A recent footnote in my Nvivo Qualitative Research book (Bazeley and Jackson, 2013) states “ if the source is an interview or similar, we would suggest that you substitute pseudonyms….it reduces the risk of breaking confidentiality” p. 33
I found this footnote really interesting because of its main underlying assumption that your participants have chosen to be anonymous
and this isn’t always the case.
I went to an Ethics Workshop in my first year PhD – in fact, it was a workshop specifically looking at Ethics in conducting research in Aboriginal or Indigenous communities and one of the facilitator points was that the idea of anonymity arose primarily from medical research- and it has been moved over into other disciplines with little questioning.
Further, by assuming that participants want to be anonymous, you are effectively claiming that you are the “Creator/Owner of Knowledge” and they are ‘just’ anon informants. She also linked this to a history of disenfranchisement – of white people coming, taking indigenous knowledge and then claiming it as their own.
Her main point – don’t assume your participants want to be anonymous. They may well want to be named as the owners, generators, creators of the knowledge that they are sharing with you.
“What about risk?” you ask
There are other ways of protecting participants/informants if you think your research may result in risky situations. For example, in my research, my ‘data’ (transcripts, audio, video) will be publicly available after an embargo period. I chose a long embargo period (~10-20 years) for the full data set to be available, and then I placed a condition that I am contacted about who uses the data.
I also offered a choice to the participants- do you want to be anonymous?
and I offered that we could switch off the recorder at any time during the interview, if there were parts they did not want recorded.
I then considered ‘good sense’ approach when using quotes or excerpts – for me, this was around considering if any of the content could in some way “come back to bite” the participant.
Of course, you can’t plan for everything. But your participants/informants are adults (usually unless you got special permission to work with children) and they have agency too- they can also weigh up and decide the risk for themselves about participation in research and the usefulness (or not) of anonymity.