PhD Courses in Denmark

Ethical challenges and dilemmas in research with vulnerable and socially exposed groups in society

Graduate School, Arts at Aarhus University

This PhD course deals with the ethical challenges, situations and dilemmas that PhD students encounter in their research - especially within the research environment covering human and social sciences. 
The PhD course focuses on how and in what ways ethical challenges and situations are handled in the actual research process – in particular aimed at children, young people and adults who are in vulnerable and socially exposed positions, e.g. research in children placed outside the home, adults in prisons, or young people living under conditions of marginalization and exclusion. 
Ethics in research within the research environment covering humanities and social sciences traditionally relates to both moral, legal and professional considerations often presented in a number of formalized guidelines dealing with the importance of e.g. informed consent, confidentiality and protection of informants throughout the research process (Petersen, 2018; Petersen & Ladefoged, 2020). 
However, research about and with children, young people and adults in vulnerable and socially exposed positions - often does not hold sufficient answers to the critical and contextualized ethical situations that may emerge in the research process, although these are formalized in ethical guidelines within research. A number of traditions within the research environment covering human and social sciences have addressed central ethical approaches and understandings that will be included and discussed in the course. 
Research about and with vulnerable and socially exposed children, adolescents and adults identifies, for examples, ethical considerations that point to the importance of protecting and taking care of their informants (Swartz, 2011; Powell et al., 2012; Brooks & te Riele, 2013). While the tradition of situation ethics emphasizes the importance of ethics as contextual and the necessity to relate to the unexpected in the research process (Ellis, 2007, Mathiassen, 2012). Likewise, the feminist approach will be discussed (Piper & Simons, 2005), which focuses on ethics as affiliated with the importance of respect, care and the relationship between researcher and informant, as well as the subject-oriented approach, developed with inspiration from critical psychology and social practice theory, which has a focus on the collaboration between researcher and co-researcher (Petersen, 2018; Törrönen, & Petersen ,2021). 
The PhD course will both present and discuss ethics and ethical dilemmas / issues and challenges affiliated to the PhD students' own experiences from their line of work, as well as a number of researchers’. 
The following presentations will frame the PhD course: 

Kirsten Elisa Petersen, Associate Professor, PhD, (DPU) Aarhus University
What do we know about ethics and ethical challenges in social research? 

This presentation introduces different approaches and understandings to ethics in social research – specifically aimed at children and young people. The presentation will display key themes in social research, e.g. conducting dangerous research, research on sensitive topics, and the importance of doing good in research with vulnerable and marginalized groups. Several approaches in social research with vulnerable and marginalized groups have identified a number of ethical challenges and dilemmas that are illuminated as well as various ethical strategies that seek to address these ethical challenges in research – in particular within the qualitative research tradition in research with children and young. 

Charlotte Mathiassen, Associate Professor, PhD, (DPU) Aarhus University 
Imprisoned people – and ethically conflictual situations
With a point of departure in research with imprisoned people, I shall present ethically conflictual situations demanding of the researcher to make difficult decisions on the spot so to speak. Both on a micro level – when doing observations or interviews but also on a macro level; deciding whether do a certain piece of research or not. Drawing on existential-phenomenological inspirations and feminist approaches, I will share material from research with long term male prisoners and female prisoners from all levels of security (open and closed prisons). Furthermore I shall include examples from ethical discussions concerning prisoners own writings about their Imprisonment, criminal acts.

Hanne Warming, Professor, ph.d, RUC
This presentation focuses on ethics in qualitative research projects regarding children and adolescents in vulnerable positions. We will engage in – based on the philosophy of Levinas – ethics as a fundamental demand in all inter-human relationships. Thus, ethics is not something to be fully plan for or to read how to do. By contrast, it becomes a procedural demand for ongoing awareness and handling of ethical challenges and dilemmas.

