As ethical considerations must be applied in any psychological research study (Kitchener & Anderson, 2011), ethical considerations play a significant role in psychobiographical work and analysis (Elms, 1994). Elms, as well as Runyan (1982), points out that methodological quality (as discussed in Sects. 6.5 and 6.6) and ethical considerations are connected and go together in psychobiographical research. Ponterotto (2014) emphasises that ethical considerations always need to be discussed in the context of psychobiographical quality criteria, citing Haverkamp (2005) that a trustworthy research relationship can only be established by applying ethical practices to research. In this study, ethical considerations and practices are viewed as being strongly interlinked with quality criteria. This study includes incorporated ethical guidelines that ensure the quality of the data (Sects. 6.5 and 6.6) and the ethics of this research.
According to Beaucamp and Childress (2001), ethical principles include informed consent, confidentiality and anonymity, as well as autonomy and respect for the researched. The researcher needs to address these ethical issues during the process of research because personal, intimate details from the life of a selected person are documented, rewritten and employed as well as set, analysed and (re-) interpreted in a specific context and web of theories and applied research methodologies.
According to Ponterotto (2013a, 2013b), ethical considerations and practices need to be understood from a multidisciplinary perspective in psychobiographical research.
Ethical guidelines for research in psychobiographies have been established by Elms (1994). These primarily include the respectful treatment of intimate details of the life of an individual. Particularly in psychobiographic case study research, the first ethical issue seems to be the decision on the choice of the subject and the question of whether the study will focus on a person who is alive or deceased (Elms, 1994).
In this study, a living person has been chosen as subject of research. Since in psychobiographic research the individual studied is known by name, respect for the individual is highly important and is addressed in this research. When using autobiographical research, such as first-person documents, non-maleficence (Schurink, 1998) is strongly considered. Kovary (2011) emphasises that data in psychobiography need to be treated respectfully, since data revelation can lead to embarrassing results for the subject, particularly when the subject is still alive. Ponterotto (2014) emphasises that living figures studied demand the highest ethical care and suggests that the living person studied should be contacted and that informed consent and study participation should be requested. However, Ponterotto also highlights that it might be difficult to get into contact with the extraordinary subject of research. If informed consent or participation cannot be gained from the subject of research, the process of attempts to contact the subject should be described. With regard to this research study, the researcher tried to contact the individual studied through email, telephone and internet resources. However, it was not possible to get into direct contact with the person studied and research participation and informed consent could not be gained.
In this study on Paulo Coelho, the following ethical considerations have been applied without being in direct contact with the individual studied:
Firstly, the research is based on literature and material that has previously been published and can be found in the public domain, such as interviews with Paulo Coelho (Arias, 2001) or his biography (Morais, 2007). Both of these publications were published with consent and in tight cooperation with the writer and it is assumed that information gained from these sources has been published with informed consent and in agreement with Paulo Coelho.
Secondly, this study draws information from first-person documents and creative works that have been published in the form of autobiographical texts or philosophical literature by Paulo Coelho himself and that is therefore accessible to the public. It uses primarily texts and documents published by Paulo Coelho himself and these publications are understood as being open to discussion in third-person documents, such as in this research study.
However, it is expected that, during the course of studying Paulo Coelho’s life, previously unknown or unrecognised personal information - which according to Ponterotto (2014) is common in psychobiographical research - may be discovered. These previously unknown data are reported, as suggested by Ponterotto, by weighing up the accuracy of the study as well as the advancement of knowledge on the person against the personal rights of the person studied and by filtering and editing the newly found information carefully. According to Ponterotto, the psychographer is seen as an “ethical decision maker” who needs to trust his inner moral compass. This implies that the inner ability to make a decision about inclusion and/or exclusion of moments with an “ethical dimension” (Haverkamp, 2005, p. 148) lies in the hand of the researcher and is part of the reflexive attitude displayed in hermeneutics (see Sect. 6.3).
Thirdly, the first- and third-party documents used in this study, which are taken from the public domain, are treated carefully and respectfully, with dignity and empathy, to provide complex insight into the individual’s life without harming the individual studied. Since the researcher sees herself as a “guest in a private space of the world”, as Willig (2001, p. 79) calls any qualitative researcher, she attempts to keep to the ethical boundaries, good manners as a qualitative researcher and a strict code of ethics throughout the study.
During the entire study, fourthly, the researcher aims for an ethical setting, as well as for ethical conduct of the study. This is particularly important with regard to the fact that this study is conducted across gender (a female researcher and a male subject of research), across cultures (a German researcher living in South Africa and a Brazilian writer living temporarily in France and Switzerland) and across age (a researcher born in 1975 and a subject born in 1948). The researcher attempts to respect ethical principles across these boundaries and tries to adhere to them empa- thetically from her perspective, as well as from the anticipated perspective of the subject researched.
Fifthly, Kovary (2011) points out that psychobiographical studies should mainly be written on deceased individuals to maintain respect for studied subjects (Kovary, 2011) and to pay respect to the hermeneutical assumption that temporal distance has a strong impact on the hermeneutical understanding and interpretation of findings. In this study, the temporal closeness of the study between the researcher and the living subject of research is not seen as a threat to ethical considerations and quality principles applied, but rather as providing an advantage in methodological hermeneutical understanding and interpretation of the subject in view of the temporal closeness of the researcher and the researched.
Finally, it is assumed that this study will be highly valuable to other researchers, but also to individuals interested in Paulo Coelho’s life. Basically, the study’s contribution and value are therefore judged to outweigh the ethical risks and dangers that could be associated with it (Elms, 1994; Wassenaar, 2006).
After having discussed and addressed the ethical considerations and practices of this study, the limitations are finally outlined at the end of the chapter.