Learning Outcomes

  • Describe key ethical guidelines in sociology
Sociologists conduct studies to shed light on human behaviors. Knowledge is a powerful tool that can be used toward positive change. And while a sociologist’s goal is often simply to uncover knowledge rather than to spur action, many people use sociological studies to help improve people’s lives. In that sense, conducting a sociological study comes with a tremendous amount of responsibility. Like any scientists, sociologists must consider their ethical obligation to avoid harming subjects or groups while conducting their research.
Screenshot of a partial definition of ethics. It says ethics: noun. and moral principle, then the rest of the text is cut off from view.

Figure 1. Sociologists have a responsibility to be ethical and fair.

The American Sociological Association, or ASA, is the major professional organization of sociologists in North America. The ASA is a great resource for students of sociology as well. In 1970, the ASA adopted its first Code of Ethics—formal guidelines for conducting sociological research—consisting of principles and ethical standards to be used in the discipline. It was developed out of necessity as a result of several (in)famous studies that were found to have harmed human research participants. 

Today, the ASA Code of Ethics consists of the following six principles: 

  1. Professional competence
  2. Integrity 
  3. Professional and scientific responsibility
  4. Respect for people’s rights, dignity, and diversity
  5. Social responsibility
  6. Human rights

In addition to the six principles, there are nineteen ethical standards, covering the following topics: competence, representation and misuse of expertise, delegation and supervision, discrimination, exploitation, harassment, employment decisions, conflicts of interest and commitment, public communications, confidentiality, informed consent, research planning, implementation, and dissemination, plagiarism, authorship, publication process, responsibilities of reviewers, education, teaching, and training, contractual and consulting services, and adherence to the code of ethics. 

The ethical standards that relate most to the research process itself are: confidentiality, informed consent, research planning, implementation, and dissemination. These principles require that researchers maintain objectivity and integrity in research, respect subjects’ rights to privacy and dignity, and protect subjects from personal harm. Researchers must also seek informed consent, preserve confidentially, and then when reporting on the research, acknowledge collaboration and assistance as well as any sources of financial support.

Each of these principles and ethical standards have detailed descriptions and parameters in the 2018 ASA Code of Ethics

Unfortunately, when these codes of ethics are ignored, it creates an unethical environment for humans being involved in a sociological study. Throughout history, there have been numerous unethical studies, some of which are summarized below.

Six men walk in a town.

Figure 2. Participants in the Tuskegee study were denied important information about their diagnosis, leading to significant health issues. (Credit: Centers for Disease Control)

  • The Tuskegee Experiment: This study was conducted 1932 in Macon County, Alabama, and included 600 African American men, including 399 diagnosed with syphilis. The participants were told they were diagnosed with a disease of “bad blood.” Penicillin was distributed in the 1940s as the cure for the disease, but unfortunately, the African American men were not given the treatment because the objective of the study was to see “how untreated syphilis would affect the African American male” (Caplan, 2007)
  • Henrietta Lacks: Ironically, this study was conducted at the hospital associated with Johns Hopkins University, where codes of the ethics originated. In 1951, Henrietta Lacks was receiving treatment for cervical cancer at John Hopkins Hospital, and doctors discovered that she had “immortal” cells, which could reproduce rapidly and indefinitely, making them extremely valuable for medical research. Without her consent, doctors collected and shared her cells to produce extensive cell lines. Lacks’ cells were widely used for experiments and treatments, including the polio vaccine, and were put into mass production. Today, these cells are known worldwide as HeLa cells (Shah, 2010).
  • Milgram Experiment: In 1961, psychologist Stanley Milgram conducted an experiment at Yale University. Its purpose was to measure the willingness of study subjects to obey an authority figure who instructed them to perform acts that conflicted with their personal conscience. People in the role of teacher believed they were administering electric shocks to students who gave incorrect answers to word-pair questions. No matter how concerned they were about administering the progressively more intense shocks, the teachers were told to keep going. The ethical concerns involve the extreme emotional distress faced by the teachers, who believed they were hurting other people. (Vogel 2014).
  • Philip Zimbardo and the Stanford prison experiment: In 1971, psychologist Phillip Zimbardo conducted a study involving students from Stanford University. The students were put in the roles of prisoners and guards, and were required to play their assigned role accordingly. The experiment was intended to last two weeks, but it only last six days due to the negative outcome and treatment of the “prisoners.” Beyond the ethical concerns, the study’s validity has been questioned after participants revealed they had been coached to behave in specific ways.

The Tea Room TRade

So why did the ASA create a Code of Ethics? What kinds of studies were occurring that necessitated a clear code to mandate researchers’ responsibilities to their human research participants (sometimes referred to as “subjects”)? Read on, and consider the ethical issues that arose in sociologist Laud Humphrey’s The Tea Room Trade: Impersonal Sex in Public Places (1970).

Laud Humphreys, a sociologist (and an ordained minister), had a suspicion that sex between men was occurring in public places. To understand this secret behavior, he served as a “lookout” or “watch queen” and gained mens’ trust in a variety of public restrooms, which he called “tearooms.” Humphreys then recorded these mens’ license plate numbers, utilized a contact at the police department, and tracked them down at their homes a year later under the guise of a social health surveyor. He interviewed the subjects to understand their motivation, what types of work they did, and their marital status. In the course of his interviews, he also discovered that only 14% self-identified as homosexual (Humphreys 1970).

