Chapter 3: Ethics in Social Research
• Ethics includes the concerns, dilemmas, and conflicts that arise over the proper way to conduct
• Ethnics define what is or is not legitimate to do, or what “moral” research procedures involve.
• There are few ethical absolutes. Only agreed-upon broad principles.
• These principles require judgment in their application, and some may conflict with others in practice.
• Ethical issues ask you to balance two values: the pursuit of knowledge and the rights of research
participants or others in society.
• Balance: potential benefits against potential costs.
WHY BE ETHICAL?
• Unethical researcher, if caught, faces public humiliation, a ruined career, and possible legal action.
• It typically occurs because of lack of awareness or taking ethnical short cuts so it doesn’t take forever to
• Scientific misconduct: When a researcher falsifies or distorts the data or the methods of data collection,
or plagiarizes the work of others. Also includes significant, unjustified departures from the generally
accepted scientific practices for doing and reporting on research.
• Research fraud: occurs when a researcher fakes or invents data that he or she did not really collect, or
faily to honestly and fully report how he or she conducted a study
• Plagiarism: occurs when a researcher “steals the ideas or writings of another or uses them without
citing the source. Includes stealing work of another person and misleading it as one’s own.
Unethical but Legal
• Behavior may be unethical but legal (i.e. not break any law).
• E.g. plagiarism
• The professional researcher and the research participants or employee assistance are in a relationship of
unequal power and trust.
• An experimenter has power over participants and, in turn, they trust his or her judgment and authority.
• Some ethical issues involve the abuse of power and trust.
Example of power relations: Researchers have credentials which make cause those working underneath
that person to believe anything they say.
1 Where can you look for ethical guidelines?
o Professional colleagues, ethnical advisory committees and writing on ethics in research, etc.
ETHICAL ISSUES INVOLVING RESEARCH PARTICIPANTS
• Always show respect for the research participants.
• Law and codes of ethics recognize clear prohibitions:
o Never cause unnecessary or irreversible harm to subjects;
o secure prior voluntary consent when possible;
o and never unnecessarily humiliate and degrade subjects or release harmful information about
specific individuals that was collected for research.
• ^ These are minimal standards, and are subject to interpretation (e.g.,What does unnecessary mean in a
Origins of Research Participant Protection
• Concern over the treatment of research participants arose after the revelation of gross violations of
basic human rights in the name of science.
• Most notorious violations were “medical experiments” conducted on Jews and others in Nazi
• Unethical research Ex: syphilis study on poor African American men was done to see the damaging
effects of not treated properly. These people weren’t told about actual treatments. Overall, these cases
involve physical harm to the participants and didn’t have proper consent. (“Tuskegee Syphilis study”
a.k.a Bad Blood)
• Today, researchers widely recognize these to be violations of 2 fundamental ethical principles: avoid
physical harm, and obtain informed consent.
Physical Harm, Psychological Abuse, and Legal Jeopardy
Social research can harm a research participant in several ways: physically, psychologically, and
legally–as well as harm a person’s career, reputation, or income.
• Researchers responsibility: to be aware of all types of potential harm and take specific actions to
minimize the risk to participants at all times.
• Physical harm is rare.
• Ethical researcher anticipates risks before beginning a study, including basic safety concerns (e.g. safe
buildings, furniture, equipment)
2 • This means that the researcher screens out high-risk subjects (e.g. those with histories of heart
conditions, mental breakdown, seizures) if great stress is involved and anticipates possible sources of
injury or physical attacks on research participants or assistants.
• Researcher accepts moral and legal responsibility for injury due to participation in research and
terminates project immediately if they can no longer fully guarantee the physical safety of the people
Psychological Abuse, Stress, or Loss of Self-Esteem
• Researchers may place people in stressful, embarrassing, anxiety producing or unpleasant situations
• Researchers want to learn about people’s responses in real-life, high anxiety-producing situations, so
they might place subjects in realistic situations of psychological discomfort or stress.
• Is it unethical to cause discomfort?
o Some say that precautions taken and the knowledge gained outweighed the stress and potential
psychological harm that subjects experienced
o Others believe that extreme stress and the risk of permanent harm were too great
o Such an experiment could not be conducted today because of heightened sensitivity to the
ethical issues involved
• Researchers have exposed participants to gruesome photos created situations of high fear, had
participants lie, cheat, or steal.
