Ethics in Sociological Research

Confidentiality

Sociologists should take all necessary steps to protect the privacy and confidentiality of their subjects.

Learning Objectives

Give examples of how the anonymity of a research subject can be protected

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • When a survey is used, the data should be coded to protect the anonymity of subject.
  • For field research, anonymity can be maintained by using aliases (fake names) on the observation reports.
  • The types of information that should be kept confidential can range from a person’s name or income, to more significant details (depending on the participant’s social and political contexts), such as religious or political affiliation.
  • The kinds of information that should be kept confidential can range from relatively innocuous facts, such as a person’s name, to more sensitive information, such as a person’s religious affiliation.
  • Steps to ensure that the confidentiality of research participants is never breached include using pseudonyms for research subjects and keeping all notes in a secure location.

Key Terms

  • confidentiality: Confidentiality is an ethical principle of discretion associated with the professions, such as medicine, law, and psychotherapy.
  • research: Diligent inquiry or examination to seek or revise facts, principles, theories, and applications.
  • pseudonym: A fictitious name, often used by writers and movie stars.

In any sociological research conducted on human subjects, the sociologists should take all the steps necessary to protect the privacy and confidentiality of their subjects. For example, when a survey is used, the data should be coded to protect the anonymity of the subjects.

In addition, there should be no way for any answers to be connected with the respondent who gave them. These rules apply to field research as well. For field research, anonymity can be maintained by using aliases (fake names) on the observation reports.

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Cuyahoga County U.S. Census Form from 1920: Following ethical guidelines, researchers keep individual details confidential for decades. This form, from 1920, has been released because the information contained is too old to have any likely consequences for people who are still alive.

The types of information that should be kept confidential can range from something as relatively mundane and innocuous as a person’s name (pseudonyms are often employed in both interview transcripts and published research) or income, to more significant details (depending on the participant’s social and political contexts), such as religious or political affiliation.

Even seemingly trivial information should be kept safe, because it is impossible to predict what the repercussions would be in the event that this information becomes public. Unless subjects specifically and explicitly give their consent to be associated with the published information, no real names or identifying information of any kind should be used. Any research notes that might identify subjects should be stored securely. It is the obligation of the researcher to protect the private information of the research subjects, particularly when studying sensitive and controversial topics like deviance, the results of which may harm the participants if they were to be personally identified. By ensuring the safety of sensitive information, researchers ensure the safety of their subjects.

Protecting Research Subjects

There are many guidelines in place to protect human subjects in sociological research.

Learning Objectives

Identify the core tenet of research ethics, the importance of research ethics, and examples of ethical practice

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Sociologists have a responsibility to protect their subjects by following ethical guidelines. Organizations like the American Sociological Association maintain, oversee, and enforce a code of ethics for sociologists to follow.
  • In the context of sociological research, a code of ethics refers to formal guidelines for conducting sociological research, consisting of principles and ethical standards.
  • The core tenet of research ethics is that the subjects not be harmed; principles such as confidentiality, anonymity, informed consent, and honesty follow from this premise.
  • Institutional review boards are committees designated to approve, monitor, and review research involving people. They are intended to assess such factors as conflicts of interest and potential emotional distress caused to subjects.
  • Institutional Review Boards are committees designated to approve, monitor, and review research involving people. They are intended to assess such factors as conflicts of interest–for instance, a funding source that has a vested interest in the outcome of a research project–and potential emotional distress caused to subjects.

Key Terms

  • informed consent: Informed consent is a phrase often used in law to indicate that the consent a person gives meets certain minimum standards. In order to give informed consent, the individual concerned must have adequate reasoning faculties and be in possession of all relevant facts at the time consent is given.
  • confidentiality: Confidentiality is an ethical principle of discretion associated with the professions, such as medicine, law, and psychotherapy.
  • institutional review board: An institutional review board (IRB), also known as an independent ethics committee or ethical review board, is a committee that has been formally designated to approve, monitor, and review biomedical and behavioral research involving humans.

Ethical considerations are of particular importance to sociologists because sociologists study people. Thus, sociologists must adhere to a rigorous code of ethics. In the context of sociological research, a code of ethics refers to formal guidelines for conducting research, consisting of principles and ethical standards concerning the treatment of human individuals.

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Ethical Guidelines for Research Involving Children: Sociologists must follow strict ethical guidelines, especially when working with children or other vulnerable populations.

