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Module 4

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© iStockphoto.com/David P. Lewis

What You’ll Learn in This Chapter

Social research takes place in a social context. Researchers must therefore

take into account many ethical and political considerations alongside

scientifi c ones in designing and executing their research. Often, however,

clear-cut answers to thorny ethical and political issues are hard to come by.

The Ethics and Politics of Social Research



In this chapter . . .


Ethical Issues in Social Research Voluntary Participation

No Harm to the Participants

Anonymity and Coni dentiality


Analysis and Reporting

Institutional Review Boards

Professional Codes of Ethics

Two Ethical Controversies Trouble in the Tearoom

Observing Human Obedience

The Politics of Social Research Objectivity and Ideology

Politics with a Little “p”

Politics in Perspective


To present a realistic and useful introduction to doing social research, this book must consider four main constraints on research projects: scientii c, administrative, ethical, and political. Most of the book focuses on scientii c and administrative constraints. We’ll see that the logic of science suggests certain research procedures, but we’ll also seen that some scientii cally “perfect” study designs are not administratively feasible, because they would be too expensive or take too long to execute. h roughout the book, therefore, we’ll deal with workable compromises.

Before we get to the scientii c and admini- strative constraints on research, it’s useful to explore the other important considerations in doing research in the real world: ethics and poli- tics, which this chapter covers. Just as certain procedures are too impractical to use, others are either ethically prohibitive or politically dii cult or impossible. Here’s a story to illustrate what I mean.

Several years ago, I was invited to sit in on a planning session to design a study of legal

Whenever research ethics are discussed, the Nazi medical experiments of World War II

often surface as the most hideous breach of ethical standards in history. Civilian and military prisoners in Nazi concentration camps were subjected to freezing; malaria; mustard gas; sulfanilamide; bone, muscle, and nerve transplants; jaundice; sterilization; spotted fever; various poisons; and phosphorus burns, among other tortures. Many died, and others were permanently maimed. All suf ered tremendous physical and psychological pain. Some have argued, however, that the real breach of ethics did not lie in the suf ering or the deaths per se. What could possibly be a worse ethical breach than that?

See the “What do you think? Revisited” box toward the end of the chapter.

What do you think?

education in California. h e joint project was to be conducted by a university research center and the state bar association. h e purpose of the project was to improve legal education by learning which aspects of the law school expe- rience were related to success on the bar exam. Essentially, the plan was to prepare a question- naire that would get detailed information about the law school experiences of individuals. People would be required to answer the questionnaire when they took the bar exam. By analyzing how people with dif erent kinds of law school expe- riences did on the bar exam, we could i nd out what sorts of things worked and what didn’t. h e i ndings of the research could be made avail- able to law schools, and ultimately legal educa- tion could be improved.


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h e exciting thing about collaborating with the bar association was that all the normally irri- tating logistical hassles would be handled. h ere would be no problem getting permission to ad- minister questionnaires in conjunction with the exam, for example, and the problem of nonre- sponse could be eliminated altogether.

I left the meeting excited about the prospects for the study. When I told a colleague about it, I glowed about the absolute handling of the nonresponse problem. Her immediate comment turned everything around completely. “h at’s unethical. h ere’s no law requiring the questionnaire, and participation in research has to be voluntary.” h e study wasn’t done.

In retelling this story, it’s obvious to me that requiring participation would have been inappro- priate. You may have seen this even before I told you about my colleague’s comment. I still feel a little embarrassed over the matter, but I have a specii c purpose in telling this story about myself.

All of us consider ourselves to be ethical—not perfect perhaps, but as ethical as anyone else and perhaps more so than most. h e problem in social research, as probably in life, is that ethical considerations are not always apparent to us. As a result, we often plunge into things without see- ing ethical issues that may be apparent to others and may even be obvious to us when pointed out. When I reported back to the others in the plan- ning group, for example, no one disagreed with the inappropriateness of requiring participa- tion. Everyone was a bit embarrassed about not having seen it.

