Are we doing it ‘right’? Ethical complexity in the ARCH Project

By Andrew Burns, Research Fellow

One of the things that attracted me to the ARCH Project was its complexity. Here was a project that was seeking to bring together care experienced children, young people, and adults with archivists, researchers, academics, and residential childcare professionals to explore if and how the everyday of residential childcare could be captured and maintained in a ‘living archive’.  This was not about individual case records (as important as they are), but about the everyday group experience of residential childcare and what that means to those who are/were part of it.  As you will see in other parts of this website, there are different phases of the project looking at the past, the present, and the future.  In this blog, I want to focus on an area of complexity that runs through each phase and the whole project: ethics.

The first question to deal with is: what are ethics?  Two definitions of ethics in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED, 2022) are

  1. The branch of knowledge or study dealing with moral principles.
  2. A system or set of moral principles; (in a weaker sense) a set of social or personal values.

Ethics, then, relate to values and morality; they are about right and wrong.  To act ethically is to do the right thing. But determining the ‘right’ course of action is not always straightforward. Human beings have long struggled with ethically difficult questions, be that the classic moral dilemma of ‘would you steal a loaf of bread to feed your family?’ or more contemporary issues such as whether Extinction Rebellion are right to disrupt city life in their pursuit of action to address climate change.  While the law often provides some basis for judgement (don’t steal, don’t disrupt) it is not always universally accepted and there are often many differing opinions on issues such as these.  There may be areas of nuance that need to be taken into account and, perhaps, the law is challenged and changed accordingly.  

Ethics are a fundamental part of contemporary research design, and for good reason.  In human history, there have been some appalling cases of individuals being harmed and exploited in the name of ‘research’.  These include deceptive and cruel methods in different fields including medical and psychological research.  You can find some examples here. In reaction to these, national and international laws and regulations have been enacted, and ethical policies and standards have been produced.  Ethical considerations and approaches have developed in many ways and research now sits within complex legal and regulatory frameworks and is overseen by ethical review boards in research institutions.  For example, the University of Stirling has ethics committees that review all proposed research projects to make sure that they comply with agreed ethical standards.  These standards ensure that all participants and researchers are kept physically and emotionally safe, and that participants’ information, rights, and dignity are respected.  As part of these processes, researchers consider the power and privilege that their role brings and seek ways to empower and protect participants.  The first phase of the ARCH Project has been reviewed and checked by the General University Ethics Panel to ensure that we keep to these high ethical standards.  You can find out how the University of Stirling defines research ethics here along with relevant policy documents.  Professional bodies also have codes or statements of ethics that they expect their members to comply with such as the British Sociological Association’s Statement of Ethical Practice.

The ARCH Project comes with a number of ethical, legal and moral challenges because it charters new ground in relation to the experiences of looked after children and care experienced adults.  At its heart, this project addresses how the stories of children in care may be heard and seen by them at times of their choosing (Grosvenor 2007) while at the same time protecting identities and memories. This is no easy task, and a number of challenges need to be addressed including: 

  • the protection of identity and experiences both in historical archives and in the ‘living archive’.
  • retention of archives (retained where, maintained by whom, what is kept/displayed and for how long).
  • control of access to archives (who can access and how, who decides and on what basis).
  • the moderation of online comments including allegations. 

Balancing the needs and wishes of the individuals involved in the archive (current and previous residents and staff), the organisational needs and demands of the care providers, as well as legal requirements (such as those in the Data Protection Act 2018 and the Public Records (Scotland) Act 2011) creates tensions and challenges. In essence, this project has ethical dilemmas at its core. 

Many of the ethical issues posed by the research are, in themselves, key aspects of it.  What issues will be uncovered by an attempt to create a living archive of residential childcare?  Can these issues be resolved and, if so, how?  If they cannot be resolved, why? The project and the ways in which these types of questions are navigated will provide important data and, no doubt, produce further debate. Moreover, the experiences of all those involved in addressing these questions will aid in the production of guidance and training materials to help others who may wish to develop similar or different types of archives.

There is no denying the ethical complexity involved in this project and, because of this, the team will make use of different expertise, guides, and processes in order to ensure that we consider the potential implications of our work and take action to remove or mitigate risks that are identified.  As such, this project will be guided by archival and care experts including NRSLandesarchiv BerlinSCCWP and IGFH.  It will be underpinned by the British Sociological Association’s Statement of Ethical Practice, the International Council on Archives code of ethics, and will also be informed by established codes of ethics for researching with children (Alderson & Morrow, 2011; Christensen & Prout, 2002). The project will only progress through its phases with the approval of ethics committees from the University of Osnabrück and the University of Stirling. 

Using all of this, and the expertise of those with direct experiences of residential childcare, we will continue to ask ourselves: are we doing this ‘right’?


Alderson, P. and Morrow, V. (2011) The Ethics of Research with Children and Young People 2nd Edition, London: Sage Publications Ltd

Christensen, P. and Prout, A. (2002) Working with Ethical Symmetry in Social Research with Children, Childhood, Vol. 9 (4), pp.477-497

Grosvenor, I. (2007) ‘Seen but not Heard’: City Childhoods from the Past into the Present, Pedagogica Historica, Vol. 43 (3), pp.405-429

OED (2022) ethic, [online] available at: [accessed 27/1/22]

Theme by the University of Stirling