Ethics in Social Research: Volume 12

Cover of Ethics in Social Research

Table of contents

(17 chapters)

Part 1, then, begins with Dingwall's analysis and evaluation of ethical regulation in the social sciences. Following a socio-historical account of the present regulatory regime, which concludes that ethical regulation has been and remains largely a matter of reputation management, he proceeds to consider the costs and benefits of ethical regulation. Dingwall argues that far from being indicative of anarchic and now largely anachronistic administrative regimes, autonomy and decentralisation were in fact finely evolved structural responses to facilitate innovation and creative knowledge generation within institutions of higher education. The spasms of centralisation that have accompanied the rise of ethical regulation reflect a wider managerialism and corporatism that not only inhibit innovation, but are also largely inward-facing and therefore more concerned with shielding the institution than protecting vulnerable research subjects. The costs of ethical regulation in its present form may well outweigh the benefits. Examining research ethics in the context of a knowledge economy, Harrison and Rooney reach remarkably similar conclusions in relation to ethical autonomy and decentralisation. Introducing the main traditions of western moral philosophy, they progress to a discussion of research ethics in the context of normative ethical positions in society more broadly. After examining three seminal, social research projects, they point up the failure of traditional approaches and again indicate the importance of organisational structures. Rather than unreflexively policing abstract codes of conduct, which by implication are thoroughly outflanked by the complexities of a contemporary political economy of knowledge, research institutions they argue must generate wise ethical cultures through the production of institutional ethical spaces. Here autonomous reflection, individual engagement and ethical dialogue form an organic base for wise organisation. Rather than a ‘tickbox’ approach to satisfy legal and professional obligations, one imagines an institutional culture of ethical deliberation that extends to consider the furthermost implications for society.

Purpose – To outline the history of ethical regulation in the social sciences and to question the proportionality of its costs and benefits.

Methodology/approach – Secondary analysis of primary literature.

Findings – Ethical regulation in the social sciences has been driven more by institutional reputation management than human subject protection. It has a range of social and economic costs that have not received adequate critical appraisal.

Social implications – Ethical regulation in the social sciences may be highly damaging to a society's ability to understand itself, particularly by constraining scientific research relative to journalism or imaginative forms of communication.

Originality/value of paper – Review of the most current research and an explanation of the positive case against regulation.

Purpose – The purpose of this chapter is to discuss the roles of ethics and wisdom in knowledge economies and specifically the place of ethics and wisdom in social research in knowledge economies.

Approach – It does this through examining traditional theories of ethics, their application in the context of research ethics, and the origins of the current institutional ethics approval regimes. The limitations of consequentialist and deontological approaches to ethics in social research are articulated, as is the rise of neo Aristotelian virtue ethics – to which wisdom is integral. Questions are posed about several high-profile cases of past social research, and the extent to which these might be considered both unethical and unwise. Attention is then given to the place of wisdom in the practice of social research. Aristotle presents practical wisdom as an executive virtue that coherently integrates intellectual and ethical virtues to create deliberative excellence.

Findings – Practical wisdom is thus seen as a way of performing as an educated, skilled, and ethical social actor with carefully constructed predispositions which automatically seek excellence and well-being. Furthermore, a wise social researcher considers the needs of others carefully to try to find the right thing to do, but in understanding others emotionally, intellectually, or otherwise, is not manipulative. The conclusion poses the question as to how practical wisdom might be developed applied to the practices of contemporary social research.

Purpose – The purpose of this chapter is to explore the differing ways in which emancipation is conceived by (Burawoy, 2004) four types of sociology: professional, public, critical and policy. The chapter argues that taken in isolation these sociologies generate issues in research that can only be resolved by reference to the activities of other branches of the sociological enterprise.

Approach – The chapter starts with a conflict of values in public sociological research, where the researcher is confronted with respondents whose ‘voice’ is characterised as racist.

Findings – The chapter argues that whilst public sociology attempts to provide voice to marginalised social groups it often makes arbitrary judgments over the palatability of certain voices, preferring voices sympathetic to the sociological enterprise over populist voices. The nuance here is illustrated as a tension between public and critical sociology that is often overlooked in the literature.

