The role of moral imagination in qualitative social research

  • Adrianna Surmiak


This presentation explores the role of moral imagination in qualitative social research drawing on the results of qualitative research with Polish social researchers. Thus, it offers a critical reflection about the axiological dimension of qualitative research. The presentation has two objectives. Firstly, it aims to demonstrate that moral imagination is essential for ethical social research. The concept of moral imagination is often discussed in a theoretical context (e.g. Johnson, 1993; Narvaez & Mrkva, 2014) or in that of business ethics (e.g. Moberg & Seabright, 2000; Vidaver-Cohen, 1997; Werhane, 1999). However, in social qualitative research, its relevance is not well recognised. Instead, quality researchers usually attach greater importance to reflexivity understood as a continuous process of critical analysis of how knowledge is produced in research (critical analysis includes, among others, the research situation, research methods, the role of the researcher, etc.). Therefore, reflexivity is treated as a way to improve the quality and validity of the research and as a way of dealing with ethical issues in research practice (e.g. Berger, 2015; Doucet & Mauthner, 2002; Lahman, 2018). In the context of research ethics, Marilys Guillemin and Lynn Gillam (2004) argue that reflexivity creates a bridge between 'procedural ethics' and 'ethics in practice'. According to them, it is particularly useful in solving ethical dilemmas, which are often context-dependent and difficult to predict in advance. In my presentation I point out that reflexivity is a key and necessary but not sufficient condition for the ethical conduct of qualitative social research. To create the bridge mentioned by Guillemin and Gillam, we also need a moral imagination, i.e. the ability to imagine different points of view on a given situation, different options for action and their consequences, as well as evaluating possibilities (Werhane & Moriarty, 2009). From the presented point of view, moral imagination includes reflection, but is not limited to it.

Secondly, the aim of my presentation is to show how Patricia H. Werhane's concept of moral imagination for business ethics can be adapted for social qualitative research. According to Werhane (1999), moral imagination begins not with a general but with a particular situation. This process includes several steps: 1) using reflexivity, i.e. becoming aware of all the contexts and factors that influence one’s perception of a situation or a problem, to disengage from one’s primary framework, and envision possible conflicts or dilemmas; 2) reframing the situation or problem from various perspectives; 3) creating new possibilities or solutions; 4) evaluating the possibilities or solutions by using consequences analysis and balance approach (De Colle & Werhane, 2008). This concept has already been introduced to qualitative research by Susan Kiragu & Molly Warrington (2012). They used the framework of moral imagination to deconstruct the process of ethical and methodological decision-making while conducting research with girls in primary schools in Kenya. This is a good example of how moral imagination contributes not only to avoiding harm, but also to doing good. However, their analysis focuses more on specific ethical problems and dilemmas than on how to apply the concept of moral imagination to qualitative social research in general. For example, it is difficult to say how their way of achieving reflectiveness or reframing the problem can translate into the situations of other researchers, how it can be utilized by other researchers. In contrast, my presentation focuses on the application of the concept of moral imagination to qualitative social research. It shows how researchers can achieve and develop individual steps to engage moral imagination in ethical decision making. For example, the paper highlights the role of different ethical approaches in reframing the situation or problem (e.g. the ethics of care, deontology and consequentialism). This reframing with reference to various ethical approaches was not mentioned by Werhane or Kiragu and Warrington (according to the latter, moral imagination is strictly connected with a consequentialist approach to research ethics, which, however, may limit moral imagination to a single framework). My research shows that such reframing could be useful.

The paper draws on in-depth interviews with 56 Polish social researchers. The interviews generally focused on the researchers’ experiences and opinions about the ethical practices and dilemmas in qualitative research with vulnerable participants. For example, one of the goals of research was to determine what ethical choices are made by researchers during research and what the reasons behind these choices are. The recruitment method was maximum variation sampling (Patton, 1990). The participants were at various stages of their academic careers (11 professors, 32 post-doctoral researchers and 12 PhD students) and represented 13 research centres and universities in Poland. Some of them defined themselves as sociologists (n=34), some as socio-cultural anthropologists (n=20) and some as both (n=3). All interviewees were experienced in qualitative research with people who are particularly susceptible to harm due to their unprivileged position, such as, for example, the homeless, the poor, sex workers, refugees and people with disabilities. The researchers used different research approaches (e.g. postpositivism, action research, feminist methodology) and various research methods (e.g. participatory observation, biographical interviews, photovoice). All interviewees were digitally recorded, fully transcribed and coded by meaning condensation and meaning categorisation (Kvale, 1996).

To sum up, I argue that there is a need for moral imagination in qualitative social research for several reasons. First, as Werhane (1999) stresses, much unethical behaviour of managers results from a lack of moral imagination. This is also true for social researchers. Secondly, moral imagination is important in the ethical and methodological decision-making process, because it helps to take into account different points of view and possible alternatives. Thirdly, the conception of moral imagination can be useful in solving many dilemmas and ethical problems in qualitative social research. Thus, the concept of moral imagination is worth discussing.