The ethics of metaphor as a research tool

Research Ethics 11 (1):42-51 (2015)
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The interpretive and subjective nature of qualitative research has led to growing utilization of arts-based strategies for data collection, analysis and dissemination. The defining characteristic of all such strategies is that they are largely subjective and intended to invoke personal responses in the ‘audience.’ Following that direction, many qualitative researchers are using metaphor to capture themes emerging from their analysis. In this article, we explore ethical aspects of using metaphor in describing results of qualitative health research and illustrate some of the complexities using a case study of research conducted by one of the authors. Our analysis is designed to sensitize researchers and ethics reviewers to some unique ethical issues inherent to this approach towards data analysis and presentation. Issues related to participant dignity, respect and vulnerability led us to suggest that researchers should take these points into consideration in designing their research and seeking informed consent. Metaphors can be linguistic devices, but also conceptual aids that help develop patterns in analysis or that facilitate re-interpretation. However, there is a thin line between artistic licence for better expression and distorting the participants’ actual experience and meanings. Researchers, and reviewers, must be aware of the danger to participant dignity and integrity when aesthetics overshadow actuality. The use of metaphor may also trigger tensions between researchers and participants, especially if member checking is used. The implications of participant withdrawal must be considered and conveyed to ethics reviewers and participants. It is important to have a plan in place for dealing with some of these issues. These should be detailed in the proposal and communicated to participants. Institutional research ethics boards should, on their part, be prepared to ask questions if such details are lacking in the proposal



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Metaphors we live by.George Lakoff & Mark Johnson - 1980 - Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Edited by Mark Johnson.
Metaphors We Live By.George Lakoff & Mark Johnson - 1980 - Ethics 93 (3):619-621.
Metaphors We Live by.Max Black - 1980 - Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 40 (2):208-210.
No longer patient: feminist ethics and health care.Susan Sherwin - 1992 - Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

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