Research implications – The chapter argues that to successfully make sociological judgments to marshal between divergent voices, public sociology needs to re-discover its relationship with professional sociology, in terms of its engagement with political normativity and uses of evidence. Ultimately, for the sociological enterprise to be emancipatory it has to have a functioning interdependence between its four main activities.

Purpose – To fill the gap between conflict theories and ethnographic methods. In fact, if one considers recent sociological production as a whole, one notes that, on the one hand, scholars belonging to the European Marxian and Weberian traditions have indeed centered their analytical interests on the theme of conflict and power, on the other hand they have studied them using the tools of macro-analysis and historical sociology, and therefore in more abstract and general terms. For their part, interactionists and ethnographers, especially American, have closely and efficaciously studied society at the elementary level of micro-interactions and everyday life; but they have often (with some felicitous exceptions) underestimated the weight and importance of conflicts and power.

Findings – The paper shows that the situation was different (better) in the 1950s and 1960s, and that recently, the field of conflict methodology (or critical ethnography) has been left almost entirely to brilliant investigative journalists. One of the causes of this has certainly been the spread, in recent decades, of an ethical regulation of research and of a deontological conception of the ethics of social research.

The paper calls for the discovery of a new ethical conception (utilitarian, ethics of responsibility) alternative to the dominant deontological approach and for the adoption, following the sociologist Jack Douglas, of an investigative method of social research. In the final part of the paper, some concrete research examples are provided and a final appeal for critical ethnography and the study of powerful organizations has been made.

Purpose – This chapter reflects on my research experiences as a heterosexual man interviewing gay clergy. The chapter focuses on the interviewer/interviewee relationship reflecting on the place of similarity and difference in the research interaction.

Methodology/approach – The chapter reflects on my experiences of undertaking feminist inspired qualitative interviews on sensitive issues.

Findings – The chapter argues for a move beyond a binary understanding of similarity and difference and illustrates interviews as dynamic interactions.

Research limitations/implications – It is hoped that the reflections presented will inform future research in sensitive areas and encourage an open, engaged and reactive approach to interviewing around sensitive topics.

Purpose – To consider the possibility that research ethics committee perceptions of risk is tainted by their social distance from marginalised social groups and their lack of familiarity with carrying out fieldwork with criminally involved individuals. And to reflect on the potential for the negative perceptions create a vicious cycle by corroding trust and creating an over-reliance on a rigid interpretation of the ethical guidelines leading to tighter restrictions on researcher conduct.

Methodology/approach – Drawing on our experience of carrying out longitudinal research with a group of hard to reach drug using offenders the chapter uses case studies to offer a reflexive account of the practical problems raised by the research.

Findings – It provides examples of the way the ethical boundaries can be stretched and broken by the circumstances of the research. This arises, in part, from the tension of maintaining a trustful relationship with the participant or taking action that is in their interest and abiding by the ethical guidelines. The vicious cycle could be broken by changing the approach to ethical procedures by placing the care of the participants at the heart of the process and by giving due weight to their social circumstances. An ethics of care approach would shift the way researcher obligation to the participants and the project is conceptualised.

Originality/value of paper – The paper makes a valuable contribution to the debate about the negative impact of bureaucratic procedures on academic research among marginalised groups.

Purpose – This chapter builds on our personal experiences of researching primary schools. The chapter begins by discussing some important subjective accounts of conducting qualitative research, and the unavoidable (often unexpected) dilemmas that confront researchers whilst ‘in the field’. This provides the backdrop against which our own experiences of conducting research will be considered.

Methodology/approach – Whilst it is vital and necessary for researchers to abide by the relevant code(s) of ethical conduct, the authors argue that the contingent nature of qualitative research necessitates a degree of personal ethical discretion. The ethical frameworks of bodies such as the British Educational Research Association and the British Sociological Association are prima facie generalised, and cannot cover all ethical potentialities. Ethically sensitive researchers not only will be vigilant in adhering to the guiding framework, but will also be acutely aware of the situated nature of many ethical issues.