Line Lerche Mørck, Professor, PhD, (DPU) Aarhus University
Social practice ethics in participatory, emancipatory research with vulnerable groups 

We will discuss the relationship between institutional ethics, dilemmas in practice, and social practice ethical actions. Institutional ethics are understood as the norms that dominate universities' ethical boards, as well as many of the institutions you conduct research with. Based on Flinders (1992), we discuss how ethical standards have changed historically and how different paradigms characterize research currently across academic traditions and research fields. Examples of ethical dilemmas, including tensions between institutional ethics and lived ethics are introduced in and across selected practice and participant-oriented research projects. What is the difference between institutionalized ethics, as we know it from the ethical boards, and the situated ethics that we co-create in participant-oriented, practice-oriented research and intervention? Proposals are given for new possible standards for social practice ethics, which are particularly relevant in research and practice with vulnerable groups. We discuss ethical dilemmas in and across different research projects, including fieldwork at street level, exit processes and identity transformation in collaboration with former gang members, collective memory work with mothers of 'children in difficulties', as well as a participatory practice-oriented practice research and development project, where one dilemma is, that it can be difficult to anonymize projects and participants.

Bjørg Kjær, Associate professor, (DPU) Aarhus University
Balancing on a knife edge – research ethical dilemmas when exploring vulnerable children and hard-pressed professionals 

Based on anthropological research regarding children with disabilities my presentation will focus on the ever-present and urgent ethical demands (Løgstrup) towards different interacting groups of social agents. Can critical research be practiced without betraying basic ethical obligations? Could ethical betrayals be legitimate? Could critical approaches be loyal and ethical? Is it possible to handle power asymmetries and problematic situations and circumstances in ways that are both ethical and critical at the same time? How can we as researchers deal with our own emotional strain when witnessing moral failings?  


ourse focuses on how ethical challenges and situations can be understood and handled, partly through a number of presentations from researchers who present their own research methodological challenges and ethical-moral reflections from their own research practice, and partly through presentations from PhD students, affiliated with their own experiences in handling ethical issues and challenges through their PhD projects.

The purpose is for the PhD students to develop their research competencies in relation to handling ethical challenges and issues, in their own research practice, and developing knowledge about different ethical approaches within the research environment covering human and social science, and how to use different approaches in their own research.


Conolly, A. (2008) Challenges of generating qualitative data with socially excluded young people. International journal of social research Methodology, 11(3), 201-214. 
Petersen, K.E. (2018) Farlige unge eller farlig forskning: om udviklingen af strategier for etiske situationer og dilemmaer i forskning sammen med unge mænd i bandegrupperinger. Dansk Sociologi, (4), 31-53. 
Petersen, K.E. & Ladefoged, L. (2020) Forskning med børn og unge. Etik og etiske dilemmaer. København: Hans Reitzels Forlag. 
Törrönen, M., & Petersen, K. E. (2021) Ethical reflections on sensitive research with young people living in conditions of vulnerability. Social Work and Society, 19(1). 
Powell, M.A., et al. (2012) International literature review: ethical issues in undertaking research with children and young people. Southern Cross University. Centre for Children and Young People. 
Powell, M.A. et al. (2018) Sensitive topics in social research involving children. International Journal of Social Research Methodology, 21(6), 647-660. 
Swartz, S., (2011) Going deep and giving back: strategies for exceeding ethical expectations when researching amongst vulnerable youth. Qualitative Research, 11(1), 47-68. 
Daly, A. (2019): A Phenomenological Grounding of Feminist Ethics. The Journal of the British Society for Phenomenology, Vol. 50 (1), 1–18: 17 s. (tilgængelig via biblioteket)
Mathiassen, C. (2020). En feministisk tilgang til Etik. I: Petersen, K.E & Ladefoged, L. (red.). Forskning med børn og unge. Etik og etiske dilemmaer.  København: Hans Reitzels forlag: 95 – 105 (10 s.)
Mathiassen, C. (2021) Fængslede kvinder er andet og mere end stereotyper : Kvindefængsel i Danmark anno 2021. I Nordisk Tidsskrift for Kriminalvidenskab, Bind 108, Nr. 1, 03.2021, s. 289-302.
Mathiassen, C. (2021) Fængslede kvinder i Danmark. I: Det fængslede menneske : nedslag i fængslet idéhistorier . København : Baggrund, 2021. s. 134-147 (Baggrunds Tidsskrift, Bind 2).
Levinas E (1969) Totality and Infinity. Pittsburgh: Duqusne University Press.

