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Vulnerable Populations and Sensitive Topics

Vulnerable populations are those which are more susceptible to social, psychological, legal, economic and physical harm and will include such groups as children, drug users, runaways, prisoners, patients, victims of violence or the mentally ill.

Sensitive topics include those which might be considered personally intrusive. This includes such topics as illegal activities, sexual behaviours or experiences of abuse.

Much serious and important social research will be concerned with vulnerable populations and / or sensitive topics and the Research Ethics Committee is deeply committed to the value and integrity of such research. However the standards expected of such research are much higher in many respects and require both strong justification and the highest ethical and procedural standards of implementation.

In terms of justification, the applicant must demonstrate that the potential and actual benefits of conducting their study outweigh the possible harm to participants. Demonstrating the benefit of the research will involve showing how the research will make an original, genuine and valuable contribution to knowledge. The applicant will also need to outline fully how the value of the research will be realised through dissemination to academic, policy-making and other relevant audiences (note that academic submissions such as dissertations are not regarded as relevant dissemination).

Once the possible benefits of the research have been established the applicant will need to ensure that the design of their proposed research meets the highest methodological and ethical standards. Core ethical principles such as informed consent, confidentiality and anonymity, data protection and limitation of risk are here doubly relevant. Studies with vulnerable populations and / or sensitive topics can present unique challenges in terms of the application of these principals and the researcher will need to critically engage with how they apply these principals in the circumstances with which they are faced. It is recommended that researchers review previous studies similar to their proposed study, consult with key stakeholders /experts and familiarise themselves with the literature on the ethics of social research. The following texts are recommended as a useful starting point:

  • Dickson-Swift, V., James, E.L., Liamputtong, P. (2010) Undertaking Sensitive Research in the Health and Social Sciences: Managing Boundaries, Emotions and Risks. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
  • Farrimond H. (2013) Doing Ethical Research. Sage, London.
  • Iphofen, R. (2011) Ethical decision making in social research: a practical guide. Palgrave Macmillan, Basingstoke.
  • Love, K (ed) (2012) Ethics in Social Research. Bingley: Emerald.
  • Ransome P (2013) Ethics and Values in Social Research. Palgrave Macmillan, Basingstoke.

Attention is also drawn to the following statement of TCD College Policy:

‘Where research involves those with literacy difficulties, children or other potentially vulnerable groups of participants, rigorous adherence to the appropriate professional codes of ethical practice is required and particular attention must be paid to issue such as access, informed consent by both participants and carers...and the duty of care and conduct adopted in College shall conform to that detailed in the guidelines published by the TCD Children’s Research Centre... Additional formal authorization for the research or clearance of research staff by An Garda Siochana may be required in certain cases.’ (TCD College Policy, 2009).