the following example illustrates, it is not always possible to control the future use of data: researchers can only make their best efforts to anticipate eventualities and to communicate these to participants.

Archiving sound recordings made in Tanzania in the 1960s

This archive in the British Library is a series of sound recordings made on Mafia Island Tanzania in the 1960s. But who ‘owns’ the material on the tapes – myself as anthropologist or the people whose voices I recorded? If any of the tapes were to be used to make a music DVD which could be sold, who would receive royalties? Further, what use can be made of the tapes and by whom? With regard to the last question, most archives allow the depositor to retain the copyright and control until their death, or for fifty years after their creation. Subsequently, one has to trust the institution concerned to handle the material with sensitivity and respect.

(Contributed by Pat Caplan)


consent is, by definition, given freely and not as a result of coercive pressure (real or perceived). It also depends on participants being given the opportunity to consider issues of consent in terms that are meaningful to them. For research carried out beyond the researcher’s home country, or ‘at home’ but with minority groups who do not speak that country’s language, this raises questions of understanding and translation. Great care should be taken with translation, as literally translated terms may have very different connotations to those intended by the respondent. Even where translation is not required it should be borne in mind that differing linguistic codes can alter nuances.

In some cultures requiring written consent may be inappropriate, as in the following example, or send out an unduly frightening message.

Informed consent when language is primarily oral

A researcher, looking at writing practices in Jamaica, interviewed several participants who spoke English as a second language and whose first language – Jamaican Creole – was primarily an oral language. It has no written standard. The researcher had obtained verbal consent from the participants, considering this to be the most appropriate form in a social context where writing and reading are not necessarily a significant part of daily activity. The dilemma for the researcher, however, was in how to successfully obtain the written consent and copyright agreement, required by the funders in Britain, without causing the participants undue concern. The agreement could not be written in the participants’ first language because there was no written standard, and formal, bureaucratic-type forms were likely to be regarded with suspicion, undermining any trust the researcher had gained. The researcher attempted to create a ‘friendly’, clear and unthreatening letter which she nevertheless considered was not entirely successful in achieving its purpose. Raising questions about whether or not the participants would be adequately informed by this written informed consent.

(Contributed by Susan Dray)

As in other research contexts, achieving legitimate informed consent may require renegotiation over time. For instance, in dealing with sensitive issues consent should extend to how material is written up. In some highly sensitive situations – such as ethnography related to testimonies of violence – the giving of informed consent may be based on mutual rapport between the participant and the researcher; and in such cases consent has to be renewed on a daily basis.

Access to subjects may be controlled by an intermediary, or “gatekeeper.” Where this is the case, it is especially important to ensure that people are not being compelled to participate in the research, for instance by their government or by people with a financial interest. The ASA’s ethical guidelines state that:

Whilst respecting gatekeepers' legitimate interests, researchers should adhere to the principle of obtaining informed consent directly from subjects once access has been gained.

Association of Social Anthropologist of the UK and Commonwealth,
‘Ethical Guidelines for Good Reseach’,

Where the information itself is obtained from a third party care should be taken not to violate the privacy of the person concerned.

Anonymity and confidentiality

(See also the general discussion of anonymity and confidentiality in the Core Issues section.)

… privacy and confidentiality present anthropologists with particularly difficult problems given the cultural and legal variations between societies and the various ways in which the real interests or research role of the ethnographer may not fully be realised by some or all of participants or may even become "invisible" over time.

Association of Social Anthropologist of the UK and Commonwealth (ASA),
‘Ethical Guidelines for Good Reseach’,

Despite the above quote, researchers have a clear obligation to protect the anonymity and confidentiality of their informants, especially where exposure could place them in danger. Moreover, care should be taken to ensure that anonymity and confidentiality are guaranteed after the researcher has left the country or place in which the research was conducted. It is important, therefore, to anticipate potential threats. The ASA’s ethical guidelines warn that researchers should:

… remember that, save in a very few exceptional circumstances, social research data are not privileged under law and may be subject to legal subpoena. Such laws vary by jurisdiction.

(See the Case Study in the Core Issues section on Anonymity and Confidentiality.)

The researcher should bear this in mind when deciding what information to record and how to record it. However, whilst many identifiers can be removed or disguised, it is not always possible to totally conceal identities and locations:

A particular configuration of attributes can frequently identify an individual beyond reasonable doubt; and it is particularly difficult to disguise, say, office-holders, organizations, public agencies, ethnic groups, religious denominations or other collectivities without so distorting the data as to compromise scholarly accuracy and integrity.

ASA ‘Ethical Guidelines for Good Reseach’,

Clearly, such matters should be brought to the attentions of potential participants prior to their agreement to be involved.

In some research situations determining measures necessary to achieve appropriate anonymity may be complex, as the following example illustrates:

Archiving 1969 photos of Nepal on a website

These photos were taken during the fieldwork already mentioned in the Far Western Hills of Nepal in 1969, and most of them were of identifiable people. I debated long and hard about whether to caption the photos with their names, and even wrote to colleagues in Nepal to seek their advice. On the one hand, I knew that, as access to the web became more widespread, people would like to be able to see photos of their own ancestors, as well as having a historical record of a particular place and time. On the other hand, the names identified people’s caste, and thus their likely status as rich or poor peasants in a country which had had a Maoist insurgency, and now had a Maoist-dominated government. After much thought, I retained the first names but removed the caste names.

(Contributed by Pat Caplan)



↑ Top of Page