Any of us can immediately see that a study that requires small children to be tortured is un- ethical. I know you’d speak out immediately if I suggested that we interview people about their sex lives and then publish what they said in the local newspaper. But, as ethical as you are, you’ll totally miss the ethical issues in some other situations—we all do.

h e i rst half of this chapter deals with the ethics of social research. In part, it presents some of the broadly agreed-on norms describing what’s ethical in research and what’s not. More

important than simply knowing the guidelines, however, is becoming sensitized to the ethical component in research so that you’ll look for it whenever you plan a study. Even when the ethical aspects of a situation are debatable, you should know that there’s something to argue about. It’s worth noting that many professions operate un- der ethical constraints and that these constraints dif er from one profession to another. h us, the ethics of priests, physicians, lawyers, reporters, and television producers dif er. In this chapter, we’ll look only at the ethical principles that gov- ern social research.

Political considerations in research are sub- tle, ambiguous, and arguable. Notice that the law school example involves politics as well as ethics. Although social researchers have an ethi- cal norm that participation in research should be voluntary, this norm clearly grows out of U.S. political norms protecting civil liberties. In some nations, the proposed study would not have been considered unethical at all.

In the second half of this chapter, we’ll look at social research projects that were crushed or nearly crushed by political considerations. As with ethical concerns, there is often no “correct” take on a given situation. People of goodwill dis- agree. I won’t try to give you a party line about what is and what is not politically acceptable. As with ethics, the point is to become sensitive to the political dimension of social research.



In most dictionaries and in common usage, ethics is typically associated with morality, and both deal with matters of right and wrong. But what is right and what is wrong? What is the source of the distinction? For individuals the sources vary. h ey may include religions, politi- cal ideologies, or the pragmatic observation of what seems to work and what doesn’t.

Webster’s New World Dictionary is typical among dictionaries in dei ning ethical as “con- forming to the standards of conduct of a given


norm is far easier to accept in theory than to ap- ply in practice, however.

Again, medical research provides a useful par- allel. Many experimental drugs used to be tested on prisoners. In the most rigorously ethical cases, the prisoners were told the nature and the pos- sible dangers of the experiment, they were told that participation was completely voluntary, and they were further instructed that they could ex- pect no special rewards—such as early parole— for participation. Even under these conditions, it was often clear that volunteers were motivated by the belief that they would personally benei t from their cooperation.

When the instructor in an introductory so- ciology class asks students to i ll out a ques- tionnaire that he or she hopes to analyze and publish, students should always be told that

profession or group.” Although this dei nition may frustrate those in search of moral abso- lutes, what we regard as morality and ethics in day-to-day life is a matter of agreement among members of a group. And, not surprisingly, dif er- ent groups agree on dif erent codes of conduct. Part of living successfully in a particular society is knowing what that society considers ethical and unethical. h e same holds true for the social research community.

Anyone involved in social science research, then, needs to be aware of the general agree- ments shared by researchers about what is proper and improper in the conduct of scientii c inquiry. h is section summarizes some of the most important ethical agreements that prevail in social research.

Voluntary Participation

Often, though not always, social research rep- resents an intrusion into people’s lives. h e in- terviewer’s knock on the door or the arrival of a questionnaire in the mail signals the begin- ning of an activity that the respondent has not requested and that may require signii cant time and energy. Participation in a social experiment disrupts the subject’s regular activities.

Social research, moreover, often requires that people reveal personal information about themselves—information that may be unknown to their friends and associates. Further, social research often requires that such information be revealed to strangers. Other professionals, such as physicians and lawyers, also ask for such in- formation. h eir requests may be justii ed, how- ever, by their aims: h ey need the information in order to serve the personal interests of the respondent. Social researchers can seldom make this claim. Like medical scientists, they can only argue that the research ef ort may ultimately help all humanity.

A major tenet of medical research ethics is that experimental participation must be volun- tary. h e same norm applies to social research. No one should be forced to participate. h is

As in other aspects of life, there are limits to what is acceptable in social research.

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Perhaps at the top of list is the medical experimentation on prisoners of war by Nazi researchers in World War II. h e subsequent war-crime trials at Nuremberg added the phrase “crimes against humanity” to the language of research and political ethics.

Less well-known were the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiments conducted by the U.S. Public Health Service between 1932 and 1972. h e study fol- lowed the fate of nearly 400 impoverished, rural African American men suf ering from syphilis. Even after penicillin had been accepted as an ef ective treatment for syphilis, the subjects were denied treatment—even kept from seeking treatment in the community—because the researchers wanted to observe the full pro- gression of the disease. At times, diagnostic pro cedures such as spinal taps were falsely presented to subjects as cures for syphilis.

