The social research shares with all scientific endeavours the necessity to balance scientific zeal with other ethical values that derive from the social context in which all social research takes place. To some degree, the research ideal of objectivity unavoidably conflicts with humanistic values. Therefore, all researchers must at some time come to grips with this conflict. The issue, however, is especially crucial for social researchers because the focus of their research is the behaviour of other people. Thus, not only the goals of the social research but the very process of data collection is subject to ethical conflicts.
The paper contains analysis—the synthesis of research results across a large number of studies—and on the social responsibility and ethical requirements of the social research. The ethical issues which researchers face in their day-to-day study are comparatively consistent across methods. The ethical principles adopted by researchers should govern their actions, whether they take place in field or laboratory environment.
To make this point most strongly, this paper contains a separate section, which should serve as a strong point of reference for the social researcher, rather than providing a series of ethical requirements that are spread thinly throughout the various sections of this paper. These issues include the social and ethical responsibilities and constraints connected with the conduct of social research and advancing the cumulative progress of behavioral and social science through integrating and synthesizing findings from different current investigations. The paper hopes to make clear that social research is a collective enterprise undertaken in the context of ethical values.
Ethics in Social Research
Ethics of Research Design and Methodology
Because the subject matter of the social researcher is human behaviour and the processes that are associated with behaviour, it is unavoidable that researcher interests will conflict sometimes with ethical values placed on the rights of people to privacy and self-determination. The guidelines for social research ethics set by the Social Research Association (SRA) (2003) stress the idea of recruiting participants for research on the basis of informed consent —this means that participation must be freewill and with the participant’s full knowledge of what research will include. However, it is declared that many subjects could not be researched at all if this ideal were entirely met, and that the rights of individuals must be weighed against the possible importance of the research problem. David De Vaus (1996), for example, demonstrated in a verbal conditioning experiment that a full explanation of methods and hypotheses destroyed the phenomenon they were attempting to examine.
In cases where full explanation of subject cannot be presented, SRA recommends that “But there should, at least, be clarity about opt-in and opt-out arrangements, about the length and degree of commitment required of respondents, and about the precise goals of the research. Adequate subject de-briefing also seems essential to this last aim.” Thus, the ethical code does not present free from limitations standards that relieve the researcher of important value judgments. Rather, judgments as to the comparative significance of research programmes and researchers’ responsibility for the well-being of their participants are the primary bases of research ethics.
Deception in the Laboratory
The degree to which participation is entirely voluntary is in many cases disputable, depending on the social and institutional pressures to take part in research that are at times involved. But usually, participants in laboratory experiments at least know that they participate in a research study. Notwithstanding, however, the information provided to participants in laboratory investigations is usually smallest, at best, and often purposely deceptive as to the goals of the research study.
To what degree this deception is justified by serving scientific purposes and the potential benefit to human welfare is a matter of considerable debate. Some critics claim that no deception is ever reasonable and that it should not be permitted in the interests of social research (Ortmann & Hertwig 746-747). Most social researchers, however, take a more temperate view, considering that there is an unavoidable compromise between values of entire honesty and informed consent and the possible value of what can be learned from the research itself. Just as the unimportant lie uttered in the interests of tact or politeness is regarded as acceptable when used in the service of good manners, so a little amount of deception may be acceptable in the service of obtaining reliable research data. However, there is also some controversy over whether social researchers have exceeded this adequate minimum in their research (Barnes 320).
For some years the practice of deception in laboratory experiments was considered acceptable by most experimenters. However, an article by Herbert Kelman (1967) reflected a growing concern with accepted among many people, and evidently undisputed, use of deception in social research. Kelman’s article argued this practice on both ethical and practical grounds. Ethically, he claimed, any deception disregarded essential norms of respect in the interpersonal relationship that forms between researcher and research participant.
Besides, the practice might have extreme methodological implications as participants become less naive and extreme suspiciousness begins to have an effect upon the outcomes of all research. To avoid these problems, Kelman advised that social researchers (a) reduce the unnecessary use of deception, (b) explore ways of counteracting or minimizing its negative consequences when deemed necessary, and (c) develop new methods, such as role playing or simulation techniques, which substitute active participation for deception (Kelman 10-11).
