Migration, marital instability and divorce among British Asians: Transnationalism, changing conjugalities and legal pluralism

Dr Kaveri Qureshi

The project intended to produce new empirical data on the causes, processes and consequences of marital instability and divorce among British Pakistani Muslims and Punjabi Sikhs.

Ethical issues

Favourable opinion was received by the Central University Research Ethics Committee (external website) of the University of Oxford. 

Verbal consent was sought as experience showed that written consent can create mistrust in relationships, especially where many of the participants are insecure in their receipt of welfare benefits or in uncertain immigration situations. Participants were provided with one-page information sheets and consent sheets.

In negotiating access to a sharia council, information and consent sheets were shared with the alim. The couples who sought the services of the council were made aware that I was a social anthropologist undertaking a research project.

The interviews generated powerful feelings and were often painful. However, many people described feelings of affirmation at the chance to have their stories heard by someone who was neutral to the family. Potential participants were advised that they might experience emotional distress from revisiting memories of marital breakdown and family conflict; as a result several participants declined the opportunity to participate.

I aimed to be non-judgmental and non-directive when participants made significant disclosures about traumatic events in their lives, but afterwards provided participants with information about appropriate support services should they wish to discuss those events again. In analysing and writing my research, I am continually reminded of the enormity of these disclosures, and have turned to feminist ethical concepts such as ‘responsible knowing’ (Gabb 2010) to think through how to balance the integrity of my account alongside the principle of protecting participants.

Subsequent interviews were carried out with the participants willing to meet again and these participants were those with whom I developed the strongest rapport and trust. Consent at follow-up meetings was treated as an ongoing process, allowing participants to retract previous disclosures if required.

In many cases paired interviews within families presented ethical dilemmas. I sought participants’ explicit permission to interview their family members, advising them that I would treat all interviews, including those solicited from family members, as confidential.

I was granted a waiver for certain aspects of the data archiving following discussions with the UK Data Service as negotiating permission for archiving the data collected with participants was challenging. When discussing consent for data archiving with participants with whom I had developed a strong level of trust, they all declined, citing concerns about the possibility of being identified following anonymisation procedures, uncertainties about who the future researchers might be and what the data would be used for, and religious reasons.

Ensuring anonymity and confidentiality is not only a matter of providing pseudonyms and editing out revealing place and personal names. It involves careful reflection about what participants have chosen to disclose, and balancing the principles of thick description and analytic integrity against participants’ emotional and reputational needs. 

Lessons

  • Researchers should be mindful of participants’ wariness in participating in research given the insecurity that many people feel about their livelihoods and immigration status, especially in deprived neighbourhoods. Verbal consent may be appropriate.  
  • Research involving repeated longitudinal interactions requires researchers to sustain relationships, and revisit and renegotiate issues of consent. 
  • The possibility of causing emotional distress to participants as a result of them reliving difficult experiences should not prevent research into sensitive topics, as participants may find it beneficial to discuss sensitive issues with a neutral person in a confidential setting. 
  • Pilot the process of data archiving, including consent procedures, participant transcript reading, editing and anonymisation procedures, before attempting large-scale data collection as vulnerable research participants discussing sensitive topics may not be willing to have their data shared.
  • Researchers need to consider how to protect participants’ public anonymity and their private identities from family members who may know them intimately.