The most important ethical consideration in sociological research is that participants in a sociological investigation are not harmed in any way. Exactly what this entails can vary from study to study, but there are several universally recognized considerations. For instance, research on children and youth always requires parental consent. All sociological research requiresinformed consent, and participants are never coerced into participation. Informed consent in general involves ensuring that prior to agreeing to participate, research subjects are aware of details of the study including the risks and benefits of participation and in what ways the data collected will be used and kept secure. Participants are also told that they may stop their participation in the study at any time.

Institutional review boards (IRBs) are committees that are appointed to approve, monitor, and review research involving human subjects in order to make sure that the well-being of research participants is never compromised. They are thus intended to assess such factors as conflicts of interest–for instance, a funding source that has a vested interest in the outcome of a research project–and potential emotional distress caused to subjects. While often primarily oriented toward biomedical research, approval from IRBs is now required for all studies dealing with humans.

Misleading Research Subjects

If a researcher deceives or conceals the purpose or procedure of a study, they are misleading their research subjects.

Learning Objectives

Identify two problems with intentionally deceiving research subjects

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Although deception introduces ethical concerns because it threatens the validity of the subjects ‘ informed consent, there are certain cases in which researchers are allowed to deceive their subjects.
  • Some studies involve intentionally deceiving subjects about the nature of the research, especially in cases in which full disclosure to the research subject could either skew the results of the study or cause some sort of harm to the researcher.
  • In most instances, researchers are required to debrief (reveal the deception and explain the true purpose of the study to) subjects after the data is gathered.
  • Some possible ways to address concerns are collecting pre-consent from participants and minimizing deception.

Key Terms

  • debrief: To question someone, or a group of people, after the implementation of a project in order to learn from mistakes.
  • subject: A human research subject is a living individual about whom a research investigator (whether a professional or a student) obtains data.

Some sociology studies involve intentionally deceiving subjects about the nature of the research. For instance, a researcher dealing with an organized crime syndicate might be concerned that if his subjects were aware of the researcher’s academic interests, his physical safety might be at risk. A more common case is a study in which researchers are concerned that if the subjects are aware of what is being measured, such as their reaction to a series of violent images, the results will be altered or tempered by that knowledge. In the latter case, researchers are required to debrief (reveal the deception and explain the true purpose of the study to) subjects after the data is gathered.

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Dangerous Elements: Researchers working in dangerous environments may deceive participants in order to protect their own safety.

The ethical problems with conducting a trial involving an element of deception are legion. Valid consent means a participant is aware of all relevant context surrounding the research they are participating in, including both risks and benefits. Failure to ensure informed consent is likely to result in the harm of potential participants and others who may be affected indirectly. This harm could occur either in terms of the distress that subsequent knowledge of deception may cause participants and others, or in terms of the significant risks to which deception may expose participants and others. For example, a participant in a medical trial could misuse a drug substance, believing it to be a placebo.

Two approaches have been suggested to minimize such difficulties: pre-consent (including authorized deception and generic pre-consent) and minimized deception. Pre-consent involves informing potential participants that a given research study involves an element of deception without revealing its exact nature. This approach respects the autonomy of individuals because subjects consent to the deception. Minimizing deception involves taking steps such as introducing words like “probably” so that statements are formally accurate even if they may be misleading.

Research Funding

Research funding comes from grants from private groups or governments, and researchers must be careful to avoid conflicts of interest.

Learning Objectives

Examine the process of receiving research funding, including avoiding conflicts of interest and the sources of research funding

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Most research funding comes from two major sources: corporations (through research and development departments) and government (primarily carried out through universities and specialized government agencies).
  • If the funding source for a research project has an interest in the outcome of the project, this represents a conflict of interest and a potential ethical breach.
  • A conflict of interest can occur if a sociologist is granted funding to conduct research on a topic, which the source of funding is invested in or related to in some way.

Key Terms

  • conflict of interest: A situation in which someone in a position of trust has competing professional or personal interests.
  • research: Diligent inquiry or examination to seek or revise facts, principles, theories, and applications.

Money for sociological research doesn’t grow on trees. Many researchers fund their work by applying for grants from private groups or governments, but they must be careful to avoid a conflict of interest. Research funding is a term generally covering any funding for scientific research, in the areas of both “hard” science and technology and social sciences. The term often connotes funding obtained through a competitive process, in which potential research projects are evaluated and only the most promising receive funding. Such processes, which are run by government, corporations, or foundations, allocate scarce funds.

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Funding and Conflicts of Interest: Money for sociological research doesn’t grow on trees. Many researchers fund their work by applying for grants from private groups or governments, but they must be careful to avoid conflicts of interest.

Most research funding comes from two major sources: corporations (through research and development departments) and government (primarily carried out through universities and specialized government agencies). Some small amounts of scientific research are also carried out (or funded) by charitable foundations. In the United States, the government funding proportion in certain industries is higher, and it dominates research in social science and humanities.

