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Title Ethics in Research
Author Sean Harte
Key Concepts Research, Consent, Ethical Standards, Youth Work, Oppression, Anti-oppressive practice



“Examine the view that ethical considerations are always present in the research process.”

“Science has taught us to be Gods, before we have learned to be men”

 (unacknowledged scientist, cited in Diener and Crandall, 1978)  

In order to examine this question it is necessary to initially come to a commonality of understanding for the terms `research process` and `ethical considerations`. Simplistically, research can be described as a search for knowledge, an obligation to advance knowledge in order to achieve progress. Ethics may here be recognised as `the science of morality … values for the regulation of human behaviour` (Homan, 1991: 1). Ethical study is a deeply philosophical discipline that grapples with the difficult and nebulous issues of good and bad, and of right and wrong. Obviously, it can be seen that issues of ethics are highly subjective and individual in nature, whilst being influenced greatly by societies accepted standards. For this reason, McLean (1995) describes ethics as bi-polar, both subjective and objective, intrinsically tied to each other.  In order to develop a more usable focus within this essay a more specific definition will be attached, that of normative ethics. Here the ethical consideration is more socially applicable, as the question is more whether an action or idea will be generally regarded as acceptable within the current societal norms. This more objective view of ethics enables a dialogical approach in which norms for standards of conduct can be discussed.

Now that a simplistic common understanding has been achieved, endeavours will be made to answer the question. To achieve this, the following areas will be explored; a brief overview of ethics and values within research; a deeper exploration of ethical considerations within social science as this is key to understanding the position of ethics in research within the context of being a youth work practitioner. Here we will take a cursory look at some specific research and attempt to relate the theory of ethics within a practical framework. Finally we will look at a specific ethical consideration applying to research with young people and which is therefore important within practitioner research carried out by the youth worker.

Ethics and Values in Research

History informs us that prior to World War II, it was widely assumed that science was value-free and would always serve human welfare. Nazi concentration camp experiments and the development, and subsequent use of the atomic bomb, caused this notion to be questioned as scientists and laymen became sensitised to the potential threats of research (Diener and Crandall, 1978, Beauchamp et al. 1982).

Since this time it has become increasingly clear that science will not consistently be beneficial unless wisdom and concern for others are combined with the research process. Seeman, in the wake of the atrocity at Hiroshima urged us to reconsider science, arguing that `…knowledge alone is not enough … “Knowledge for what?” must still be asked`. Indeed he questions if knowledge `is won at the cost of some essential humanness in one person’s relationship to another, perhaps the price is to high`(Seeman, 1969: 1028, cited in Diener and Crandall, 1978). Mason concurs, arguing that a vital stage in the research process is to question the purpose of the research `with ethics, morals and politics at the forefront of your mind` (Mason, 1996: 29).

Through the expansion of this discourse, contemporary researchers are now held in a dilemma. Before they can even begin their work they must ask themselves `Do the benefits to be derived from such research outweigh the risks involved? Do the ends justify the means?` (Bulmer, 1982: 8). So it can be seen that `Ethical principles are vital to active researchers. They help … scientists achieve their values in research, avoid strategies that might endanger these values … aid in balancing views that are in conflict … insure that our research is directed toward worthwhile goals … ethics are important because they help prevent abuses and serve to delineate responsibilities` (Diener and Crandall, 1978: 1). Although this extract is directed at social researchers in particular, it is equally relevant to any form of research.

Thus it can be seen that even before any research process can begin, ethical considerations come into existence. Moreover it has immediately been ascertained that ethical considerations permeate all forms research. Now that this has been demonstrated this discussion will concentrate more specifically upon ethical considerations within social and behavioural research and the implications of this for the youth work practitioner.

