Ethics refers to the morality of doing something and ethical questions relating to sociological research involve beliefs about what a researcher should – or should not do – before, during and after the research in which they’re involved. This will, as a matter of course, include a consideration of both legal and safety issues:

  • for the researcher.
  • those being researched.
  • any subsequent researchers.
  • In this respect, therefore, ethical questions cover a range of possible issues, questions and problems relating to the conduct of sociological research that include:

    1. Rights and well-being: The researcher needs to safeguard the interests, rights and general well-being, both social and psychological, of respondents. Examples here might be respecting respondent privacy, minimising any anxiety or distress that may be caused by participation in the research and recognising that participants are not simply “human objects” to be used as and how a researcher chooses – something that relates to two significant ethical considerations:

    Firstly, the idea of the informed consent. All participants – from respondents to researchers – should be made aware of what the research involves, their respective roles in that research and their explicit consent to such involvement.

    This does, of course, raise important ethical questions about some forms of research, particularly but not exclusively experimental or covert observational types, that rely on respondents not being aware of their involvement in a research study.

    Secondly, respondents should have the right to withdraw their participation at any time and for any reason. Again, this may raise ethical questions about research where participants may not be explicitly aware they are being studied.

    A further dimension here is the question of power relationships between researcher and respondent. It would, for example, be unethical to bully, blackmail (emotionally or physically) or coerce people into participating in a piece of research. In addition – especially when researching people who are relatively powerless – relationships need to be based on trust and personal integrity on the part of the researcher. For example, if the researcher promises anonymity as a way of researching people involved in criminal or deviant activities, disclosing respondent identities to the authorities would be unethical.

    2. Research consequences: Research data can be used in many different ways – some of which, such as media reports of the research, may not necessarily be in ways the researcher intended – and participants should be aware of any possible consequences – legal, moral, social and psychological – of their participation.

    In terms of legal consequences, for example:

  • Respondents may raise legal objections if they feel they have been mistreated (physically or verbally, for example), misled about the purpose of the research or manipulated into participation.
  • Researchers, on the other hand, involved in the study of criminal or deviant behaviour may have to consider the ethical question of their participation in such behaviour, particularly if their research is covert. Participation in illegal behaviour, for example, is still a crime, regardless of whether it was carried-out under the aegis of “research” and may raise further ethical questions relating to the researcher’s responsibilities towards the perpetrators and their possible victims.
  • More generally, in the UK the collection, storage and retrieval of data are governed by things such as the Data Protection Act, the Human Rights Act, copyright laws and the laws of libel. Any breech of these laws may call into question the ethics of both the researcher and their research.

    3. Involvement: Some types of research involve methods that create high levels of involvement with those being researched and where close personal and / or intimate relationships between the researcher and respondent(s) exist, care needs to be taken to ensure that, once the research is completed and contact diminishes, distress is not caused to potentially vulnerable people. If your research, for example, involves visiting the elderly on a regular basis, it would be unethical to simply stop those visits once the research was completed.

    This “duty of care” does, of course, extend to physical care – respondents should not be placed into situations where their physical safety is compromised “for the sake of the research”.

    Ethical Dilemmas

    Although the kinds of ethical questions we’ve just noted – informed consent, the right to withdraw, social and psychological safety and the like – may appear relatively clear and straightforward, these ideas may not, as we’ve suggested, always be as such in the world of real sociological research. This may apply particularly, but not exclusively, where the research is either covert, as in some forms of participant observation, or experimental where the researcher doesn’t want to risk biasing researched behaviour by disclosing their underlying reasons for doing the research.

    In such situations the researcher may have to confront a range of potential ethical dilemmas relating to such things as whether or not to compromise their research by requiring the prior “informed consent” of their participants.

    The ethical dilemma here, therefore, is that if the researcher simply adheres to standard ethical guidelines, such as those we’ve noted, any type of covert research would not be feasible since the respondents would be fully-aware of their participation in a research process.

    There are, of course, a range of ways ethical dilemmas may be resolved, some of which include:

  • Anonymity: the respondents are not directly named or identified in any way.
  • Post-research consent: once the research is completed respondents given their permission for the research to be used.
  • The right to be forgotten / excluded: data relating to respondents who do not want to be included in the research is simply removed.
  • Right to reply: participants are given the opportunity to reply to, challenge or conform the research findings.
  • While these – and possibly other – forms of response are likely to be tied to individual research projects on an almost ad hoc basis, Pimple (2002) suggests one way to place both ethical questions and potential dilemmas on a more-formal basis is to think about sociological research being generally bound by a code of ethical practice that involves the researcher using their values to guide them through three basic research questions:

    Is it true?

    At its most extreme, unethical behaviour here involves things like the researcher deliberately making up (fabricating) data or falsifying their results.

    Is it fair?

    Unethical behaviour here covers how others in the research process are treated and refers to things like ownership (who, for example, can ethically claim to be the author?) and plagiarism – passing-off the work of others as your own. Questions of fairness are not, however, restricted to relationships between researchers; the relationship between those doing and being researched is equally important.

    In this respect even where this relationship is ethically straightforward, in terms of legality and safety, there may be “moral grey areas” that involve researchers making decisions about the conduct of their research. This may, for example, involve the value of weighing slightly looser ethical guidelines in the conduct of research against the value of “bending the rules” slightly to produce work of sociological importance or value. As examples, we might include things like:

    1. Studying people who don’t want to be studied.

    Wallis (1977) wanted to study The Church of Scientology but the Church leaders refused to co-operate with his request for access to existing members. As an alternative he contacted ex-members and based his research around their opinions and experiences. The ethical question here is the extent to which a researcher is justified in studying groups who don’t want to be studied. In this particular instance no explicit (physical) harm was suffered by those who refused to co-operate, but was the decision to carry-out the research against the Church’s wishes justified by the argument that it was “in the public interest” to understand “secretive” Church activities and practices?

    2. Tricking people into co-operating.

    Rosenhan (1973) raised different ethical questions about the relationship between researcher and respondents in that his (covert) research didn’t involve direct contact between the two. Rosenhan wanted to test if doctors could accurately diagnose schizophrenia and sent students displaying fake symptoms into hospitals to test his hypothesis that they could not – and the experiment discovered doctors were unable to expose the “pseudo (pretend) patients” as faking the symptoms of mental illness The main ethical questions here are the extent to which a researcher is justified in deceiving the objects of their study (in this case, medical doctors) and whether such deceit is justified if it exposes professional practices that might be detrimental to the public.

    3. Experimenting on people who do not know they are being studied or causing distress to respondents.

    Milgram’s (1974) study of the effects of authority on people’s behaviour – in this instance whether respondents were willing to inflict what they thought were extreme levels of pain on innocent strangers on the say-so of an authority figure – raises a rather different set of ethical questions. The respondents were convinced they were administering electric shocks to “learners” whenever the latter made an incorrect answer (in fact no shocks were administered and the “victims” were under instructions to pretend they were being hurt). The ethical dilemmas here operate on a number of levels, from the question of whether a researcher has the moral right to trick people into co-operating with their research to that of whether research should continue in the face of acute physical and mental distress being experienced by the respondent (some of Milgram’s respondents argued and protested about the instructions they were being given and some broke down in the face of the pain they believed they were inflicting).

    Is it wise?

    This refers to wider questions about whether research, such as Milgram’s, can be morally justified and whether some other type of research topic or method would have greater moral justification. As Pimple puts it: “Will the research improve the human condition, or damage it? Will it lead to a better world, or a worse one? Or less grandly, which of the many possible lines of research would we be better off pursuing?”.

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