• Only highly experienced researchers should consider conducting a study that purposely induces great
stress or anxiety.
• How to avoid this?
o Should screen out high risk populations and arrange for emergency interventions or termination
of the research if dangerous situations arise.
o Must obtain written informed consent before the research and debrief subjects immediately
o Should never create unnecessary stress (i.e. beyond the minimal amount needed to create the
desired effect) or stress that lacks a very clear, legitimate purpose.
• Researcher is responsible for protecting research participants from increased risk of arrest.
• A related ethical issue arises when a researcher learns of illegal activity when collecting data. Must
weigh the value of protecting the researcher–subject relationship and the benefits to future researchers
against potential serious harm to innocent people.
o Should you take the findings to the police and terminate study or do you continue?
3 In some studies, observing illegal behavior may be central to the research project. If the researcher
covertly observes and records illegal behavior, then supplies the information to law enforcement
authorities, he or she is violating ethical standards regarding research participants and is undermining
future social research.
At the same time, a researcher who fails to report illegal behavior is indirectly permitting criminal
behavior. Can be charged an accessory to a crime.
• All Canadians, including researchers, are legally required to report any cases of abuse involving
Other harm to participants
• Negative impact: e.g. loss of job, income, reputation, harm to community
• Having a person recall a traumatic event during an interview or the harm to people that can be caused
due to results of a study (e.g. if homeless people were found to do more drugs, government might crack
down on them)
• Main rule: weigh potential harm against potential benefits
• On the flip side of minimizing harm is the principle of maximizing benefit.
• The benefits of social science research would be for society as a whole and for the advancement of
• Principle of voluntary consent: never force anyone to participate in research and do not lie to anyone
unless it is necessary and the only way to accomplish a legitimate research purpose.
• Those who participate agree to it
Experimental researchers often deceive subjects to prevent them from learning the hypothesis being
tested and to reduce reactive effects.
• Use of deception can have a long-term negative effect: increases distrust among people who are
frequently studied and makes doing social research more difficult in the long-term.
• Fundamental ethical principle of social research: never force anyone into participating; participation
must be voluntary at all times. Permission alone is not enough. People need to know what they are
being asked to participate in so that they can make an informed decision.
• Can become aware of rights and what they are getting involved in when they read inside a statement
giving informed consent.
4 • Informed consent: agreement that participants are willing to be in study after they have been told: a
brief description of the purpose, the risk involved, a guarantee of confidentiality, identification of the
researcher, a summary of the findings after the experiment is over
• General rule: the greater the risk of potential harm to research participants, the greater is the need to
obtain a written informed consent statement from them.
The greater the need for getting written consent depends on the potential harm that may be involved
Special Populations and New Inequalities
• Researchers must have respect for vulnerable persons.
Some populations are groups of research participants are not capable of giving true voluntary informed
• What might be some problems with having people sign ethnical forms?
o Some say it is too formal and makes them feel as though their word isn’t trusted
• Special populations: people who lack the necessary cognitive competency to give valid informed
consent or people in a weak position who might cast aside their freedom to refuse in order to participate
in the study.
• For example, prison inmates, children, or the developmentally disabled may not be capable of making
a decision. Or participate only because they see their participation as a means of obtaining a desired
good–i.e., easy parole, higher grades, promotions etc.. .
• It is unethical to involve “incompetent” people (e.g. children, the mentally disabled) in research unless
the researcher meets two minimal conditions:
1. A legal guardian grants written permission,
2. The researcher follows all standard ethical principles to protect the participant from harm.
• For participants underage (under 18), written parental permission is needed
Avoid Creating New Inequalities
• Another type of harm occurs when one group of people is denied a service or benefit as a result of
participating in a research project.
• For example, a researcher might have a new treatment for subjects with a terrible disease. To determine
the effects of the new treatment, half the group is randomly chosen to receive the treatment, while
others receive nothing. Is it ethical to deny people who have been randomly assigned to a study group
the potentially life-saving treatment? What if the only clear, definitive test of whether treatment is
effective requires that one study group received no treatment?
5 There are 3 ways a researcher can reduce the chances of creating a new inequality when the outcome
has a major impact on their survival or quality of life.
1. Subjects who do not receive the new treatment continue to receive the best previously
2. Researchers can use a crossover design: which is when a study group that gets no treatment in
the first phase of the experiment becomes the group with the treatment in the second phase, and
3. The researcher continuously monitors results.
o E.g. if one gro