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Vulnerable Participants

Participant vulnerability is a complex, dynamic state that can affect anyone at any time for many different reasons. All participants are different, with a wide range of needs, abilities and personal circumstances. These differences can place some in a position of vulnerability or greater risk of harm. Some people’s ability to participate effectively in the research may be affected by certain individual characteristics. These can be short-term or long-term, might fluctuate over time, and may not be obvious. Participants may be vulnerable because their competence to give informed consent is uncertain, because socially they are in a position where it is difficult for them to give informed consent or their circumstances may affect their decision to consent. Additionally being involved in the research project can also increase participants’ potential vulnerability.

Permanent vulnerabilities

Permanent or long-term characteristics could include, for example: people who have learning disabilities or other permanent or long-term disabilities, those on a low income, people with low literacy levels, or communities which have cultural barriers to participation. These characteristics can affect large numbers of people.

Fluctuating vulnerabilities

People can be made vulnerable by transitory situations which are not necessarily obvious at first glance. Fluctuating characteristics might include mental health issues, where English is not a first language, health problems, location, lack of internet access, etc.

Short-term vulnerabilities

Short-term characteristics causing vulnerability could be things related to sudden changes in circumstances like loss of employment or income, bereavement, relationship breakdown, or caring responsibilities

Interviewing vulnerable participants

One-to-one interviews

Many participants are understandably wary about inviting recruiters and researchers into their home, particularly the elderly and/or less mobile. If a pre-arranged appointment is made for a researcher or recruiter to visit someone’s home the participant should be told in advance the name of the person coming and the name of the company. The researcher or recruiter should always have identification.

Recruiters need to be aware of potentially dangerous situations, especially when working alone. Advice on lone working can be found  via    or   

Group interviews

Care must be taken that all participants are able to contribute to qualitative research discussions and are not bullied, intimidated or belittled. Participants must be told what will be expected of them when they agree to participate. This includes any physical exercise or anything unusual that may be required.

Vulnerable participants may need to have a chaperone and they may need either shorter or longer time for the research depending on their requirements. The moderator needs to be aware and be prepared to bring adapted materials and they may need to be more flexible in their approach to the participant.

It is important to check that the venue has suitable access arrangements. In some cases it might be appropriate that the client provides transport both to and from the venue.

Sex and Gender

You must act legally and ethically when collecting data and asking research participants questions on biological sex, gender and gender identity. All research participants need to feel equally valued and satisfied that their personal preferences are being respected in terms of how they wish to describe and categorise themselves.

Under the MRS Code of Conduct it is important to allow participants to express their views in the way that they prefer. Breaching this requirement could leave your activities open to investigation under the MRS disciplinary process. There are two rules in the Code of Conduct which apply to this

Rule 9 of the MRS Code of Conduct:

Members must take all reasonable precautions to ensure that participants are not harmed or adversely affected by their professional activities and ensure that there are measures in place to guard against potential harm.

Rule 29 (c) of the MRS Code of Conduct:

Members must take reasonable steps to ensure that participants are able to provide information in a way that reflects the view they want to express, including don’t know/prefer not to say.

Asking gender or sex questions when carrying out face-to-face or telephone interviewing requires greater skill and tact. When asking participants to fill in information on sex or gender via a website or form you may need to add extra options such as “other” or “prefer not to say”. Standard current practice in the sector is for recruiters to complete the gender question based on tone of voice and name. Although this may be appropriate in the majority of situations, in some instances it may be incorrect.

MRS has guidance on collecting data on sex and gender available here.