Ethical Issues in Social Science

Beauchamp et al. describe social research as having distinctive ethical considerations, most of which present themselves due to the direct involvement of human subjects. Whilst not unique, for example biomedical research may pose similar ethical issues, it is argued that a detailed examination of ethical issues in social research has an appropriate place in the comprehensive ethical analysis of scientific research (Beauchamp et al., 1982). The British Sociological Association (BSA) suggest that whilst sociological work is diverse and subject to change, sociologists inevitably face ethical dilemmas arising from competing obligations and conflicts of interest (BSA website).

Ethical questions in social sciences can be classified along a three point chronological continuum: before research, during the research process, and in the dissemination of research findings.

Pre Research

As Kelly (1988) discusses, social researchers are expected to take ethical issues into account when developing a proposal, the level of depth of ethical consideration being dependant upon the nature of the research. Therefore, prior to settling upon a methodology and commencing with their chosen methods, the researcher must ask themselves a series of questions in order that ethical considerations are built into their research process and not overlooked.

The precise questioning may vary, and thus an archetype is not available, however Mason (1996) offers a flexible and appropriate model, that whilst developed specifically for qualitative research may be manipulated into more general usage. Mason’s example for enquiry poses the following questions: who is potentially interested, involved or affected by the research?  What are the implications for these parties of framing particular research questions, or of generalising methods?

These questions should be answered, considering personal bias which may come from experience, values and politics, political perspective on ethics (for example feminist ethics), professional culture, codes of professional ethical practice and legal frameworks (Mason, ibid.). It is only once this process is complete that the researcher should decide upon their method/s and begin to carry out their research.

It should not be forgotten that weighing against the need for ethical practice, there is often the question of assuring the research will occur. This may create a potential dichotomy for the researcher, wherein the only way they may undertake the research is to be less than ethical in formal or informal disclosure of the research purpose.

During Research

Obviously the social researcher has a plethora of scientific methodology and method from which to select, and it would be impossible to cover all possibilities in this essay. Instead a flavour of the potential considerations will be discussed and illustrative examples provided which will hopefully convey both a flavour of the researchers dilemmas and an understanding of the relationship between theory and practice.

Access to participants raises several ethical questions. Whilst covert access raises the question of the participants right to know they are being researched, even when research intentions are declared there remain questions around the level of understanding of the research subjects (Burgess, 1989). Some sociologists choose to conduct all or part of their studies, without gaining formal access from any group or individual, such as Humphries (1970) study of homosexuals, and this raises serious questions concerning individual’s rights and their ability to contextualise information they are disclosing. Humphries gained access to a group of homosexual men through complicated pretence, the subjects believing they were randomly selected for a health survey.

The role and relationships of the researcher are paramount ethical considerations, for example the possibility of researcher and subject over-identifying with each other, `going native` and the consequences of this should be contemplated (Burgess, 1989). As Kelman discusses, group members may accept the researcher as `part of the scenery` and thus reveal information they would prefer to keep private. This eventuality raises concerns that the researcher may `take advantage` of the position which has been granted to them (Kelman, 1982: 86).

Within research methods the well-being of the participant is considered to be paramount at all times, as is substantiated by professional ethical codes within psychology and sociology. It is however not always easy to predict ways in which participants may suffer harm, or indeed to predict reactions which may occur within the research process. Milgram’s (1963) classic research on obedience, where subjects were asked to deliver progressively larger imaginary electric shock` to a research aide, clearly shows the unpredictability of the human subject and has been criticised for placing subjects under substantial stress (Diener and Crandall, 1978). This research also illustrates an issue of continuation within research. Whilst Milgram may have been keenly interested and surprised by his subject’s responses within the research conditions, it can be questioned whether it was ethical to continue the research as the results became more apparent.

As much social research is carried out using ethnological studies it is commonly felt that the researcher cannot refrain from some form of involvement within their subjects lives. Hughes argues that `the observer, in a greater or less degree, is caught up in the very web of social interaction which he [sic] observes, analyses and reports` He asserts that even in covert observation the researcher plays a role, `that of spy` (Hughes, 1960: xii). If this is accepted, then every element of interaction with the subject and moreover the consequences of these interactions is a potential point of ethical debate. Therefore we see that it is impossible to give a broad band of `dos` and `don’ts` in ethical guidelines and we may begin to understand why emphasis is placed upon refraining from causing subjects harm.

