THE ETHICS AND POLITICS OF SOCIAL RESEARCH
Babbie, Chapter 18
The four constraints in social science research are scientific,
administrative, ethical, and political. Ethical and political constraints
are the focus of Chapter 18.
1. ETHICS OF SOCIAL RESEARCH
Social scientists generally agree on five basic principles in
handling ethical concerns:
Defined as general agreements shared by researchers as to what is right
or wrong in the conduct of scientific inquiry.
Stem from religion, political ideologies, and culture.
Each profession has a standard code of ethics.
Ethics may vary from one point in time to another.
Ethical considerations enter at all stages of social research.
A. Voluntary participation: Social researchers agree that
participation in research should be voluntary. This principle is easier
to accept than to apply in practice. Some research subjects, such as students
and incarcerated persons, may volunteer because they believe that they
will personally benefit from their cooperation. The ethical principle of
voluntary participation can conflict with the scientific need for generalizability
because volunteers may not be representative of the population of interest.
B. No harm to participants: Research should not harm those who
participate in it, unless they willingly and knowingly accept the risks
of harm. Social research can harm research subjects in several ways:
C. Anonymity and confidentiality: This principle is related to the
previous one of protecting subjects from harm. A respondent is anonymous
when the researcher cannot connect a given response with a given respondent.
In confidential study, the researcher can identify a given person's responses
but promises not to reveal this identity. Anonymity and confidentiality
might conflict with reliability since repeated measurements would
be difficult to obtain.
Physical harm is rare in social sciences.
Social researchers cause psychological harm when they ask respondents
to reveal stressful, embarrassing, anxiety producing, unpopular, or deviant
Research subjects can be harmed by the analysis and reporting of data,
especially when they can recognize themselves in subsequent research
reports characterizing them in negative terms.
A researcher is responsible for protecting subjects from increased risk
of arrest. Failure to do so may legally harm research subjects.
D. Deceiving subjects: Deceiving subjects is sometimes justified
in circumstances where revealing a researcher's identity might force research
subjects to modify their behavior. Debriefing subjects is recommended
if it is at all necessary to lie to them.
E. Analysis and interpretation of data. The ethical obligations
to one's colleagues in the scientific community require that we:
CASE STUDIES OF ETHICAL VIOLATIONS: Several research projects
reveal clear violations of ethical standards. Two of these studies are
reviewed in Babbie - Trouble in the Tearoom and the Milgram
Experiment. We will also watch a film on the Tuskegee
Syphilis Study in which black males believed that they were getting
medical treatment for syphilis but they were getting no treatment at all.
Consider the following issues while reviewing the case studies in the textbook
and watching the film:
Report findings as objectively as possible.
Report the technical shortcomings and failures of the study.
Do not report accidental findings as the product of careful hypothesizing
Avoid plagiarism (steal ideas or writings of another person and use them
without citing them), and
Research fraud (invent data that were not collected, or falsely report
how research was conducted).
What ethical considerations were violated in each of these case studies?
Could the researcher have achieved similar findings without violating research
ethics? In other words, is it possible that a researcher can accomplish
the same purpose without violating research ethics?
Do the benefits of these scientific undertakings justify putting subjects
at risk or deceiving them?
Discussion Examples on pages 449-450 of Babbie.
2. THE POLITICS OF SOCIAL RESEARCH
How do ethical and political concerns differ?
The principle that a researcher's political ideology should not interfere
with or unduly influence her research enhances objectivity by means
of intersubjectivity. The notion of "value-free sociology" (objectivity)
has come under attack from scientists who believe that social science should
be linked to social action, and should not be objective.
Ethics deals with methods employed
Political issues deal with the substance and use of research
There are no formal codes of accepted political conduct comparable to the
codes of ethical of conduct. One exception to the absence of political
norms is the generally accepted stance that a researcher's political ideology
should not interfere with or unduly influence her or his research.
Case studies illustrating that political issues exist in social research
Babbie concludes this section on politics with the following observations:
Social research and race relations
(Gunnar Myrdal, James Coleman, and Arthur Jensen)
Social science research is closely connected with political concerns. Social
science cannot remain antiseptically objective because science is part
of social life.
Social science proceeds even under political controversy.
It is important to make ideological considerations a part of the backdrops
we create as this will improve our awareness as we study research methods.
Contact: Wamucii Njogu, W-Njogu@neiu.edu
Last updated 9/20/99