Vulnerable People and Groups

Conducting research and dissemination

It is important that the research methods are tailored and adapted to suit the needs of vulnerable participants, such that their wellbeing is not diminished by the research process. Decisions about research methods should be made in relation to the specific kind, or kinds, of vulnerability experienced by the individual or group. However, some basic aspects to bear in mind include:

  • Venues: Every effort should be made to ensure that venues for interviews or other forms of research activity are suitable for the people concerned. It is important that venues are not experienced as in any way dangerous, alienating, threatening or intimidating. (Research protocols to ensure safety are also discussed under ‘Anonymity, Confidentiality and Danger’.)

  • People present: Care should also be taken regarding other people present – or in the immediate vicinity – during interviews or other research activities. Whilst as a general rule it is probably desirable to have as few other people involved as possible, in some circumstances it may be helpful to use trusted intermediaries such as a social or youth worker, a family member, carer or community leader. Participants may feel more at ease with a person that they already know and trust, so long as they are happy for that person to be present and that the participant is not likely to feel inhibited from telling their story to the researcher in that person’s presence.

  • Approaches to Interviewing: Attention should also be given to the interview questions, how they are asked and the format and length of sessions. With some categories of vulnerable people the main issues are ones of sensitivity and establishing conditions in which the person feels sufficiently at ease to open up. A variety of techniques that can be helpful are set out below. In other situations – e.g. working with people with some level of cognitive impairment – it is necessary to find ways to ask questions that are understandable for the participant. It is also necessary to ensure that interview sessions are not overly long for them.
    In all situations interviewers should cultivate sensitivity to the effect that questioning is having on the participant and change the direction or terminate the session if there is evidence of distress.

Researchers should bear in mind that for some groups the mere fact of being researched could serve to intensify feelings of marginalization. It may be possible to implement strategies to mitigate this and soften the situation. For instance, in studying sexual health issues, collaborating with a general health provider or using case scenarios could help to de-emphasize the sensitivity involved. Research strategies, such as focus groups, may help participants to recognise that they are not alone and that others have similar experiences, whilst participatory methods may help participants to feel empowered in the research process.

When seeking to elicit responses on sensitive issues it may be helpful to phrase questions in indirect ways, inviting the person to explore the issue in their own way, rather than putting them on the spot with a direct question. Some techniques and processes that researchers have used in this regard are given below.

Useful techniques and processes
  • Eliciting life stories are one way of doing this, especially when trying to gather data on traumatic experiences.
    One variant is the Narrative Correspondence Method, in which participants are asked to write a journal, letter or story expressing their thoughts and feelings over a number of weeks or months. This serves to:
  • Locates power and control with participant;
  • Allow engagement if and when participant feels able; and
  • Enable participants to explore issues at their own pace in their own way.

However, it should be borne in mind that it may not be possible to provide support should this be needed.

  • Seeking alternative approaches to the issue can be useful. For example, instead of asking refugee and asylum seeker children why they believe they reported feeling more comfortable in the company of teachers than fellow pupils, we can ask each child to list the activities or people that they enjoy in their school environment in order of most to least. Each child can then be encouraged to explain their particular reasons for their list and ordering.
    This approach is also a useful way to get at impact. For example, where we might want to assess the role played by an English conversation class in assisting with social integration amongst refugee women from a particular country of origin. We could ask them to list all those activities which have helped them feel more ‘at home’ in the area where they are living, again ordered from most to least; and again we can use this as a basis for discussion. Should the conversation class not feature in the list, participants can be asked directly about whether or not they believe these classes made a difference, after having spoken spontaneously about the list.
    This technique is a useful way of conducting a needs assessment – participants list their needs in order of most to least urgent, and then explain these choices.
  • Vignettes, short stories or specifically designed short plays which illustrate one or other response or experience an also be useful. The participant, having read or heard the story or watched the play is then encouraged to discuss the issues raised or compare how they would have responded to the scenario portrayed, or to explain why they believe the protagonist responded in the way s/he did. In this way the participant is given the opportunity to project their own experiences and responses onto an abstract character and thereby circumvent issues around sensitivity and privacy.
  • Dream versus Real World narratives are an ideal way to study needs and challenges experienced by a particular client group. The technique involves asking the participant to describe a dream world first (applied to a particular setting, such as a dream school, dream workplace etc), followed by describing the real world in which they live (current school, workplace etc). The difference between the two ‘worlds’ indicates both needs and issues emerging from current experience, as well as suggestions regarding the nature and direction of possible changes to that environment or experience.
  • A friendship tree is a diagram in which the participant draws a tree-like structure indicating earlier relationships and friendships (main branches), and the people and experiences which led to other friends and alliances (leading off from main branches). The participant is then invited to talk the researcher through their friendship tree. This can offer access to invaluable information about social integration. The same principle applies to initial relationships with service-providers (main branches) who successfully referred the client on to other service providers (leading off from main branches). This technique is an effective means of examining issues of choice, access and the ways in which relationships develop.



Relationships of trust established with vulnerable people and groups should not end when the immediate requirements of the research contact are complete. Vulnerable people and groups may be particularly sensitive with regard to a ‘strip mining’, or ‘hit and run’, approach in which researchers gather data for their own research ends and then disappear. Being the target of ‘hit and run’ research is a common complaint from research participants. Given general ethical values such as distributive justice and beneficence, researchers should ask themselves what their duties are when they have the findings of their research. The precise form in which post-data gathering obligations need to be fulfilled will vary from situation to situation. However, reporting back to participants in a meaningful way would, in most case, be a minimum requirement. Beyond this, researchers might consider:

  • Ensuring that findings are made available to a wide audience.
  • Actively engaging with policy-makers and service providers to improve the support they offer (if this is not already integral to the research).
  • Forming alliances with groups and/or families for lobbying purposes.


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