CASE STUDY Gaining access and consent (Jonathan Potter 2010)
One of the features that make contemporary discursive psychology distinctive from most other psychological methods is that it works primarily with audio or video records of interaction happening in natural settings. This makes the process of gaining access and consent, developing appropriate ethics scripts, and working closely with participants in a way that sustains and merits a strong degree of trust an integral part of the research process. Gaining access and consent can be a challenge. And it is likely that researchers sometimes use other forms of data generation—questionnaires, say, or open ended interviews—because they expect that access will be refused. However, experience shows that with the right approach and an proportionate commitment of time and effort trust can be developed and consent can be obtained for working in the most sensitive of sites—family therapy, police interrogation, neighbour mediation, physiotherapy for stroke patients, social work assessments of parents whose children are in care (to list some recent examples).
Initial contact is often through a key institutional member—a medical practitioner, school teacher or parent—who can provide an authoritative link for the researchers. A key feature of this contact is often to identify the participants' anxieties about the research process. These are often focused on the possibility that the research will evaluate their practice. Ironically it is often the professionals rather than clients that often have more doubt about the research process (although the professionals often suggest that the clients will not agree). It is striking that many professionals are doubtful that their practice will stand up to analytic scrutiny, perhaps because many of the training materials use unrealistic and simplified idealizations of what interaction should look like. David Silverman (1997) refers to this as the problem of the Divine Orthodoxy. Practitioners feel they are condemned to fail because they are compared to an idealized, normative standards completely removed from actual practice.
Let me develop this topic with the research on the NSPCC child protection helpline. This helpline receives around 100,000 calls a year from across the UK. It is legally mandated to pass credible reports of abuse to either social services or the police, whether the caller wishes them to or not. It also provides counselling, information and advice to anyone concerned about the risk to a child of ill treatment, neglect or abuse. All call takers are trained social workers, called Child Protection Officers (CPOs) at the time of the data collection, each with at least three years field experience working on child protection.
Access negotiations started with a letter to the head of the helpline that was intended to target the worries that potential research participants have: how will issues of ethics and anonymity be managed? What extra work will be involved? How might the research benefit the organization? It was also worked to head off the idea that the research might criticise the organization or its workers. This was followed up by a series of face to face meetings which were crucial in establishing trust. These meetings included not only senior management but individual CPOs who would be in control of recording and obtaining consent from callers.
In this case the organization opted for the child protection officers using their own skills to make judgements about consent. They asked callers at the start of calls whether they would be willing to take part in the research and offered the possibility for them to ask questions about the research. We provided the CPOs with a basic script, developed in the light of British Psychological Society guidelines about consent, but the CPOs would tailor what they asked to individual callers. Ethical issues, then, satisfied both the NSPCC and the BPS.Potter (2010, pp. 14–16)