Sociological researcher, Steven Taylor, in his articles discusses the moral and ethical issues researchers must grapple with when they are carrying out studies of abusive behavior in institutions that have weak and disadvantaged people in our society. He cites his own 1 year work experience in a state institution for the mentally retarded to highlight his concerns. He describes it as being in deplorable physical condition and grossly understaffed. The attendants had little training and there were no therapy programs.
They controlled the inmates through verbal and physical abuse directly to them and forcing them to clean up their own mess, including feces and urine. They also pitted some inmates against others, such as giving and withholding favors of coffee, food and drugs. Further they forced them to perform humiliating acts such as swallowing lit cigarettes and performing fellatio on each other. Mr. Taylor felt that in order to gain the trust of the attendants and thereby get more valid observations, he had to develop a rapport with them.
He did so by drinking beer with them and socializing in other ways. He also played the naive student role and refrained from being critical about their methods. Nevertheless, he was troubled by the abusive behavior he witnessed, but in a quandary as to what to do about it. The attendants, for their part, rationalized their behavior by saying “the inmates don’t hurt like we do” and treating their actions as entertainment. Personally, I suspect they really didn’t know how to properly treat the inmates and were desperate to try anything that seemed to control them at least in the short run.
The author then posed the question as to what the researcher should do in the face of this ethical dilemma during his study. He considered 4 alternatives ; 1)intervene. , for example to as attendant to stop or threaten to inform his supervisor. The problem with this approach is that it would spell an end to rapport with the attendants and thereby hinder the researcher’s ability to collect data on daily activities. 2) leave field. But research is needed to learn why people abuse. 3) blow the whistle.
This would obviously shatter rapport and violate the confidentiality provisions of the ASA Code of Ethics. 4 continue study- which is what Mr. Taylor did. Obviously he felt that although this might not appear to be a good option it was the “least bad” to him. The author then suggests 4 ways to deal with immoral acts; 1 participation in abuses. He contends this is never justified, and that research goals can be accomplished without making human subjects suffer. Furthermore it is I clear violation of the ASA Code of Ethics.
2 ) observation of abuse. This may be the price to pay for conducting field research in immoral situations, but a person can never sit idly by in extreme cases like murder and rape. 3 inadvertently contribute to abuse because of reactive effects . It is clear that often this can’t be controlled by the researcher and therefore can’t be resolved by a professional code of ethics. However the researcher can refrain from encouraging it, for example pretending not to hear an invitation to join in such behavior.
4) doing something about abuse after study, that is, by publishing it and trying to get political action especially through mass media such as TV and newspapers. Finally Taylor concludes the researcher should 1) debate moral and ethical issues before embarking on a particular study and 2) make his own assessment about how to resolve professional ethics and personal morality.
Reference Taylor, Steven J. “Observing Abuse. Professional Ethics and Personal Morality in Field Research”