Determining when a question is too sensitive

Often research studies have accompanying questionnaires for qualitative aspects of the study and some of those questionnaires ask fairly sensitive information. It is important that there be concern for the participants welfare and so often REBs will ask questioned deemed too sensitive to be removed. But how do we determine a sensitive question from a normal or non-sensitive question. I believe the literature on sensitive research can help provide answers.

After reading through some of the literature I believe found a workable solution (or at least something to start a discussion) in response to the dilemma of determining when a question is too sensitive for inclusion in a questionnaire.

In the book Doing Research on Sensitive Topics by Raymond Lee (Lee 1993) he puts forward a definition of sensitive research that was widely received and accepted by more recent authors on the subject such as Virginia Dickson-Swift et al. in the book Undertaking Sensitive Research in the Health and Social Sciences: Managing Boundaries, Emotions and Risks (Dickson-Swift et al. 2008).

Lee defines sensitive research as “research which potentially poses a substantial threat to those who are or have been involved in it.” Adding to this definition, a threat can be grouped into three broad areas. The first is “intrusive threat” which deals with areas that are private, stressful or sacred e.g. sexual or religious practices. Second type is a “threat of sanction”, i.e. the research question involves the possibility of revealing information that is stigmatizing or incriminating. The third type of threat is “political threat” which refers to when researchers ask questions which “trespass” into areas that involve a social conflict involving the vested interests of the powerful in society.

Areas in which research questions are likely to be threatening include:

  • where question intrudes into the private sphere or delves into some deeply personal experience;
  • where the question is concerned with deviance or social control;
  • where the question impinge on the vested interests of powerful persons or the exercise of coercion or domination; or
  • where the question deals with things that are sacred to those being asked that they do not wish to profane.

A final comment I would like to make is that the above criteria for determining if a particular question in a questionnaire is too sensitive, cannot be used when the research topic itself is of a sensitive nature.

Please feel free to comment if you have one or ask questions.

All the best,


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