What are ethics?
Ethics are concerned with the right and wrong way of behaving. We're concerned with the right way of behaving when conducting sociological research. The British Sociological Association produced a detailed statement, outlining the principles that sociologists should consider. The key issues include:
- Safeguard the interests of those involved
- Research should be worthwhile
- The techniques used should be appropriate
The main focus is on safeguarding the subjects of research. In practice this involves consideraitons of:
- Avoiding deception
- Confidentiality and anonymity
- Avoiding causing harm
Consent and deception
Before taking part in research it's usually accepted that the subjects know that research is taking place, they should agree to take part. This consent should be 'informed', they should know aims of the research and any potential risks. It's also accepted that consent can be withdrawn at any time. For research involving young or vulnerable people, the consent might be given by parents or carers.
If the subjects of the research are unaware or misled about its aims, then they have been deceived. Covert research is thus in breach of the general rule about consent, it should only be undertaken when essential information can't be collected any other way.
Anonymity and confidentiality
It's very unusual for participants in research to be identified. The names of people, organisations and places aren't usually provided. This should encourage participants to be open and honest, secure that whatever they say can't be directly linked back to them.
If anonymity is linked to the subjects of research, confidentiality refers to protecting the information that's collected. There should be systems in place in order to refuse unauthorised and unnecessary access to the information. This issue might have legal implications, as the Data Protection Act might be relevant in some cases.
Many of the issues athat sociologists are interested in are sensitive, they touch on aspects of personal life and things that people might prefer not to discuss. Topics such as aspects of family life, criminal or deviant behaviour, the effects of discrimination, all require careful handling. This includes how the subject matter is handles, avoiding placing the respondent under emotional pressure, taking care with the data once collected, ensuring it's not used in a way that leads to problems for the subject.
Those who take part in sociological research shouldn't be disadvantaged as a result. Protecting the identity of the participants and ensuring answers remain confidential are essential. It would be unethical for research to proceed without also considering the interests of the researcher. As doing research is part of the job of a sociologist, all the health and safety at work guidelines are relevant. Protecting the physical and emotional well-being of the research team is part of the planning and management of a research project.