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Ethics in social research

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Sociology
Wordcount: 1817 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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Ethics in research has been around since World War II and is still to this day a growing concern among researchers. The main aim of the researcher is to

“ensure that their studies are directed toward worthwhile goals and that the welfare of their subjects and their research colleagues is protected.” Alan Kimmel, 1988

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There are several reasons why it is important for an investigator to adhere to ethical standards in research. First, some of these norms promote the aims of research, such as knowledge, truth, and avoidance of error. For example, prohibitions against fabricating, forging, or misrepresenting research data to promote the truth and avoid error. Second, since research often involves a great deal of cooperation and coordination among many different people in different disciplines and institutions, many of these ethical standards promote the values that are essential to collaborative work, such as trust, accountability, mutual respect, and fairness. For instance, one particular ethical norm, confidentiality, is designed to protect intellectual interests while encouraging collaboration among the participants. Third, ethical norms in research also help to build public support for research. People are more likely to fund research project if they can trust the quality and integrity of research (this particular example is relevant to the scenario being assessed.) Finally, many of the standards of research promote a variety of other important moral and social values, such as social responsibility, human rights, and compliance with the law

So although all these codes, policies and principles are very important and useful but like any set of rules they do not cover every situation that arises in research, they are often conflicting and require considerable interpretation. It is therefore important for the researcher to learn how to interpret, assess and apply various research rules and how to make decisions about how to act in various circumstances. The vast majority of decision making in the conduct of research involves the straightforward application of ethical policies.

Ethical issues that are encountered in applied social research are both subtle and complex, raising difficult moral dilemmas that, from the outside, appear unresolvable. With these dilemmas the researcher is required to strike a delicate balance between the scientific or social requirement of methodology and the human rights and values potentially threatened by the research.

Privacy and confidentiality are two ethical issues that are crucial to social researchers who request individuals to share with them their thoughts attitudes and experiences. The ethical social researcher is one who is aware of ways in which privacy and confidentiality may be jeopardised and safeguarded and is knowledgeable about the effects of privacy and confidentiality on consent.

“The nature of privacy concerns has changed over time as social scientists have become more involved in identifying social problems and testing possible solutions through field research (Boruch & Cecil, 1979)”

Organisational research focus is directed toward personnel – relating issues, including the testing and appraisal of employees for personnel decisions. In conducting these investigations, researchers and consultants may seek to improve on organisations capacities to achieve various goals (e.g. profit for a business, its employees quality of work life or the impact of the organisation on communities in isolate rural areas.

Evaluation research is a major type of applied research, typically undertaken by social scientists to determine if ongoing social programs are working as they should. Evaluations tend to focus on programs that are beneficial in nature, such as remedial education, health care and job training programs.

The results of an evaluation study, in revealing whether a social program is accomplishing what was intended can have immediate impact on social policy and political decisions regarding the program’s fate – whether it should be continued or stopped, its budget and personnel increased or cut backs made.

There are a number of vested interests in the design and implementation of evaluation studies and because their results are likely to affect people’s jobs, education and health. Like research conducted in organisations, evaluation research raises some unique ethical questions about whose interests are served an whose point of view should be represented during the research process (Kidder & Judd, 1986)

With this particular scenario there are two different situations where ethical issues will arise. Firstly, you begin to suspect that food is being stolen from the kitchen and the viability of the project may be at risk. From a researchers point of view suspicions would need to be backed up with hard evidence. If you were to say to you manager, you run the risk of them discharging you and not allowing you to carry out anymore research – how could you possibly imagine that of any of their staff? Although on the other hand if your manager was to take you suspicions on board and further investigate the matter over a closely surveyed period of time, they may benefit and appreciate your integrity that you hold with the company. In a case like this it is often difficult for the evaluator to separate their research role from their role as a work experience placement student. You have been promised the confidentiality of the staff and if you were to say anything about the stolen food it could affect your research and you rapport with the staff. The staff may turn against you and refuse to cooperate after you telling the boss on one of their colleagues.

Throughout the research you must remember what the objective is and if you remain silent with your suspicions, will your results in anyway end up being bias? This will reflect an untrue outcome and the company could face further scrutiny from the funding body.

There is also the legality aspect for the researcher to consider and stealing is against the law, could you live with yourself if you thought that you were covering up for a criminal, no matter how small the offence was? In failing to voice your suspicions Kimmel, (1988) stated you “legally could face prosecution as an “accessory after the fact” for failure to report a crime.”

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If I were to be placed in this situation I personally would confront the manager of the company and explain my situation with regards to my research. I believe that stealing is wrong and should not take place no matter how big or small the offence is. Although I can understand why somebody may not say and not only put their research at rick but their social responsibility.

The second scenario where the researcher will be confronted by ethical dilemmas is in carrying out the interviews with some of the senior citizens that are receiving these ‘Meals on Wheels.’ To carry out interviews you will need the consent of the person involved, some elderly clients may not like the prospect of being intimated with questions. The elderly are of the vulnerable sector in our population and should be informed of why the interview is taking place and the effects that their answers could have on the survival and funding of the business while always remembering the objectivity of the research and expressing it in clarity to the senior citizens. The interview will involve asking how they feel about receiving their ‘Meals on Wheels,’ how they approve of the service and how would they feel if this service was to be taken away from them? This could cause distress and emotional shock among the elderly, especially if they thought that their opinion meant the deciding factor of whether the company received funding to continue its business. Many of the elderly could largely depend on this service and there must be no deception in making them fully aware why the interviews are taken place.

The senior citizens should be made aware that the researcher will be evaluating and publishing their results to the company and will have to give an open and honest account of what has been said in the interviews. The researcher is under the obligation from the code of ethics so as not to fabricate the data in anyway. The researcher, if a member of the local community, may feel tempted to fabricate the interview responses so as the company will receive their funding to finance this project as they realise how vital this scheme is for the elderly in this isolated rural area but as Kimmel noted personnel values may play a significant role in social research, therefore researchers must be careful enough to protect the integrity of their inquiries through careful data collection and analysis and accurate and objective reporting of their research findings.

If I were the researcher in carrying out the interviews I would make the elderly entirely aware of the project and encourage them to see how they are beneficiaries of it. This in return will boost their confidence of the company and help portray a better interview for the research. After all if you were a senior citizen who lived in an isolated area and the only person you may see everyday is the delivery driver of ‘Meals on Wheels’, wouldn’t you appreciate the service? Not only are they providing a food service but they also help to bring a warm and friendly atmosphere into the home.

In conclusion ethical decision making is neither a perfectly rational nor entirely timeless enterprise, and even after a considered judgement about the issues involved in a given situation has been made, doubts about whether or not one’s subsequent behaviour was ethical may remain.

As we continue to proceed with social research in applied settings, we can expect a growing wealth of documentation on the conditions under which certain interventions are successful in reducing certain social problems and on what side effects might be anticipated as a result of their implementation.

To proceed ethically it is important for social researchers to bear in mind that their first obligation is to those persons who cooperate with and participate in the research process, and that it is their interests that first must be considered during the preparatory stages of program development.


  • Kimmel, A (1988) Ethics and Values in Applied Social Research Sage Publications London


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