the view that ethical considerations are always present in the research
has taught us to be Gods, before we have learned to be men”
(unacknowledged scientist, cited in Diener and
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.
Ethics and Values in
Ethical Issues in Social
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
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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:
Sean Harte & Student Youth Work Online 2001