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Risks

Ethnographers are often involved with their participants on a very intimate level and can collect sensitive data about them, thus it is important to recognize areas and situations that may be risky for participants and develop procedures for reducing risk. Participants in ethnographic studies may be at risk for legal, social, economic, psychological, and physical harms. A well-designed consent process can be an easy way to reduce risk in a study. For participants where consent has limitations (i.e. minors, prisoners, other vulnerable participants), additional requirements may be made in order to facilitate the consent process, such as providing a minor with an assent form and obtaining parental consent (though it may be necessary to modify this process so that it is culturally appropriate). Some participants may be highly sensitive to risk because of who they are and the situation in which they live and you may need to make additional accommodations for participants where the potential for harm is high. Often a participant’s potential for harm doesn’t end when your interaction is over; protecting the materials you collect will continue to protect your participants from harm. Loss of confidentiality is often the biggest risk a participant is likely to face when participating in an ethnographic study. Identifying the needs of your participants and modifying your approach in order to accommodate those needs will help to protect participants from incurring harm as a result of participating in your study.

For a more thorough discussion of risk, please see Understanding Risk in Research, Data Collection, and Vulnerable and Risk Sensitive Populations.

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