When the details of the Tuskegee Syphilis Ex- periments became widely known, the U.S. gov- ernment was moved to take action, including a formal apology by then-President Bill Clinton and a program of i nancial reparations to the families of the subjects.

You can learn more about this sad history

in medical research at www.archives.gov/


Human research should never injure the people being studied, regardless of whether they volunteer for the study. Perhaps the clear- est instance of this norm in social research prac- tice concerns the revealing of information that would embarrass subjects or endanger their home life, friendships, jobs, and so forth. We’ll discuss this aspect of the norm more fully in a moment.

Because subjects can be harmed psychologi- cally in the course of a social research study, the researcher must look for the subtlest dangers and guard against them. Quite often, research subjects are asked to reveal deviant behavior, attitudes they feel are unpopular, or personal characteristics that may seem demeaning, such

their participation in the survey is completely voluntary. Even so, most students will fear that nonparticipation will somehow af ect their grade. h e instructor should therefore be espe- cially sensitive to such implications and make special provisions to eliminate them. For ex- ample, the instructor could insure anonymity by leaving the room while the questionnaires are being completed. Or, students could be asked to return the questionnaires by mail or to drop them in a box near the door just before the next course meeting.

As essential as it is, this norm of voluntary participation goes directly against several sci- entii c concerns. In the most general terms, the scientii c goal of generalizability is threatened if experimental subjects or survey respondents are all the kinds of people who willingly par- ticipate in such things. Because this orientation probably rel ects other, more general personality traits, the results of the research might not be generalizable to all kinds of people. Most clearly, in the case of a descriptive survey, a researcher cannot generalize the sample survey i ndings to an entire population unless a substantial major- ity of the scientii cally selected sample actually participates—the willing respondents and the somewhat unwilling.

As you’ll see in Chapter 10, i eld research has its own ethical dilemmas in this regard. Very often, the researcher cannot even reveal that a study is being done, for fear that that revelation might signii cantly af ect the social processes be- ing studied. Clearly, the subjects of study in such cases do not receive the opportunity to volun- teer or refuse to participate. In cases where you feel justii ed in violating the norm of voluntary participation, observing the other ethical norms of scientii c research, such as bringing no harm to the people under study, becomes all the more important.

No Harm to the Participants

h e need for norms against harming research subjects has been dramatized in part by hor- rendous violations by medical researchers.


i rmest of scientii c grounds for doing it. If your research design is essential but is also likely to be unpleasant for subjects, you’ll i nd yourself in an ethical netherworld and may face some personal agonizing. Although it has little value in itself, agonizing may be a healthy sign that you’ve be- come sensitive to the problem.

Increasingly, the ethical norms of voluntary participation and no harm to participants have become formalized in the concept of informed consent. h is norm means that subjects must base their voluntary participation in research projects on a full understanding of the possible risks involved. In a medical experiment, for ex- ample, prospective subjects will be presented with a discussion of the experiment and all the possible risks to themselves. h ey will be re- quired to sign a statement indicating that they are aware of the risks and that they choose to participate anyway. Although the value of such a procedure is obvious when subjects will be in- jected with drugs designed to produce physical ef ects, for example, it’s hardly appropriate when a participant-observer rushes to the scene of urban rioting to study deviant behavior. h e re- searcher in this latter case is not excused from the norm of bringing no harm to those observed, but gaining informed consent is not the means to achieving that end.

Another, often unrecognized source of poten- tial harm to subjects lies in the analysis and re- porting of data. Every now and then, research subjects read the books published about the studies they participated in. Reasonably sophis- ticated subjects can locate themselves in the various indexes and tables. Having done so, they may i nd themselves characterized—though not identii ed by name—as bigoted, unpatriotic, irr eligious, and so forth. At the very least, such characterizations will likely trouble them and threaten their self-images. Yet the whole purpose of the research project may be to explain why some people are prejudiced and others are not.

as low income, the receipt of welfare payments, and the like. Revealing such information usually makes subjects feel at least uncomfortable.

