Think of an aspect of the social world that you would be interested in investigating. Describe the topic and why it is of interest to you. What research method would you utilize to investigate this topic? What are your reasons for selecting this method? Be sure to read the “Ethics in Social Scientific Research” section of Module 5 and then discuss the ethical issues you think you might encounter in an attempt to do this research.
Ethics in Social Scientific Research
A significant issue regarding conducting social scientific research is the fact that our subjects are human beings. Consequently, great care is taken when conducting research to treat our subjects ethically. In the social scientific community, it is agreed that researchers have the responsibility to protect their subjects from harm. Four types of harm are possible from participation in social scientific research:
1. Physical Harm. Most social scientific research does not pose a physical threat to subjects, but it has happened. In the Stanford prison experiment (1971) designed by Philip Zimbardo, ordinary college students were randomly assigned as “guards” or “prisoners” in a mock-prison experimental design. Zimbardo was attempting to investigate the impact of power on human behavior. Although the experiment was planned to run for 7-14 days, it had to be stopped after 6, because the “guards” were subjecting the “prisoners” to physical abuse.
2. Psychological Harm. Participation in research may sometimes cause psychological damage to subjects. In the famous Milgram Experiment (1961), Stanley Milgram intended to study obedience to authority. He recruited subjects and they were told that they were randomly assigned to the role of either “teacher” or “learner.” The “teachers” were seated alone in a room with a researcher and a device that administered electric shocks. The “teachers” were told that a “learner” was hooked up to the shocking device in the room next door. The “teachers” could not see the “learners,” but they could hear them. The “teachers” were instructed to ask the “learners” a series of questions. For every incorrect answer, an electric shock was to be administered by the “teacher,” under the direction of the researcher in the room. Additionally, for each subsequent incorrect answer, the researcher instructed the “teacher” to turn the dial to a higher voltage. Most of the subjects (65%) complied with instructions and administered shocks up to the highest voltage on the dial. In truth, the “learners” were all confederates of the experiment, and they were not actually connected to a shocking device. Many of the “teachers” in the experiment exhibited psychological distress during the process. But additionally, they were debriefed about the true nature of the experiment after it was over. Imagine finding out about yourself that you are willing to physically harm another human being just because a person in a position of authority told you to do so. This posed a serious psychological threat to Milgram’s subjects.
3. Legal Harm. Sometimes researchers encounter respondents engaging in illegal activities. Consequently, participating in the research study may pose a legal threat to subjects. Patricia and Peter Adler conducted field research on drug dealers and smugglers for many years, beginning in 1974. They witnessed and had knowledge of numerous criminal acts as a consequence of their research. If one of their subjects had been arrested and the Adlers called to testify, they had information that conceivably could have sent that person to prison.
4. Social Harm. Participating in research sometimes carries the possibility of impacting an individual’s work or family life. This is known as social harm. Laud Humphreys’ research for Tearoom Trade (1970), discussed in your textbook, posed a social threat to subjects. By visiting subjects’ homes, Humphreys ran the risk of exposing the secret lives of his subjects to their families.
Most colleges and universities have Human Subjects Review Boards responsible for reviewing research proposals and assessing potential harm to subjects. Research carrying potential harm to subjects is not necessarily prohibited, but what the researcher typically has to demonstrate is that the benefits of the research outweigh any potential risks to subjects.
In order to minimize risks to participants, researchers are required to get informed consent from their subjects. That is, participants must be told the purpose of the research and the potential risks involved, and agree to participate. Voluntary participation is also a safeguard for research participants. This means subjects must be told that their participation in the study is voluntary, and they are free to leave at any time.