Observing deviant and (in this case) illegal behavior is risky for the researcher but riskier still for the research subjects. During the 1960s, anti-sodomy laws were on the books in most states and were used to criminalize any behavior that was “unnatural” or “immoral,” including oral sex and anal sex. Not only was Humphreys observing behavior that was considered taboo by most Americans at the time, but this behavior was also criminally prosecutable.

Researchers must obtain participants’ informed consent and must discuss with subjects the responsibilities and risks of research before they agree to partake. During a study, sociologists must ensure the safety of participants and immediately stop work if a subject becomes potentially endangered on any level. Researchers are required to protect the privacy of participants whenever possible. Even if pressured by authorities, such as police or courts, researchers are not ethically allowed to release confidential information.

In this case, Humphreys did not disclose his role as researcher in the tea rooms nor did he let the men in the restrooms know he was doing sociological research on sexual behaviors in public restrooms. He also did not protect the privacy of the unknowing research subjects—he went to their homes and at that time again failed to disclose his true purpose for being there! 

Although the ASA Code of Ethics was not in place until Humphreys published his book (drafts of the Code were being written around the time he completed his research), his work was still controversial for that era in sociology due to his methodology. Interestingly, there is evidence that shows a decrease in police raids after Tea Room Trade was published in 1970. Thus, advancing knowledge about deviant behavior and taboo groups can lead to policy changes. Humphreys’ work was published not long after the Stonewall protests of 1969, which were the result of an overzealous police raid on a gay and lesbian nightclub in New York City. This event helped to initiate the LGBTQ Movement in the United States.

Humphreys defended concealing his identity and purpose because of the greater scientific knowledge he was able to obtain about this hidden social world. He knew the mens’ behavior would change if they knew he was a researcher writing about informal sexual encounters in public places. Humphreys also promised to protect the identities of the 100 men he observed and had personal contact information for, even if it meant being arrested himself. Ultimately, it did not come to this.

A summary of Humphreys’ research and the resulting ethical issues can be found at SexInfo Online, which is maintained by sociology students at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

Researchers have long been aware of the tendency of people to act differently when they know they are being watched. In other words, we don’t always behave naturally when we know we are being observed. This is called the Hawthorne effect—where people change their behavior because they know they are being watched as part of a study. The Hawthorne effect is unavoidable in some research. In most cases, sociologists have to make the purpose of the study known. Subjects must be aware that they are being observed, and a certain amount of artificiality may result (Sonnenfeld 1985).

How do sociologists do research with this Code of Ethics in place? Some strategies will be discussed with each research methodology, but as it turns out, most people respond well to honesty. Sociologist Kathleen Blee studied women in the neo-Nazi movement and in other racist groups such as the Ku Klux Klan, utilizing the same methodology of participant observation and interviews that Humphries did, but she followed all research protocols and was able to earn the trust and cooperation of her research subjects. Similarly, Philippe Bourgois studied crack dealers in New York City using participant observation and interviews, and was forthright concerning the purpose of his research. Observing ASA principles, he obtained informed consent from all of his research subjects. These projects take years to execute, but provide invaluable information about human behavior and social groups. They also inform policy on issues such as racism or the drug trade. These studies, and many others, show that sociologists can obtain valuable research about behavior that can be highly secretive while still abiding by the ASA Code of Ethics. 

Researchers must make results available to other sociologists, must make public all sources of financial support, and must not accept funding from any organization that might cause a conflict of interest or seek to influence the research results for its own purposes. For example, if Amazon wants to fund a researcher to study the effects of Amazon Prime on small businesses, sociologists would see a conflict of interest because the corporation would be invested in the results. The ASA’s ethical considerations shape not only the study but also the publication of results.

Pioneer German sociologist Max Weber (1864–1920) identified another crucial ethical concern. 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 it was entirely inappropriate to allow personal values to shape the interpretation of the responses. Sociologists, he stated, must establish value neutrality, a practice of remaining impartial, without bias or judgment, during the course of a study and in publishing results (1949). Sociologists are obligated to disclose research findings without omitting or distorting significant data.

Is value neutrality possible? Many sociologists believe it is not feasible to entirely 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. Sociologists attempt to remain uncritical and as objective as possible when studying cultural institutions; however, value neutrality does not mean having no opinions. It means striving to overcome personal biases, particularly subconscious biases, when analyzing data. It means avoiding skewing data in order to match a predetermined outcome that aligns with a particular agenda, such as a political or moral point of view. Investigators are ethically obligated to report results, even when they contradict personal views, predicted outcomes, or widely accepted beliefs.

Try It

Think It Over

  • Why do you think the ASA crafted such a detailed set of ethical principles? What are other types of studies that could put human participants at risk? Would this type of study always be unethical? Why or why not? 
  • Would you willingly participate in a sociological study that centers around deviant and/or illegal behavior such as underage drinking on college campuses? Why or why not? From a research and policy perspective, why it is important to understand this type of behavior?


code of ethics:
a set of guidelines that the American Sociological Association has established to foster ethical research and professionally responsible scholarship in sociology
Hawthorne effect:
describes the tendency of people to change their behavior because they know they are being watched as part of a study
value neutrality:
a practice of remaining impartial, without bias or judgment during the course of a study and also when publishing results


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