The power dynamics of survey consent
What are factors in the consenting process? And how can we do better?
Understanding survey consent
If you have ever designed a survey, you know what the first question always is. “Do you consent to participating in this survey?” This usually comes after an explanation of the survey and seems straightforward enough, but there may a variety of dynamics at play around this simple yes or no question. Consent, given during the start of the survey is meant to assist the respondent in understanding the research, what is expected of them, and the potential risks of harm and benefits of participating in the research. The process of consent should enable them to decide whether or not to participate in the study. The emphasis is on presenting information that a “reasonable person” would want to have in order to make an informed decision to participate, providing an opportunity to discuss, and ensuring subject comprehension. However, how does this play in practice? Is survey consent really an optional yes or no with respondents making independent, unbiased and informed decisions? What exactly are the dynamics that play into the process of giving someone your consent of participating in their study and answering often personal questions with little to no incentives?
Power dynamics of respondents
It’s common knowledge while designing evaluations that surveys in a rural setting will have lower rates of refusals both for field and phone surveys as compared to surveys in an urban setting. The simple reason that rural respondents have more time isn’t completely true, it’s that they are willing and internally pressured to give you that time. Vulnerable and marginalised respondents will find it harder to say no. Imagine being suddenly visited by a survey team in your house- even if surveyors are locals from the same district or state- they will often be well dressed, well spoken, capable of using Android devices, armed with tablets and other survey equipment and professional youths from the community. These tend to be people from the community who if not better off are more enterprising, independent and ambitious. When approached by surveyors, respondents may be understandably intimidated, unable to ask doubts they may have or ask them to come at a better time that suits the respondent or say no altogether. The clear caste, class and even gender dynamics that may exist between the respondents and the survey team and how they play into the consenting process cannot be ignored. Other people in the community, neighbours and family members who usually turn up to see the survey may also enable the coercion process. This makes it difficult for respondents to turn them away. Moreover, respondents may expect some future direct benefit to participation. The expectation of future direct benefit that underlies a respondent’s consent for intensive surveys. In such a scenario the act of informed consent might as well be rendered moot.
Pressure on survey teams
Local staff are directly responsible for completion rates of surveys. Though they cannot control respondents who have migrated, refusals are taken personally- as these are respondents who could have translated to a complete survey but didn’t. There is a direct incentive to maximize participation for their own job concerns. Refusals within the survey team are often seen as a direct reflection of their performance and failure on their part. This may also motivate them to keep trying to convince the respondent repeatedly again making the entire process of consent irrelevant. The pressure on the field team and pressure on the respondent to consent are more amplified during accompaniments when Survey Coordinators, Research Associates, and even Principal Investigators go along with the surveyor to conduct quality checks and accompany the survey team. The stark class and caste inequalities that exist between the Research Team and the Survey Team and the respondents can make refusing a survey very difficult.
Loose theories of change
Understanding that respondents may be agreeing to the survey under undue stress or pressure makes it even more important that your survey instrument is designed to be respectful to respondent time. Researchers often go in knowing from piloting and experience the amount of time respondents of a particular demographic are willing to give them. Just because nobody is turning your survey team away, doesn’t mean that modules keep getting added to a survey instrument- it is essential to understand the power dynamics at play and respect respondent time.
With designing a survey instrument, there comes great responsibility to choose your survey modules thoughtfully. To expect your intervention to have an effect on all outcomes you can possibly think of is disrespectful to respondent time and even money. It is essential to comb over each question, understand what it tells you, weigh the time it takes to cover on field, relevance to answer your research question and inform policy and make generous cuts. Thorough and repeated piloting to understand if there are quicker ways to ask the same question that save respondent time, learning from your background research and if you have data from midline surveys conducted or the same survey conducted with a different set of similar respondents (usually when surveys are conducted in staggered phases) and then constantly adapting your survey instrument is essential. Having a clearly defined analysis plan and a set of policy question that your intervention seeks to answer prior to fielding your survey can also help reign in the survey instrument.
Researchers must recognize the vulnerable positions of their respondents and acknowledge the power dynamics at play. Putting yourself into the place of the respondents who form the backbone of your research study may also help you design more accurate survey instruments. Playing around with shorter surveys with more frequency versus longer surveys with shorter frequency and understanding what was less taxing for the respondent and more accurate in terms of the data you collected can lead to gains for the survey team, researchers and the respondents. Small changes can also go a long way, such as editing standard consent scripts to make sure they put the respondent at ease and reinforce that it is alright to stop the survey at any time with no influence on entitlements and that survey participation is completely dependent on the respondent. Since throwing away the entrenched power dynamic that comes into play during a survey isn’t possible in a day, designing surveys that are respectful of respondent time, and putting less pressure on their field teams for cases of refusal is a first step to making sure consent is actually informed and not just a checkbox to an IRB requirement.