People are responsive to the apparent interest of an interviewer: and therein lies the essence of their vulnerability. It is sometimes extraordinary exactly what an interviewee may disclose to someone they have not met before who is listening with sympathetic attention. Curiously the element of professional impersonality (in the sense of not being in a personal relationship) seems to facilitate rather than inhibit disclosure. It is a commonplace experience for medical general practitioners, even when the disclosure is apparently unrelated to the purpose of the consultation. I once had this experience when interviewing a middle-aged woman (as part of a survey of employment conditions) who, almost abruptly, began talking about a baby she had accidentally smothered some 25 years earlier.
Whether people regret these disclosures afterwards (and their feelings may be complicated), the interviewer has a responsibility to them. You have been given, in trust, something about that person. It will rarely be so dramatic as the episode of the woman whose baby had died. But an experienced interviewer who creates the conditions for, and facilitates disclosures has a responsibility to the interviewee for how the material is stored (if it is), analysed and used.
Formal ethical procedures are now commonplace in research communities such as universities, and in the range of 'helping' professions, but their principles are also linked to a range of legislation (in the UK, specifically, in the Data Protection Act). The research activities, as well as the everyday professional practice of those employed in medicine, nursing and social work – but particularly the first of these – are regulated in fine detail. This is to protect the rights of patients, of course, but also to protect the professionals themselves because issues of consent or professional responsibility, if neglected, can lead to expensive and damaging legal action.
This self-protective emphasis is neither wrong nor unnecessary – quite the contrary. But its preoccupations can obscure the central ethical concern for the well-being of the patient or research subject. There is a balance to be struck, and for most people doing 'social' research the formal concerns are not as