Social research projects may also force par- ticipants to face aspects of themselves that they don’t normally consider. h is can happen even when the information is not revealed directly to the researcher. In retrospect, a certain past be- havior may appear unjust or immoral. h e pro- ject, then, can cause continuing personal agony for the subject. If the study concerns codes of ethical conduct, for example, the subject may begin questioning his or her own morality, and that personal concern may last long after the re- search has been reported. For instance, probing questions can injure a fragile self-esteem.

When the psychologist Philip Zimbardo created his famous 1971 simulation of prison life—also known as the Stanford Prison Experi- ment—to study the dynamics of prisoner–guard interactions. Zimbardo employed Stanford stu- dents as subjects and assigned them to roles as prisoners or guards at random. As you may be aware, the simulation became quickly and in- creasingly real for all the participants, including Zimbardo, who served as prison superintendent. It became evident that many of the student-pris- oners were suf ering psychological damage as a consequence of their mock incarceration, and some of the student-guards were soon exhibit- ing degrees of sadism that would later challenge their own self-images.

As these developments became apparent to Zimbardo, he terminated the experiment. Go- ing beyond that, however, he created a debrief- ing program in which all the participants were counseled so as to avoid any lasting damage from the experience. (See www.prisonexp.org/ for a discussion of the experiment by the researcher.)

Clearly, just about any research you might conduct runs the risk of injuring other people in some way. Further, some study designs make injuries more likely than do other designs. If a particular research procedure seems likely to produce unpleasant ef ects for subjects—asking survey respondents to report deviant behavior, for example—the researcher should have the

informed consent A norm in which subjects base their

voluntary participation in research projects on a full under-

standing of the possible risks involved.


its applications, however, should improve the researcher’s tact in delicate areas of research.

In recent years, social researchers have gained support for abiding by this norm. Federal and other funding agencies typically require an inde- pendent evaluation of the treatment of human subjects for research proposals, and most univer- sities now have human-subject committees to serve this evaluative function. Although some- times troublesome and inappropriately applied, such requirements not only guard against un- ethical research but can also reveal ethical issues overlooked by even the most scrupulous researchers. See the accompanying box, “h e Ba- sic Elements of Informed Consent,” for guidelines

In one survey of churchwomen (Babbie 1967), ministers in a sample of churches were asked to distribute questionnaires to a specii ed sample of members, collect them, and return them to the research oi ce. One of these ministers read through the questionnaires from his sample be- fore returning them. He then delivered a scathing sermon to his congregation, saying that many of them were atheists and were going to hell. Even though he could not identify the people who gave particular responses, it seems certain that the survey ended up harming many respondents.

Like voluntary participation, avoiding harm to people is easy in theory but often dii cult in prac- tice. Sensitivity to the issue and experience with

h e federal regulations pertaining to what is expected in requests for human subjects to participate in research projects has been published by the Department of Health and Human Services, ef ective June 23, 2005.

A statement that the study involves research, 1. an explanation of the purposes of the research and the expected duration of the subject’s participation, a description of the procedures to be followed, and identii cation of any procedures which are experimental; A description of any reasonably foreseeable 2. risks or discomforts to the subject; A description of any benei ts to the subject 3. or to others which may reasonably be ex- pected from the research; A disclosure of appropriate alternative pro-4. cedures or courses of treatment, if any, that might be advantageous to the subject; A statement describing the extent, if any, to 5. which coni dentiality of records identifying the subject will be maintained; For research involving more than minimal 6. risk, an explanation as to whether any com- pensation and an explanation as to whether

any medical treatments are available if injury occurs and, if so, what they consist of, or where further information may be obtained; An explanation of whom to contact for 7. answers to pertinent questions about the research and research subjects’ rights, and whom to contact in the event of a research- related injury to the subject; and A statement that participation is voluntary, 8. refusal to participate will involve no penalty or loss of benei ts to which the subject is otherwise entitled, and the subject may discontinue participation at any time with- out penalty or loss of benei ts to which the subject is otherwise entitled.

A web search will provide you with many samples of informed consent letters that you could use as models in your own research. It’s worth noting that survey research and some other research techniques are exempted from the need to obtain informed consent. You can learn more about this at the website in the source note.

Source: http://www.hhs.gov/ohrp/humansub jects/



The Basic Elements of Informed Consent


Whenever a research project is coni dential rather than anonymous, it is the researcher’s responsibility to make that fact clear to the respondent. Moreover, researchers should never use the term anonymous to mean coni dential.