It is because the well-being of participants is the primary consideration that confidentiality is a significant consideration within research. Breaches in confidentiality may harm participants during the research, or after the research has been completed, and both must be carefully considered. Although this may appear obvious, confidentiality and privacy become difficult to maintain in qualitative analysis where statistical manipulation is deemed secondary or unnecessary (Mason, 1996). Although it may be easier to maintain individual confidentiality, group privacy is more difficult to achieve and the consequences of disclosure of privileged information should be carefully considered.

Post Research

Even when ethics are considered in research proposals, methodology and within the practised methods, they cannot be ignored when it comes to the dissemination of findings.

It may appear unnecessary to consider which findings a researcher should communicate, however Homan discusses how the pressures upon a researcher may influence this decision. Student researchers have pressures to complete research to gain qualifications and others may have equally compelling reasons to slight the reporting of their findings. Homan specifically discusses one instance in which a researcher published only a quarter of their research findings, those which were inclined to add weight to the original hypothesis (Homan, 1991).

It is perhaps easy for the academic researcher to simply walk away from their subject group when their findings are complete and forget about possible consequences as the job is done. Whilst this may well be unethical in academic research, it is unlikely and more problematic for practitioner research as the researcher may continue to work with the subject group after the research findings have been published. This may initially seem more clear cut and more readily ethically acceptable, but one must still consider how this position may impinge upon the interpretation of data and the reporting of findings.

Throughout the research process ethical considerations enter play. It is important to state that individual political perspectives are an integral mechanism within the solution of potential dilemmas. For example Finch’s feminist perspective questions the entire field of ethical debate as being `unhelpful in relation to women [as] it is instructive that the issue of gender is rarely mentioned` within this essentially male paradigm. She intensifies the position by arguing that women are less likely `to be in a position where they can anticipate the outcome of research … since they have little access to the public domain within which the activity of research can be contextualized` (Finch, 1993). Thus it can be seen how political perspectives impinge upon the manufacture of ethical considerations, whilst they also affect their resolution.

Ethical Considerations in Research for the Youth Worker

It has been argued that qualitative methods are more suited to exploring the experiences of individuals, as quantitative methods are more likely to institute the hegemony of the researcher over the researched and reduce individual experiences to the anonymity of numbers (Oakley, 1989; MacDonald and MacDonald, 1995). Whilst it is not possible to enter this debate here, it is noted that this ethical consideration of research method is particularly relevant to research with young people, who are marginalized within contemporary British society.

Research is important for the professional development and future practice of youth work, as West explains `research should be as much of a concern for youth workers as other aspects of social policy which shape and constrain young people’s lives` (West, 1999: 183). It is for that reason we will briefly look at one specific concern for practitioner research within this field.

Fine argues that due to contemporary societal divisions between adult and youth, researchers must concede that as adults they `cannot pass unnoticed in the society of children` (Fine, 1987: 222). Furthermore he states that the researcher must be conscious of the role they will adopt within the subject group. Crucially, this role hinges upon the power relationship that is inevitably always present when adults carry out research upon young people. An awareness of this power relationship is fundamental for youth worker practitioner research.

Whilst the power differential which has been described can be viewed as a barrier within research West argues that participatory research carried out by young people on young people and facilitated by the youth worker, can be a process of informal education, which is purposeful, meaningful and empowering (West, 1999). The empowerment of young people to carry out research upon themselves and each other adds an interesting dimension to the possibilities of ethnographic study.