Alderson P and Morrow V (2011) The Ethics of Research with Children and Young People.

London: Sage

Gullemin M and Gillam L (2004) Ethics, reflexivity, and ‘ethically important moments’ in

research. Qualitative Inquiry 10(2): 261–280.
Mattingly, C. (2012). Two virtue ethics and the anthropology of morality. I: Anthropological Theory 12(2), 161-184. DOI: 10.1177/1463499612455284 

Mattingly, C. 2013. Moral Selves and Moral Scenes: Narrative Experiments in Everyday Life Ethnos, 78:3. 

Ribers, B. (2016): Når den etiske fordring møder den pædagogiske virkelighed I Pædagogers etik – i relationen, professionen og samfundet. BUPL.  

Lévinas, E. (1996). Totalitet og uendelighed. Et essay om exterioriteten. København: Hans Reitzels Forlag.  
Deuchar, R. (2015). Dilemmas, deception and ethical decision-making: Insights from a Transatlantic ethnographer, in Bhopal, K. and Deuchar, R. (eds.) Researching Marginalized Groups. New York: Routledge, (p. 62–74).

Flinders, D. J. (1992). In search of ethical guidance: constructing a basis for dialogue. International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, 5(2), 101-115. doi:10.1080/0951839920050202

Mørck, L. L. (2021). New standards for social practice ethics? Researching processes of gang exit with former gang members. In D. C. Brotherton, & R. J. Gude (Eds.), Routledge International Handbook of Critical Gang Studies (pp. 138-152). Routledge. Routledge International Handbooks

Mørck, L. L., Carlsen, H. B., Grøndahl, A., Jensen, C. C., & Lerche, I. N. (2011). Etik i kollektivt biografiarbejde med mødre til ’børn i vanskeligheder’. Nordiske Udkast, 39(1,2), 39-55. Khawaja, I., & Mørck, L. L. (2022). Transmethodological mo(ve)ments: - creating a third space for emancipatory research . Outlines, 22, 265-303.

Warming, H. (2020): “Inddragelse af børns og unges perspektiver i forskning”. In K. E. Petersen & L. Ladefoged eds. Forskning med børn og unge. København: Hans Reitzels Forlag: 67-80

Alminde, S. & H. Warming (2020): “Future workshops as a means to democratic, inclusive and empowering research with children, young people and others." Qualitative Research 20 (4): 432-448

Wulf-Andersen, T. Ø.; H. Warming & A. Neidel (2021): “Power and reflexivity: Positions and positioning in involving research with young people”. In Wulf-Andersen, R. Follesø & T. Olsen eds. Involving Methods in Youth Research: Reflections on participation and power. Palgrave Macmillan: 17-46.

Target group:

PhD students within the research environment covering humanities and social sciences, and in particular PhD students who work within the social research field (social science) studying vulnerable and socially exposed groups in society.


3 points




Lectures, groupwork, presentations
The course extends over three days. The first day holds an introduction to the understanding of and approaches to ethics within research environments covering the human and social sciences, as well as presentations from invited speakers who in different ways work with ethical challenges and dilemmas in their own research practice. On the second day there will be presentations and discussions based on the PhD students' own research experiences on ethics, and presentations from researchers. On the third and last day of the course, the PhD students' presentation and discussion are completed, as well as a presentation from researchers.

The presentations will alter from invited researchers, as well as group work with the PhD students' own experiences and reflections on ethics and ethical issues in their research.


Kirsten Elisa Petersen, Associate Professor, PhD, (DPU) Aarhus University,
Charlotte Mathiassen, Associate Professor, PhD, (DPU) Aarhus University,
Hanne Warming, Professor, ph.d, RUC,
Line Lerche Mørck, Professor, PhD, (DPU) Aarhus University,
Bjørg Kjær, Associate professor, (DPU) Aarhus University,

Application deadline:

Please sign in via the link no later than 27 January 2024.