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Research Methods

Research Ethics in Sociology

Ethical considerations for conducting research include the well-being of study subjects, studying people without their knowledge or consent, the use of deception, and protections for certain groups.
Ethics, the norms for conduct that distinguish between acceptable and unacceptable behavior and approaches, are crucial in sociological research. Debates about ethics in research became a major consideration during the 20th century. Numerous controversial and exploitative studies pushed researchers in many fields to adopt strict ethical standards.

Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment

One highly unethical study that occurred in the 20th century is the Tuskegee syphilis study, conducted between 1932 and 1972. Researchers wanted to learn about syphilis by observing what happens when it is left untreated. The Tuskegee study, run by the federal Public Health Service, recruited impoverished African American male sharecroppers in Tuskegee, Alabama as research subjects. Subjects were told they would receive free testing and treatment for "bad blood," a concept used in the region to explain a wide variety of illnesses and symptoms. Fliers invited people to come for blood testing, explaining that people may feel well but still have bad blood. Subjects were in fact tested for syphilis, and two research groups were created. One group of subjects had syphilis, and one group did not. Those who had syphilis were not informed that they had the disease and received no treatment. By 1947 penicillin was understood to be an effective treatment for syphilis. However, researchers continued the Tuskegee study for over two decades, never treating the men. Numerous study subjects died of syphilis or of related complications, and many passed it along to their spouses. At least 19 children of study subjects were born infected with syphilis. In 1997 President Bill Clinton issued an official apology on behalf of the U.S. government. The Tuskegee study is widely considered to have created distrust in the African American community toward the medical and scientific communities.

Stanford Prison Experiment

Another example of unethical research is Philip Zimbardo's Stanford Prison Experiment, a psychology study conducted in 1971. College students were recruited as study volunteers to play roles, either prisoners or guards. Those who were guards were instructed to give the prisoners a sense of powerlessness. The goal of the guards was to treat the prisoners in ways that made them feel and understand that the guards had total control over them. Guards developed a number of techniques intended to bore, humiliate, and frighten the prisoners. The study was designed to last for two weeks but was halted after six days because of concerns that the experiment had gotten out of control.

The Tuskegee study and the Stanford Prison Experiment are held up as instances where researchers did not treat subjects with respect, concern, and consideration for their safety and well-being.

Informed Consent in Sociology Research

In response to these kinds of controversies, numerous national and international research regulations were put in place in order to prevent potentially abusive studies. Researchers are expected to consider ethical issues throughout the entire research process. They must ensure they do not harm their subjects, including physical, social, or psychological harm. The right to privacy is also an ethical consideration researchers must contemplate. In the United States, there is an understood right to privacy. However, many aspects of people's lives are public record, such as court documents, arrest records, and posts on social media. The issue for researchers is whether there is a right to access these records without consent (agreement).

Receiving consent is a major ethical consideration. Typically, researchers will have their subjects sign an informed consent form or they will indicate that study subjects will remain anonymous. Generally, it is necessary to obtain the consent of people involved in research. Not only should researchers get consent, but they should inform prospective subjects that participation is voluntary. Informed consent—consent obtained after a study subject is given clear information—is important because it gives the subject the opportunity to decline or participate. But in some types of observational research, when the researcher may not want the subject to know they are being observed or the true intent of the research, issues of consent and voluntary participation are complex. In research where a subject cannot know they are being studied, researchers may engage in deception. This type of research is often controversial and must get approval from a review board prior to being conducted. Some groups are given particular consideration and protection, meaning they cannot be used in studies involving deception. These groups include children, pregnant women, those with disabilities, prisoners, and people with mental illness.

In academic settings, researchers are usually required to gain approval from an institutional review board (IRB), a committee that reviews research proposals to determine if they adhere to ethical guidelines. The IRB works to identify prospective ethical problems. If problems are identified, researchers make adjustments to their proposals to obtain clearance from the IRB to conduct the study.

Federal Requirements for Institutional Review Boards (IRBs)
Universities and other research institutions have IRBs that review research proposals for projects involving human participants. The federal government has several requirements for the composition of IRBs that review projects requesting federal funds.

  • IRBs must have several members who represent different professions.
  • IRBs must have one member whose primary concerns are in a scientific area and one whose primary concerns are in a nonscientific area.
  • IRBs must have at least one member who is not affiliated with the university or institution.
  • IRB members must not have conflicts of interest relative to a project under consideration.
  • Every effort should be made to have both men and women serve on an IRB.