Social Research Methods/Ethics

The Institutional Review Boards

  • A panel or faculty who review all research proposals involving human subjects' rights and interests and to make sure the subjects are protected. They approve or disapprove research based on a code of ethics. This law was originally applied to federally funded research, but is now being applied to universities with the same standards and procedures as well.
  • IRB's main purpose is to assure that the appropriate steps are taken to protect the rights and welfare of humans participating as subjects in a research study. There is emphasis on promoting fully informed and voluntary participation by prospective subjects who are themselves capable of making choices.

In earlier years of sociological research, the participants' well-being was hardly considered before the research began. There was a time when none of the current systems were in place to protect people from ethical misconduct.

The Tuskegee Syphilis experiment in Alabama is a good example of unethical research. For forty years, African American men who contracted the syphilis disease were neither told they had the disease, nor given access to penicillin, the antibiotic known to cure the disease. Government funded doctors wanted to see how the disease would affect these men and did not treat them. This lack of treatment caused the deaths of many of these men, and in many cases their wives contraction of the disease, and children to be born with congenital syphilis. These men were deceived about the true intentions of the experiment, making this experiment very unethical.

Another prominent research project known as the Stanford Prison Experiment also displayed unethical practices. In this experiment, healthy, "normal" students were randomly assigned to act as either prison guards or prisoners. Prison guards were emotionally abusing and generally dehumanizing to the prisoners causing great psychological harm. In addition to this Phillip Zimbardo, and man in charge of the experiment took on the role of prison warden. He became very entrenched in his role, admitting later that he was too heavily involved. At one point, a participant assigned the role of prisoner came to him and asked to leave the experiment. In today's standards this request would be immediately complied with. In this case, however, Zimbardo, acting in his role of prison warden, instead offered a compromise that he would get the guards to treat him more kindly if he would inform on fellow prisoners. The conditions in the study became so volatile that the study needed to be ended after only six days of the two week experiment. This experiment did not support ethical standards and should not have occurred.

Lastly, another well known experiment called the Stanley Milgram experiment observed human obedience to authority. In this study participants met a confederate (a person hired to play a role in an experiment), and the participant was told that he/she had randomly selected the role of teacher, thus the confederate would fill the role of learner. It was then explained that the teacher would be responsible for asking the learner a number of questions, and for each incorrect response would electrically shock the learner with increasing levels of voltages. The confederate was not shocked, but was lead into a separate room, and a prerecorded response tape was played of him responding to the shocks. The teacher could hear the learner become increasingly belligerent and state several times that he wanted to be let out, going so far as mentioning a heart condition. After a certain degree of shocks the learner stops responding at all, implying he has either died or lost consciousness. If the participant at any time asked to stop he was told by the experimenter that it was vital that the study continue, and not until he protested four times (or refused to continue) was the experiment stopped. This experiment is unethical because of the degree of psychological damage it could potentially cause to the participants, who believe that they potentially killed a man, and even with debriefing now know that they could have done so.

Social research has come a long way and no experiment resembling any of these would ever occur in this time because of the ethical standards that have been put in place. However, social research has slightly evolved and now there are standards given to participants of a study. Ethically sound research must abide by certain standards. Participants in research studies should never be forced to participate; instead, participation should always be voluntary, in which no one is coerced into a research study. Incentives can be used but should be avoided. No harm should be done to the participants, either physically or emotionally. Confidentiality and/or anonymity are granted in most research projects to participants in which their identification remains unknown. Participants in a study are not to be deceived. If for some reason, information is withheld from a study participant, then he/she is debriefed immediately following the conclusion of the true intentions of the study. There are also ethical standards that the researcher must uphold such as reporting. All results are to be reported whether they are favorable or not. Considering all of the ethical issues in research there are Institutional Review Boards to insure that subjects’ rights are protected. Institutional Review Boards are a major part of social research methods. The main responsibility of the IRB is to ensure the risks that taken by human participants in research are minimal. The IRB has the power to ask the researcher to revise their study design and in other cases, can refuse to approve a study. The guideline to be followed by IRBs, exempts a variety of research situations:

  1. Research conducted in established or commonly accepted educational settings, involving normal educational practices.
  2. Research involving the use of educational tests, survey procedures, interview procedures or observation of public behavior unless information obtained could disclose the identities of the subjects and if disclosure of the subjects identity could place them at risk.
  3. Research involving the use of educational tests, survey procedures, interview procedures or observation of public behavior that is not exempt under 2, the subjects are elected or appointed officials and the information obtained through the study will remain confidential throughout and thereafter
  4. Research involving the collection or study of existing data, documents, records, pathological specimens, or diagnostic specimens, if these sources are publicly available or if the information is recorded by the investigator in such a way that subjects cannot be identified, directly or through identifiers linked to the subject.
  5. Research and demonstration projects which are conducted by or subject to the approval of Department or Agency heads, and which are designed to study, evaluate, or otherwise examine, public benefit or service programs, procedures for obtaining benefits or services under those programs, possible changes in or alternatives to those programs or procedures, or possible changes in methods or levels of payment for benefits or services under those programs.
  6. Taste and food quality evaluation and consumer acceptance studies

There is also the ASA Code of Ethics:

  • Principle A: Professional Competence
    • Sociologists recognize the limitations of their expertise and they undertake only those tasks for which they are qualified
  • Principle B: Integrity
    • Sociologists are honest, fair and respectful of others in their professional activities

In addition to researchers violating ethical standards, some researchers use scientific misconduct while publishing or sharing their work with the public. Three main types of misconduct exist that can lower the value and validity of a research study.

  • minor misconduct - not citing references, ignoring data difficulties, or contradicting evidence
  • Research fraud - a researcher makes up data. An example of research fraud is in the 1989 FDA fraud case. In this case a New Jersey physician by the name of Robert Fogari was found guilty of pocketing nearly two million dollars from pharmaceutical firms for experimental drug tests that he never actually performed. (
  • plagiarism - this is the most prevalent form of misconduct, especially in journals and presses that are not "top-rated"

Key Terms which are essential in creating an ethical experiment:

  • Anonymity: Anonymity is achieved in a research project when neither the researchers nor the readers of the findings can identify a given response with a given respondent.
  • Confidentiality: A research project guarantees confidentiality when the researcher can identify a given person's responses but promises not to do so publicly.
  • Debriefing: Interviewing subjects to learn about their experience of participation in the project. This is especially important if there's a possibility that they have been damaged by that participation.
  • Informed consent: A norm in which subjects base their voluntary participation in research projects on a full understanding of the possible risks involved.
  • Right to Privacy: An important ethical concern that protects the private life of an individual so that the confidentiality protects them from losing their job, from having family difficulties, or from being ostracized by peers.
  • Protection from Harm: Mostly in experimental studies, this protects the subject from experiencing emotional or psychological distress from the researcher.