How do you assess risk? What counts as “harm?”

Most student projects do not put other people at risk of direct bodily harm. So how do we assess risk and harm? In most projects, relevant issues will be most attached to issues of privacy and reputation. What could happen to a person if information you circulate reaches certain audiences? 

Could this person lose their job? Offend someone? Feel ashamed? Be shamed by others? Or, quite simply, is there a risk that information that this person wants to remain private will not remain so?

You will not be able to anticipate all the risks that someone could encounter by participating in your project. But you should try hard to do so, while also acknowledging that ethics in work with people are situational, and your particular responses will vary according to the context. 

Other things to think about: 
  • Your own health and safety also matter.
  • What if your project has an activist or interventionist aspect? We want to see that you are, first and foremost, well-informed, through coursework or other equivalent experience,  about the context where you will be working and the relevant issues; and second, that you have thought through — CAREFULLY — the potential effects of the work you will be doing.
  • What about the ethical orientation of a project itself? Does the project deal with questions of exclusion, violence, or seek to explore the lives of marginalized or vulnerable persons, or in places/sites where there is a history of particularly pronounced power imbalances?  How might you take account of your own privilege as an undergraduate college student seeking to do this kind of work? We want to see that you have thought through this. 

How do you mitigate risk? 

You may not be able to fully ameliorate the risks that you identify. That is where informed consent will come in: you will inform potential participants of the risks. 

But you should strategize ways of minimizing risk. Be concrete. If you have questions, ask. 

Other considerations: 
  • Consider also your personal relationships: what does it mean to be a friend and a researcher? How do you distinguish what someone speaks to you as a friend versus what they will tell you as a researcher?
  • What about being asked to do certain things in the field? (give someone medicine, take a position, etc.)?
  • Comportment and respect: how might your own behavior impact another or a particular group of people?
  • What if your own personal moral commitments collide with situations you encounter? Can you identify any potential problems? How will you manage them?