This post is in the Ethics category

The very term “participants” in research of this nature has problems of definition, because, unlike quantitative research or those qualitative studies that interview, survey and anonymise their subjects, there is one central subject who can not be hidden. In effect the participants fall into three categories, all of which have their own recruitment issues.

  1. Active participants – people around me actively involved in my musical processes and who have actively contributed to the research
  2. Myself
  3. Passive participants – people around me with whom I engage on a regular basis but are not directly involved in the research.

Active participants

Active participants were recruited to take part in surveys, interviews, video-taped collaborative activities and reflective activities. They were drawn from the staff and student bodies at Queensland Conservatorium Griffith University and the JMC Academy in Brisbane, and from my network of professional collaborators.

My position as full time Head of Department at the JMC Academy and previously as a sessional lecturer in the Conservatorium’s music technology department put me in a past, present or future assessment relationship with virtually all the student cohort, and other potential research participants. In most creative projects there is an element of hierarchy, in many cases with myself acting in a “producer” or “directorial” role with a degree of authority inherent in the role, in addition to a perception of seniority or experience within the student / teacher relationship. The issue of perceived coercion and unequal relationships was therefore a critical aspect to be dealt with in terms of recruiting.

The topic and the nature of the research was openly discussed in various live and web based forums within the campuses, allowing potential participants to become familiar and to indicate their interest in involvement. This openness about the investigation of my own practice and cognitive function also helped to reduce the psychological stress implications. The recent exposure of Autism and related conditions in the media and other public forums was reflected in the level of interest in the targeted community.

The majority of people I was particularly interested in engaging with for the purposes of the research were musicians engaging in collaborative activity with me in cross-disciplinary projects, or practitioners of other disciplines within those projects.

Circumstances where observational research could be conducted were identified from existing projects rather than being initiated specifically, and all these were outside teaching and assessment activities. However some participants were still involved in a direct assessment relationship in other activities. To remove any perception of coercion, a third party assisted with recruitment in these instances, explaining the nature of the research, the expectations on participants and defining the collaborative rather than assessable nature of the activity. In most cases where video was to be used for observation, there were several people involved in the project, and all were approached privately. Only if all members of the group were comfortable to participate was the group formally inducted into the process through the informed consent documentation. This documentation describes the purpose of the research and the methods, including video of group interaction for analysis, interview and paper based questionnaire tests. The use of video in the final thesis was subject to additional consent from participants.

In virtually all cases, the individuals invited to participate were quite eager to do so, expressing an interest in the process and outcomes as well as the topic itself. Approximately half those directly involved in the research had some prior contact with Asperger’s Syndrome or autism, and this, along with the knowledge that there was an intention from the beginning to publish the work in a form that is accessible to lay people as well as scholars, had a significant impact on people’s willingness to participate.

Myself

Recruiting one’s self for a study that will be assessed, published and hopefully read by others has certain considerations.  There is no doubt that an autoethnographic study requires that the author open himself to scrutiny of a professional and personal nature. In this instance I am declaring myself to have a “mental disability”, and am disclosing things that no-one besides my psychologist has heard before. It is harder than it might seem and there have been many occasions where I have been tempted to withdraw my own data.  Impossible of course.

Most important, however are those who really have no choice in their participation.

Passive participants

The passive participants presented a very different ethical issue. Their involvement is automatic – they are people around me, with whom I interact on a regular basis. They are family, friends, colleagues. Their involvement is also informal in that they have not participated in the videos, surveys or interviews, yet they are implicated by association. After much consultation, reading and discussion with those involved it was decided to avoid any explicit mention of those closest to me and not to seek their active participation unless it was volunteered, as was the case with some colleagues. It is not possible to completely exclude these people without resorting to writing under a pseudonym but I have attempted to respect their privacy and right to anonymity as much as I can.

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