Findings – Researchers can never be fully prepared for the ethical issues they will confront in the field. However, the authors believe that if researchers share the eccentricities of their empirical experiences with others in their field, then researchers can be better prepared for the ethical challenges awaiting them. As such, this chapter draws upon our own fieldwork experiences in a rural village school in Norfolk and in a series of suburban/rural primary schools in North East England. The chapter does not offer a series of recommendations, but rather an exploration of the practical lessons that the authors have taken from the field.

Purpose – To consider the unique ethical dilemmas, such as limitations in confidentiality, that research in prison settings is required to address.

Methodology/approach – The ethics of prison-based research are explored within the context of a three-year Participatory Action Research (PAR) project which aimed to involve staff and women in prison in the development of care pathways for self-harm.

Findings – The ethics of prison research are complex and require the balancing of individual rights with prison security requirements. In keeping with the PAR approach the experience for two of the women of being involved in the research and action for change is discussed through their own accounts.

Originality/value of paper – PAR has not been previously used in an English prison; this article provides an account of the ethical considerations of empowering methodologies with people who by their very status as prisoners are disempowered.

Research implications – Although this is just one example within a women's prison the authors assert that PAR as a methodology within a prison environment is not only feasible but also desirable for engaging offenders in the development of services.

Practical implications – The engagement of this traditionally ‘hard to reach’ groups of people can ensure the development of meaningful and effective services based upon service user's experiential expertise (Beresford, 2000).

Social implications – PAR offers those in prison a stake in the development and design of services. This not only has personal benefits for the individual but also is likely to increase service uptake and relevance (Foster, J., Tyrell, K., Cropper, V., & Hunt, N. (2005). Welcome to the team – Service users in staff recruitment. Drink and Drugs News, 21).

Purpose – To explore an ethics of entanglement in the context of mental health and psychosocial research.

Design/methodology/approach – To bring together debates within body and affect studies, and specifically the concepts of mediated perception and the performativity of experimentation. My specific focus will be on voice hearing and research that I have conducted with voice hearers, both within and to the margins of the Hearing Voices Network (see Blackman, 2001, 2007).

Findings – The antecedents for a performative approach to experimentation and an ethics of entanglement can be found within a nineteenth-century subliminal archive (Blackman, 2012).

Originality/value – These conceptual links allow the researcher to consider the technologies that might allow them to ‘listen to voices’ and introduce the non-human into our conceptions of listening and interpreting. This directs our attention to those agencies and actors who create the possibility of listening and learning beyond the boundaries of a humanist research subject.

Purpose – Using Whitehead's notion of prehension in a critical reappraisal of phenomenology, a different kind of understanding of subjectification and objectification is being proposed in which subjectification is that which enables action as a multiplicity or virtuality, and objectification enables actuality.

Approach – A critical engagement with literature on objects, including Gabriel de Tarde, Alfred North Whitehead, Martin Heidegger and Graham Harman, is used to develop an original conception of objectification and subjectification. This is applied to debates about objectification in pornography.

Findings – This approach enables us to better understand the theoretical underpinnings of empirical philosophies such as Actor Network Theory in support of the argument that objects are capable of action. While subjectification is folded within the process of prehension as the opening of the virtual, it is logically possible to argue that objects are a matter of concern for ethics. This also means that in terms of the pornography debate, the pornographic object as such can be held accountable. We do not have to accept the instrumentalist argument that ‘what you do with it defines its ethics’.

Originality/value – The argument that objects are capable of action has thus far not been pursued in relation to questions of ethics as opposed to politics.

Purpose – To develop an alternate metaethical framework based upon a specific modality of difference.

Methodology/approach – A radicalisation of Moore's naturalistic fallacy and the application of the open question argument within the broader context of the continental tradition allow one to direct the ethical question away from non-naturalism and towards a speculative ethics.

Findings – Suggesting an ethical modality irreducible to ontological description or political prescription, the chapter argues for a metaethics of ‘exhortation’.

Originality/value of chapter – The chapter opens a new space for thinking ethics, and further encourages the continuing rapprochement between continental and analytical traditions in philosophy.

Practical implications – Questions of practical ethics will find new modes of engagement and expression in the context of a hortative metaethics.

Cover of Ethics in Social Research
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Book series
Studies in Qualitative Methodology
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Emerald Publishing Limited
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