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Study Participants

As an ethnographer becomes integrated in a community, he or she will talk to many people in order to become familiar with their way of life and to refine the research ideas. Not everyone that an ethnographer interacts with is necessarily a participant in the research study. Participation depends on the type of information that is collected and how the data are recorded. If you are recording information that is specific to a person and about that person’s experiences and opinions, and if that information can be identified with a specific person (whether anonymous or not), that person becomes a participant in the study. For example, talking to an individual on the bus about general bus policies and atmosphere would not qualify the conversation as part of the human subjects aspect of your research.  Talking to that same individual about their specific experiences as a passenger on the bus and recording that information in your notes qualifies that individual as a participant in the study. Depending on whether you gather indentifying information about the person and the potential to harm the person will determine what level of consent information you should provide and how it should be documented. Understanding when a person becomes a participant will help you to understand when you should obtain consent from that person or when an interaction can be defined as just a casual conversation. For specific examples of when a casual conversation becomes an interview, please see Interviews for more information.    

In addition, it is important for you to inform the Board about the people you will interact with as it will help them to understand the study and the risks involved. There are specific rules for working with children, prisoners, and other participants that may be considered vulnerable and/or risk-sensitive. Understanding the education level of the people you study and the language they speak is important for understanding and making recommendations for the informed consent process. Your experience in working with the people you will study becomes a relevant factor in weighing how prepared you will be to handle potentially risky situations. Providing the Board with this information will help them to make accurate recommendations for participant protection.

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