Practices of experimenting with these alternative methodologies have been tried, but the results are consisting of conflicting thoughts, at best (Crespi 23). Thus, the general agreement in the social research is that some level of deception is often necessary to produce realistic conditions for testing research hypotheses. However, such deception needs to be justified by the nature and significance of the research question being studied. As James D. Faubion (2005) put it, “The social researcher whose study may have a good chance of reducing violence or racism or sexism, but who declines to do the study simply because it requires deception, has not solved an ethical problem but only traded one for another” (860).
Ethical Issues in Field Research
Although much of the discussion about the ethical implications of deception concentrates on laboratory experimentation, study conducted outside the laboratory often considers a number of other ethical issues and concerns. Besides issues associated with consent to participate, researchers also must think over issues of privacy and confidentiality when research data are collected in field surroundings (Boruch 102).
Because a main benefit of field research, from a scientific point of view, is the chance of obtaining samples of behaviour under naturally occurring circumstances, it often is beneficial to conduct such research under conditions in which the nature of the research is concealed. Therefore, the participants may not only be mislead regarding the goals of the research, but may even be uninformed that they are the subject of research in the first place. The use of “frugal” measures highlights this strategy (Ortlieb 2002), but even more traditional methods of data collection, such as the interview or questionnaire, are often conducted in such a manner as to conceal their true goal.
Some researchers consider the practice of concealed observation or response elicitation as passable as long as it is limited to in fundamental way “public” behaviors or settings usually open to public examination. Adam Ashforth (1996), for example, presented a review of settings and behaviours for which concealed research methods have been used. However, there is the question of subjective definitions of what form “public” behaviours, specifically in urban settings where social norms lead to the probability of anonymity in public surroundings.
Because by definition field research includes some act of intervening on the part of the researcher in the stimulus conditions to which the uninformed participants are exposed, ethical question about hidden observation is further difficult to understand because of concern over the nature of such manipulations. Instances of practice of experimenting in field settings comprise systematic variation of the content of applicant briefs sent to potential employers (Ashforth 1996), differential behaviour on the part of salesmen regarding customers (Fairclough 2003) or customers toward salesmen (Fairclough 2003).
To some degree these all fall within a “normal range” of human behaviour in public surroundings, the only difference being their methodical manipulation by the researcher. Yet, collecting data about individual behaviour in these cases evidently violates the spirit of “informed consent, ” in particular when researchers conclude it is best not to inform individuals which have been observed even after the fact (Seiber 268).
The Regulatory Context of Research Involving Human Participants
The preceding discussion of ethical dilemmas is contemplated to present the idea that there are no easy, certain rules for deciding whether a specific research strategy or method is ethical or not. Rather, difficult enough to construct opinion is involved in weighing the possible value of the research against potential stress or other costs to research participants. Ethical decision making includes a cost—benefit analysis rather than the consideration of certain strictures and rules (Alvaro & Crano 13).
Much of the responsibility for decision making falls on the individual researcher, but one person alone is not always the best judge of what is of considerable importance and necessary research and what is possibly harmful to participants. Actually, there is good evidence that biases enter into scientists’ evaluations of the quality of their own research (Kimmel 1991). Therefore, the conduct of social research that meets reasonable ethical standards and methods is not just a matter of person’s judgment, it is the law.
Almost all social research that is supported by funds or conducted in educational or research institutions that receive funding (of any kind) is subject to regulations concerning the conduct of social research. The primary agency is The Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) which is the UK’s leading research funding and training agency addressing economic and social concerns. ESRC provides certain principles for protecting the welfare and dignity of human participants in research and provides policies and procedures that are required of institutions in which such research is conducted.
The ESRC expects that the research it supports will be conducted according to a high ethical standard. This Research Ethics Framework (REF) sets out good ethical practice in UK social research.Although REF is a mandatory aspect of social research which involves human participants, it does not absolve the researcher from any further responsibility for the ethical conduct of his or her research.