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Rapport and respect: negotiating ethical relations between researcher and participant


Qualitative research is largely dependent on building good interpersonal relations between researcher and participant. This is necessary for generating rich data, while at the same time ensuring respect is maintained between researcher and participant. We argue for a better understanding of researcher–participant relations in research practice. Codes of ethics, although important, do not address these kinds of ethical challenges. Negotiating the ethical relations between researcher and participant is paramount in maintaining ethical rigour in qualitative research. In this paper we propose concepts that can assist in understanding how the ethics of research relations are negotiated in practice; the ‘zone of the untouchable’ from the Danish philosopher, Løgstrup, is combined with the notion of ‘ethical mindfulness’. We argue how and why these concepts in tandem can heighten awareness and offer ways to address the ethically important moments in research.

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  1. For example, when preparing to interview a woman participant in a study on women and heart disease, Marilys asked what appeared to be an innocent demographic question: ‘How many children do you have?’ The participant hesitated, and tears welled up in her eyes as she replied that she found it difficult to answer the question; she had four children, but one child had gone missing a year ago, with no knowledge of whether the child was still alive. In qualitative research, there are no innocent questions; the questions we ask, or sometimes our very presence, has the potential to make the participant (and the researcher) vulnerable.

  2. Although ethical reflection on research has a long history, a notable feature in the history of human research ethics was the Nürnberg trials following the abuses in medical research during World War 2. A significant outcome of these trials was the Nürnberg code, which stipulated voluntary participation and the responsibility of medical researchers to gain informed consent from those on whom they conducted research. Following the Nürnberg code was the international adoption of the Declaration of Helsinki in 1964, proposed by the World Medical Assembly. Although different countries revised and developed their own codes and guidelines of human research ethics, the principles and values espoused in the Declaration of Helsinki remain core. The release of the Belmont Report in 1979 by the United States National Commission for the Protection of Human Subjects of Biomedical and Behavioural Research provided a significant contribution in its statement of ethical principles and guidelines for application to the conduct of human research. See (accessed 14 Jan 2008) for the United States Office for Human Research Protections (OHRP) regulations for human research ethics arising from the Belmont Report.


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We are indebted to Lynn Gillam for her close reading of the paper and her insightful comments. We are also grateful for the helpful comments of the two anonymous reviewers.

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Correspondence to Marilys Guillemin.

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Guillemin, M., Heggen, K. Rapport and respect: negotiating ethical relations between researcher and participant. Med Health Care and Philos 12, 291–299 (2009).

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  • Ethics in qualitative research
  • Rapport
  • Respect in research