Wellbeing and poverty pathways

Professor Sarah White

This project involved inter-disciplinary mixed method research in rural Zambia and India. A quantitative model to assess ‘inner wellbeing’ (what people think and feel themselves able to be and do) was developed using items generated within the study contexts. Ethnographic observations and conversations were shared and recorded through team meetings. Detailed open-ended life history interviews were also taken.

Ethical issues

A common ethics proposal was produced and ethics approval was received from UK and Zambia. The Indian collaborating organisation did not have an ethics committee.

We experienced conflict within the team in the initial period of piloting due to a clash of views and practices as a result of our different disciplinary approaches. For example issues arose about written versus verbal consent and appropriate debriefing for participants with limited literacy ability. A written de-briefing did not seem appropriate, nor was it clear that respondents wished for an extended verbal de-briefing about the project, at the end of what had often been an extended survey interview. Respondents rarely asked for more details about the study even when invited to do so. We therefore compromised by producing a written debriefing sheet which was provided to respondents on request rather than given as a matter of course. Researchers emphasised that participation was entirely voluntary and people could withdraw at any point if they chose. The research officer’s phone number was supplied so people could follow up with her if they wished.

In India, photographs of the families of people we interviewed were offered as incentives due to participants’ frustration at not benefitting from the earlier round of research. The local NGO partner advised against financial incentives, fearing that the community would demand payment in their future survey work. The preparation time required for the photographs provided an informal space in which we were able to respond to participants’ questions (de-briefing) and provided a more social space in which the research team and respondents were able to interact in a more equal and natural way.

Local researchers played a vital role in the research process and fieldwork but also raised ethical issues. To counteract any sampling bias we included interviews with people from many different factions. Local team members were also privy to sensitive information about some participants but we were sensitive to the fact that the team’s information could be wrong, or participants might not want to reveal sensitive issues.

Some of the questions were inevitably personal, while the interview experience was as conversational as possible, the survey included standardised responses to set questions; we felt this was a form of disciplining respondents and believe strongly that there is an ethical imperative to include qualitative approaches alongside quantitative when claims are being made about people’s thoughts or feelings, to guard against misinterpretation of the data.

Due to the political situation in Zambia and potential threat any publication could pose to participants, we discussed it with participants and in team meetings. Local people saw our research as a critical opportunity for their grievances to be heard at a national level but we paid particular care when anonymising our data, to ensure individuals could not be identified. Representatives from the villages were also presented with papers before they went public.

We decided not to make alcohol abuse a major focus of attention in our policy briefs in India. Although we recognised that this was a significant factor affecting wellbeing in the communities, we were aware that extended discussion of this issue could easily be co-opted into existing negative stereotypes of these communities. Due to language barriers the India briefing paper was not presented to Indian representatives. Ideally a Briefing Paper in Hindi would have also been produced.


  • In interdisciplinary teams ensure you have detailed discussions about the practicality of research ethics early on, so you can avoid these erupting as crises in the field. In particular, issues of formal rules vs situational ethics need to be discussed.
  • Research is a social process. This cannot be avoided, so you need to work with it and make it as positive and inclusive a process as possible. This is particularly evident in political situations where engagement with communities is only achievable through a local intermediary organisation. 
  • In primary research that makes claims about people’s thoughts or feelings there is an ethical requirement to include qualitative approaches, to guard against imposing outsider interpretations.
  • It is impossible to avoid some form of local alignment – or being seen as such. It is, however, important that you remain as open as possible to hearing from people from all sides of a conflict, so that if you do engage in policy processes, you do so from a broad base of knowledge and understanding.