Fruit of the Poisonous Tree: Worrying Trends in Qualitative Research

  • Martin Tolich


There is a worrying trend in the social sciences whereby researchers bypass ethics review. Autoethnographers often exempt themselves from IRBs claiming the stories they tell are their own; even when others written into their story might not consent.  A similar condition emerges in ethnography where novice researchers generate data prior to commencing postgraduate studies both evading ethical oversight and without demonstrating basic ethical considerations.  Goffman turned her PhD into On the Run based on six years of fieldwork in inner city black neighbourhoods.  Venkatesh's Gangleader for a Day, also based on his PhD, describes researching in an inner city high rise without ethical considerations.  How will future social science postgraduate students read these best sellers?  Tolich created a short scenario encapsulating these two books asking academics and IRB members to review it. Under what conditions would they supervise or approve data collected prior to enrolling in a PhD that demonstrated no evidence of ethical considerations. Respondents expressed concern for data collected without ethical considerations seeing it as inadmissible, similar to the legal term fruit of the poisonous tree.  They recognised attempts to gain retrospective consent as more likely to exacerbate than alleviate harm.