Government-funded research can either be carried out by the government itself, or through grants to academic and other researchers outside the government. An advantage to government sponsored research is that the results are publicly shared, whereas with privately funded research the ideas are controlled by a single group. Consequently, government sponsored research can result in mass collaborative projects that are beyond the scope of isolated private researchers.

Funding of research by private companies is mainly motivated by profit, and are much less likely than governments to fund research projects solely for the sake of knowledge. The profit incentive causes researchers to concentrate their energies on projects which are perceived as likely to generate profits.

Research funding is often applied for by scientists and approved by a granting agency to financially support research. These grants require a lengthy process as the granting agency can inquire about the researcher’s background, the facilities used, the equipment needed, the time involved, and the overall potential of the scientific outcome. The process of grant writing and grant proposing is a somewhat delicate process for both the granter and the grantee. The granter wants to choose the research that best fits their scientific principles, and the grantee wants to apply for research in which he has the best chances but also in which he can build a body of work toward future scientific endeavors. This interplay can be a lengthy process. However, most universities have research administration offices to facilitate the interaction between the researcher and the granting agency.

If the funding source for a research project has an interest in the outcome of the project, this can represent a conflict of interest and a potential ethical breach. In other words, when research is funded by the same agency that can be expected to gain from a favorable outcome, there is a potential for biased results. The existence of a conflict of interest, or a potential one at that, can call into question the integrity of a sociologist’s research and findings.

Value Neutrality in Sociological Research

Value neutrality is the duty of sociologists to strive to be impartial and overcome their biases as they conduct their research.

Learning Objectives

Reconstruct the tension surrounding the idea of value neutrality in sociological research

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Assigning moral values to social phenomena is an inescapable result of being part of society, rendering truly value-free research inconceivable. Despite this fact, sociologists should still strive for value neutrality.
  • Value neutrality, as described by Max Weber, is the duty of sociologists to identify and acknowledge their own values and overcome their personal biases when conducting sociological research.
  • In order to be value-neutral, sociologists must be aware of their own moral judgments and values, and avoid incorporating them into their research, their conclusions, and their teaching.
  • Many sociologists believe it is impossible to set aside personal values and retain complete objectivity. They caution readers, rather, to understand that sociological studies may, by necessity, contain a certain amount of value bias.

Key Terms

  • Max Weber: (1864–1920) A German sociologist, philosopher, and political economist who profoundly influenced social theory, social research, and the discipline of sociology itself.

Assigning moral values to social phenomena is an inescapable result of being part of society. This inevitably renders truly value-free research inconceivable; however despite this, sociologists should strive for value neutrality. According to Max Weber, a German sociologist and philosopher who profoundly influenced social theory, value neutrality is the duty of sociologists to strive to be impartial and overcome their biases as they conduct their research, analyze their data, and publish their findings. Weber understood that personal values could distort the framework for disclosing study results. While he accepted that some aspects of research design might be influenced by personal values, he declared that it was entirely inappropriate to allow them to shape the interpretation of the responses.

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Max Weber: Max Weber was a German sociologist, philosopher, and political economist who profoundly influenced social theory, social research, and the discipline of sociology itself.

Sociologists, Weber stated, must establish value neutrality, a practice of remaining impartial, without bias or judgment, during the course of a study and in publishing results. To do this, they must be conscious of their own personal values. Sociologists are obligated to disclose research findings without omitting or distorting significant data, even if results contradict personal views, predicted outcomes, or widely accepted beliefs. Furthermore, and perhaps more importantly, it is the duty of sociologists to avoid bringing their ideology into their roles as instructors.

Is value neutrality possible? Many sociologists believe it is impossible to set aside personal values and retain complete objectivity. They caution readers, rather, to understand that sociological studies may, by necessity, contain a certain amount of value bias. It does not discredit the results but allows readers to view them as one form of truth rather than as a singular fact. Some sociologists attempt to remain uncritical and as objective as possible when studying cultural institutions. However, this is difficult to obtain. Being a human and studying human subjects results in some degree of subjectivity, due to cultural influences. This is not necessarily negative, but it should be reported in any study being done so people can interpret the results as clearly as possible.

Value neutrality does not mean having no opinions, however. It just means that sociologists must strive to overcome personal biases, particularly subconscious biases, when analyzing data. It also means that sociologists must avoid skewing data in order to match a predetermined outcome that aligns with a particular agenda, such as a political or moral point of view. Although subjectivity is likely in almost any sociological study, with careful consideration, a good sociologist can limit its effect on any particular study.