With few exceptions (such as surveys of public i gures who agree to have their responses published), the information respondents give must be kept at least coni dential. h is is not al- ways an easy norm to follow, because, for exam- ple, the courts have not recognized social research data as the kind of “privileged commu nication” accepted in the case of priests and attorneys.

h is unprotected guarantee of coni dentiality produced a near disaster in 1991. Two years earlier, the Exxon Valdez supertanker had run aground near the port of Valdez in Alaska, spilling ten mil- lion gallons of oil into the bay. h e economic and environmental damage was widely reported.

Less attention was given to the psychologi- cal and sociological damage suf ered by resi- dents of the area. h ere were anecdotal reports of increased alcoholism, family violence, and other secondary consequences of the disrup- tions caused by the oil spill. Eventually, 22 com- munities in Prince William Sound and the Gulf of Alaska sued Exxon for the economic, social, and psychological damages suf ered by their residents.

To determine the amount of damage done, the communities commissioned a San Diego research i rm to undertake a household survey asking residents very personal questions about increased problems in their families. h e sample of residents were asked to reveal painful and embarrassing information, under the guaran- tee of absolute coni dentiality. Ultimately, the results of the survey coni rmed that a variety of personal and family problems had increased substantially following the oil spill.

from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Anonymity and Co nfi dentiality

h e clearest concern in guarding subjects’ in- terests and well-being is the protection of their identity, especially in survey research. If reveal- ing their survey responses would injure them in any way, adherence to this norm becomes all the more important. Two techniques—anonymity and coni dentiality—assist researchers in this regard, although people often confuse the two.

Anonymity A research project guarantees anonymity when the researcher—not just the people who read about the research—cannot identify a given response with a given respon- dent. h is implies that a typical interview survey respondent can never be considered anonymous, because an interviewer collects the information from an identii able respondent. An example of anonymity is a mail survey in which nothing can identify the respondent when the questionnaire arrives at the research oi ce.

As we’ll see in Chapter 9, assuring anonymity makes keeping track of who has or hasn’t returned the questionnaires dii cult. Despite this problem, you may be advised to pay the necessary price in some situations. In one study of drug use among university students, I deci- ded that I specii cally did not want to know the iden tity of respondents. I felt that honestly assuring anonymity would increase the likeli- hood and accuracy of responses. Also, I did not want to be in the position of being asked by authorities for the names of drug of enders. In the few instances in which respondents volunteered their names, such information was immediately obliterated on the questionnaires.

Confi dentiality A research project guarantees coni dentiality when the researcher can identify a given person’s responses but essentially promis- es not to do so publicly. In an interview survey, for example, the researchers could make public the income reported by a given respondent, but they assure the respondent that this will not be done.

anonymity Anonymity is guaranteed in a research project

when neither the researchers nor the readers of the fi ndings

can identify a given response with a given respondent.

coni dentiality A research project guarantees confi den-

tiality when the researcher can identify a given person’s

responses but promises not to do so publicly.


strongly supported by the ASA Code of Ethics, and the association i led a friend of the court brief on his behalf. In 1997 the ASA revised its Code of Ethics and, while still upholding the norm of coni dentiality, warned researchers to inform themselves regarding laws and rules that may limit their ability to promise coni dentiality to research subjects.

You can use several techniques to guard against such dangers and ensure better performance on the guarantee of coni dentiality. To begin, inter- viewers and others with access to respondent identii cations should be trained in their ethi- cal responsibilities. Beyond training, the most fundamental technique is to remove identifying infor mation as soon as it’s no longer necessary. In a survey, for example, all names and addresses should be removed from questionnaires and re- placed by identii cation numbers. An identii ca- tion i le should be created that links numbers to names to permit the later correction of missing or contradictory information, but this i le should not be available except for legitimate purposes.

Similarly, in an interview survey you may need to identify respondents initially so that you can recontact them to verify that the in- terview was conducted and perhaps to get information that was missing in the original interview. As soon as you’ve verii ed an inter- view and assured yourself that you don’t need any further information from the respondent, however, you can safely remove all identifying information from the interview booklet. Often, interview booklets are printed so that the i rst page contains all the identii ers—it can be torn of …