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Why is Ethical Considerations Important in a Social Research? Illustrate your answer with examples from real research.

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Keywords: ethics, research, experiments, nazi

In this assignment I will attempt to define ethics and explore its significance when conducting social research. Firstly I will present many different views of ethics in social research by analyzing some common considerations that a researcher must take into account if he/she is to conduct a piece of research properly without breaching ethical principles.  Examples from real research will also be utilized to demonstrate some consequences of unethical procedures in social research. This assignment will then culminate with a critical analysis of why ethical considerations are important when conducting social research.

Ethics is defined as the values and morals upheld during interaction with others during the collection of data and the dissemination of findings (Merriam, 1988).  Some ethical considerations include an over-involvement of the researcher, confidentiality of data, the need to preserve the anonymity of participants and problems emerging from a misinterpretation of findings. 

As in any research, the researcher should take responsibility for ensuring that guidelines and regulations are followed.  Where there is an extensive analysis of participants' behavior and interaction over a period of time, the well-being, confidentiality, privacy and safety of individual participants must take precedence at all times. In addition to this, the British Sociological Association code of ethics states: ‘Guarantees of confidentiality and anonymity given to research participants must be honored, unless there are clear and overriding reasons to do otherwise' (British Sociological Association, 1996).

Homan (1991) contends that during the process of designing and implementing a piece of research one needs to consider the ethical implications on undertaking the research. Homan also note that ethics is the science of morality: those who engage in it determine values for the regulation of human behavior, collecting information about people, raise ethical issues in the focus of attention, chosen methods adopted and in the form and use of the findings.

In such a contextualized situation, the researcher must seek to cultivate a high degree of trust without influencing the behaviors of participants.  The researcher therefore must ensure that the true identity of the participants is not revealed and that any documents used are kept confidential at all times. Douglas (1979) notes that the development of ethics in social research provides something of a safeguard against the researcher encroaching on freedom of speech and the outcome of the research. Douglas also believes that ethical guidelines serve to remind the social researcher about their obligation in the conduct of their work.

According to Bell (2006) research ethics is about the nature of the agreement that the researcher has entered with the research participants or contacts. Bell further added that ethical research involves getting the informed consent of those you are going to interview observe or take materials from. It also involves the agreements reached about the use of this data and how the analysis will be reported and disseminated. Then adding to all of this is an obligation of the researcher to adhere to the agreements when they have been reached.

When carrying out social research, the researcher should take into account ethical considerations, policies and guidelines. Alcock et al (2008) stated that ethical considerations underpin all social policy research. For example, it is unacceptable to conduct research that would harm the participants or place the researchers themselves into danger. Data must be collected and stored in a place where it is secure and which will protect the anonymity of participants. Participants should give their informed consent to taking part in the research rather than being coerced, bribed or misled. There are ethical codes and protocols for conducting research in social policy, other research frameworks and it is very important that these are adhered to in all enquires. It would be seen as an indicator of the quality of social research study where there is evidence that ethical procedures have been followed. 

Brown (1997) in Gross (2001, 2005) made the point that, although ‘protection of participants' is one of the specific principles in the Ethical Principles, they're all designed to prevent any harm coming to the participant, or the avoidance of overt ‘sins'. This view is reinforced by Cohen et al (2007) who stated that whatever the specific nature of their work, social researchers must take into account the effects of the research on participants and in such a way to protect their dignity as human beings.

There are several instances where ethical principles are lacking in some social research and result in unethical practices. An example of this is in an extreme case of deception: In an experiment designed to study the establishment of a conditioned response in a situation that is traumatic but not painful, Campbell et al (1964) in Cohen (2007) induced - through the use of drugs - a temporary interruption of respiration in their subjects. The subjects' reports confirmed that the experiment was a ‘horrific' experience for them. All the subjects thought they were dying. The subjects, male alcoholic patients who volunteered for the experiment when they were told that it was connected with a possible therapy for alcoholism, were not warned in advance about the effect of the drugs, since this information would have reduced the traumatic impact of the experience.

In relation to the case presented in the above paragraph it could be argued that the researcher could have given more thought to the ethical consideration of informed consent. Frankfort and Nachmaias Nachmaias (1992) suggest that informed consent is particularly important if participants are going to be exposed to any stress, pain, invasion or if they are going to lose control over what happens. An important example is in drug research; such informed consent requires full information about the possible consequences and dangers. Cohen et al (2007) argue that the principle of informed consent arise from the subjects' right to freedom and self determination. Being free is a condition of living in a democracy and when restrictions and limitations are placed on that freedom they must be justified and consented to, as in research. Also, as part of the right to self determination, the subject has a right to refuse to take part or to withdraw once the research has begun. Thus informed consent also implies informed refusal.

There are several other reasons why ethical considerations are important when conducting social research. Although the use of deception has already being explored in the previous paragraph it appears to be a very common way of breaching ethical principles in social research. The use of deception resulting in particularly harmful consequences would be another occasion where ethical considerations would need to be given priority.  An example here would be the study by Festinger et al (1956) in Bryman (2008) of a religious cult; it is quite likely that the fact that the researchers joined the group at a crucial - close to the projected end of the world - fuelled the delusions of group members.

Frankfort and Nachmaias Nachmaias (1992) explains that conducting research that may violate the rights and welfare of the research participants should neither be the intent or of major interest of the social scientist. They further argue that the underlying objective of research is to contribute to the development of systematic, verifiable knowledge. These ethical considerations help to guarantee that the researcher can be held accountable to the public.  Cohen (2007) agrees that the researcher has responsibilities to the research community, for example, not to jeopardize the reputation of the research community (e.g. the university) or spoil the opportunities for further research. Thus, a novice researcher working for a higher degree may approach a school directly, using a clumsy approach, with inadequate data collection instruments and a poor research design and then proceeds to publicize the results as though they are valid and reliable. Cohen (2007) also believes that such a researcher , at the very least, should have sought and gained advice from the supervisor, modified the research as necessary, gained approval for the research, made suitably sensitive overtures to the school, and agree rights of disclosure.

The quality and integrity of research is very important to the public and when ethical considerations are applied public support is more than likely to be achieved. Bryman (2008) argues that possibly one of the most interesting developments in connection with ethical issues is that the criterion of the ethical integrity of an investigation is its quality. To add to this is the government involvement with the conduct of research. Bower (1979) indicated that the government plays an instrumental role in taking responsibility for subjects involved in research it sponsors - but also its accountability in light of the vast amount of public monies on social research.

Finally, lapses in ethical considerations in research can significantly harm human, researcher and the public in general. Some examples here could be a researcher who fabricates data in a potentially harmful experiment and may harm or kill participants similarly a researcher who fails to adhere to strict regulations and guidelines relating to safety may jeopardize his health and safety and the health and safety of all those who are involved in the research.  An example of where this actually happened is where the participants in the Milgram (1963) experiment on obedience to authority, experienced high levels of stress and anxiety as a consequence of being incited to administer electric shocks. It is against things like these happening why ethical considerations are so important. Punch (2005) explained that a thorough research proposal will have anticipated the ethical issues involved, and will show how they will be dealt with.

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