Social research involves measuring, describing, explaining and predicting social and economic phenomena. Its objectives include exploring social and economic structures, attitudes, values and behaviors and the factors, which motivate and constrain individuals and groups in society. There are, however, a number of ethical and political concerns that social researchers must be aware of while conducting such research. This paper focuses on and describes some of these valid ethical and political concerns.
Ethics of Social Research
Since "social research" encompasses a wide-ranging field, it is probably not appropriate to have a universal or a single set of code of ethics to govern such research. Over time, however, a number of conflicting ethical theories such as the Utilitarian theory introduced by John Stuart Mill (1806-1873), advocating that the ends justify the means, and Immanuel Kant (1724-1804)'s ethical theories that emphasized that humans should not be the means to an end, have been combined into some commonly accepted principles of social research. After the Nuremberg Trials in 1947, the so-called "Nuremberg Code" and other international codes of ethics were developed to protect research participants. Later, the U.S. federal government developed ethical standards for research that are contained in the Belmont Report (1979). The Belmont Report contains three basic ethical principles: respect for persons, beneficence and justice. These principles form the foundation of the code of ethics for social research.
("The Belmont Report," 1979)
Other organizations such as the American Sociological Association (ASA) have developed general Code of Ethics for sociologist and ethical standards of research for its members that are specifically pertinent to ethics in "social" research. Such codes are substantially based on the Belmont Report and are a common set of values upon which sociologists build their professional and scientific work and provide the general principles and rules to cover professional situations encountered by sociologists. Their main goal is the welfare and protection of the individuals and groups with whom sociologists work. ("ASA Code of Ethics," 2005) The Codes include principles that emphasize professional competence, integrity, professional responsibility, respect for people's rights, dignity and diversity, and social responsibility. Institutional Review Boards (IRB) at universities and other research institutions are also involved in protecting the well being of human subjects in social research.
Adherence to High Standards & Competence
Sociologists are expected to adhere to the highest standards in their research activities. This means that they must rely only on scientifically derived knowledge and avoid using untrue, misleading or deceptive material in their research. They are also supposed to conduct research only in their area of expertise and competence; and keep themselves updated about the current scientific knowledge in their respective fields.
Misuse of Expertise
Sociologists are expected not to accept grants for research from organizations or individuals of dubious reputation or those who are likely to violate the Code of Ethics for Sociologists. If they are not aware of such violations when starting the research, they must disassociate from such research as soon as they become aware of them.
Non-discrimination and Non-harassment
Sociologists are not supposed to engage in discrimination of any kind including race, gender, age or religion during their research. Harassment of the research subjects is also considered to be unethical.
Conflicts of Interest
Sociologists must refrain from conducting research in which their personal, scientific, professional, legal, financial, or other interests or relationships affects or is expected to (1) impair their objectivity, competence, or effectiveness. Conflict of interest arises when, during the course of research, personal or financial interests of the parsons performing the research prevent them from performing their professional work in an unbiased manner. Under all circumstances, the researchers must not use or seek to gain from information or material received confidentially, e.g., knowledge obtained from reviewing a manuscript.
Voluntary Participation / Informed Consent
Participation in research must be voluntary. Sociologists are not supposed to involve a human being as a subject in research without the informed consent of the subject.
The consent may be oral / and/or in written form and the researchers are supposed to keep a record of the consent, when applicable. No one can be forced to or compulsorily be required to participate in research projects. ("Ethical Standards," 2005) Moreover, it is possible that the researchers may apply undue influence or subtle pressures on subjects that may partly be due to the researchers' expertise or authority, and the sociologists must take this factor into account while designing informed consent procedures.
Volunteer subjects of a research program must be informed that they may withdraw from a research program at any time. They must be made aware of any risks and benefits associated with the research in which they are participating and the researchers must explain to the subjects of a research that their refusal to participate or withdrawal from participation in the research shall involves no penalty. Confidentiality of the research and the extent to which it would be kept should also be made clear.
Sociologists may, however, carry out research by using publicly available information about individuals, e.g., through analysis of public records, or archival research, without obtaining consent. (Ibid)
The ethics of 'informed consent' in social research is particularly important while undertaking research with vulnerable populations, for example, the youth, immigrant populations, or the mentally ill because such sections of the population may not readily be aware about their rights of 'informed consent.' In these situations, the sociologists are doubly responsible for ensuring that consent is not coerced or forced from the participants in any manner whatsoever. In case of informed consent from children, the researchers have to obtain the consent of children to participate, to the extent that they are capable of providing such consent and to get the consent of the parents or guardians of the children. ("The Belmont Report," 1979)
Maintaining strict confidentiality of the information gathered during research is another important part of the ethics of social research and sociologists have an obligation to ensure that confidential information is protected. They do so to ensure the integrity of research and the open communication with research participants and to protect sensitive information obtained in research.
When gathering confidential information, sociologists should be aware of the long-term uses of the information, including its potential placement in public archives or the examination of the information by other researchers or practitioners. Hence any breach of confidentiality of information at a later stage must be planned and catered for at the beginning of the research so that reasonable precautions to protect the confidentiality rights of research participants are taken.
The standards of confidentiality in social research are fairly strict; hence even if there is no legal protection or privilege to keep information gathered during research, confidentiality is kept and any information provided under an understanding of confidentiality is treated as such even after the death of those providing that information. When confidential information of research participants is entered into databases or systems of records available to persons without the prior consent of the relevant parties, sociologists must protect anonymity by not including personal identifiers or by employing other techniques that mask disclosure of individual identities. ("Ethical Standards," 2005, para on Anticipation of Possible Uses of Information)
Another basic principle of confidentiality in research is that data generated by the research can only be used for the purposes for which the participants (or their proxies) gave consent.
Plagiarism in social research is an equally important ethical issue. Researchers who present the words, data, or ideas of others with the implication that they are their own, without proper reference amounts to committing theft of intellectual property and the perpetrator could be considered guilty of plagiarism and of research misconduct. This provision against plagiarism applies to all parts of research papers, including reviews, background, historical and methodological sections as well as to original research results or interpretations. ("Guidelines for Ethical Practices in Research," 2003) Detailed guidelines for in text-citation, method of citing verbatim quotes (short phrases and longer quotes), paraphrasing of ideas, and the reference (or works cited) page are given in detail by organizations such as the American Psychological Association (APA) and the Modern Language Association (MLA) and published in their Publication Manuals, updated from time to time. These formatting guidelines are also available on various websites such as A Guide for Writing Research Papers based on Styles Recommended by the American Psychological Association.
Strict adherence to the guidelines would prevent the deliberate or inadvertent committing of plagiarism.
Other points to be kept in mind by social researchers regarding plagiarism are: a researcher / author should cite the work of others even if he or she had been a co-researcher, co-author, or editor of the work and applies to all forms of works, whether published or unpublished and whether it is in written or in oral form or it is available electronically.
According to the ASA guidelines, sociologists take credit "only for work they have actually performed or to which they have contributed" and "principal authorship and other publication credits are based…