Research ethics are not a set of repressive moral dictates but `dynamic personal principles that appeal to vigorous and active scientists who face difficult real-world ethical decisions` (Diener and Crandall, 1978: 2). To state that the principles of ethical discourse are complex and less than exacting, would entail severe understatement. This can be exemplified by the conclusions of Bulmer with regard to covert participant observation. Whilst stating that this method is `neither ethically justified, nor practically necessary, nor in the best interests of sociology`, he upholds that it cannot be categorically stated that participant observation is `never justified` (Bulmer, 1982: 217, original emphasis). This complexity pervades much if not all of the debate that abounds in research ethics and is causal in the lack of real substance in the field’s codes of ethics (BSA website). Indeed some commentators see professional moral codes as simply establishing the basic minimum in ethical practice (Homan, 1991).

Whilst it is acknowledged that ethical considerations are complex and somewhat abstract concepts, it is unacceptable to ignore their implications. Instead it is necessary for the research practitioner to constantly take stock of their actions and role in the research process, and subject these to similar critical scrutiny as they may the findings or data of their research. Mason describes this self-analysis as `active reflexivity` and asserts that it is necessary based on a belief that the qualitative researcher `cannot be neutral, or objective, or detached` from the knowledge and evidence that they are generating (Mason, 1996: 6).  Furthermore it has been shown that ethical considerations pervade the research process from beginning to end and cannot be avoided, whether one would wish to or not.

There are, of course, many limitations on the study of guiding ethical principles, many occurring due to the subjective nature of ethics in opposition to the supposedly objective function of research. Whilst ethical considerations can and often do deter research from taking place, at times individuals will convince themselves that the research end justifies the means, or even when they do not another `less scrupulous practitioner` may undertake the research (Homan, 1991: 182).

© Sean Harte & Student Youth Work Online 2001

References & Recommended Reading

Beauchamp, T., Faden, R., Wallace, R. and Walters, L. eds. (1982) Ethical Issues In Social Research London: John’s Hopkins University Press

British Sociological Association website <>, specifically <>

Bulmer, M. (1982) Social Research Ethics New York: Holmes and Meier

Burgess, R. G. (1989) Field Research: a Sourcebook and Field Manual London: Routledge

Diener, E. and Crandall, R. (1978) Ethics in Social and Behavioural Research Chicago: University of Chicago Press

Finch, J. (1993) `Ethics and Politics of Interviewing Women` in Hammersley, M. ed. Social Research: Philosophy, Policy and Practice London: Sage/OU Press

Fine, G. A. (1987) With the Boys Chicago: University of Chicago Press

Hughes, E. C. (1960) `Introduction: the place of field work in social science` in Junker, B. ed. Field Work: An Introduction to the Social Sciences Chicago: University of Chicago Press

Humphries, L. (1970) Tearoom Trade London: Duckworth

Homan, R. (1991) The Ethics of Social Research London: Longman

Kelly, M. (1988) `Writing a Research Proposal` in Searle, C. ed. Researching Society and Culture London: Sage

Kelman, H. C. (1982) `Ethical Issues in Different Social Science Methods` in Beauchamp, T., Faden, R., Wallace, R. and Walters, L. eds. Ethical Issues In Social Research London: John’s Hopkins University Press

McLean, G. F. (1995) Normative Ethics and Objective Reason Cultural Heritage and Contemporary Change Series I: Culture and Values, Vol. 11 Washington: Council for Research in Values and Philosophy (from

MacDonald, G. and MacDonald, K. (1995) `Ethical Issues in Social Work Research` in Hugman, R. and Smith, D. eds. Ethical Issues in Social Work London: Routledge

Mason, J. (1996) Qualitative Researching London: Sage

Milgram, S. (1963) `Behavioral Study of Obedience` Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology 67 371-78

Oakley, A. (1989) `Who’s afraid of the randomised controlled trial? Some dilemmas of the scientific method and “good” research practice` in Women and Health 15 (4)

Seeman, J. (1969) `Deception in psychological research` in American Psychologist 24 1025-1028

West, A. (1999) `Young People As Researchers` in Banks, S. (ed.) Ethical Issues In Youth Work London: Routledge

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