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Distortions of Social Research Ethics . Anna Traianou Martyn Hammersley Oxford Learning Institute, University of Oxford, January 2013. A consensus about research ethics?. ‘Professional ethics are generally a deceit and a snare’ (Douglas 1979:13)

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slide1

Distortions of

Social Research Ethics

Anna Traianou Martyn Hammersley

Oxford Learning Institute, University of Oxford,

January 2013

a consensus about research ethics
A consensus about research ethics?
  • ‘Professional ethics are generally a deceit and a snare’ (Douglas 1979:13)
  • ‘Ethics is foundational to the telos of the research enterprise’ (Mertens and Ginsberg 2009:2)
  • ‘The only safe way to avoid violating principles of professional ethics is to refrain from doing social research altogether’ (Bronfenbrenner 1952:452)
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What is research ethics?

  • Typically, ‘ethics’ is taken to mean: how researchers should deal with the people they study, or those from whom they obtain data.
  • Commonly discussed principles include: minimising harm, respecting autonomy, and preserving privacy (Hammersley and Traianou 2012).
  • But epistemic values and virtues are also relevant to research: a commitment to evaluate knowledge claims solely in terms of their likely truth, honesty about methods and findings, responsiveness to criticism, etc.
the relationship between epistemic and practical values
The relationship between epistemic and practical values
  • Epistemic values are intrinsic to the research process, whereas practical ones concerning how people should be treated are extrinsic to it (though this does not mean that they are always less important).
  • Yet very little attention is given to epistemic values in most discussions of research ethics.
in the past
In the past
  • At one time, ethical issues were treated by social researchers in much the same way that we deal with them in most areas of everyday life: as they arise, and in a situation-specific way. They were only given sustained attention when cases were judged very serious, or when there were disputes.
  • Such problems stimulated occasional articles that often led to discussion of principles that fed into subsequent practical decision-making by researchers.
the rise and rise of research ethics
The rise and rise of ‘research ethics’
  • Two key developments in the late 20th century and early 21st century:
  • The growth of ethical regulation: from professional codes to control by ethics committees.
  • The emergence of what we will refer to as ethicism on the part of many qualitative researchers.
insistence on high standards or even on the highest standards
Insistence on ‘high standards’ or even on ‘the highest standards’
  • This is found both in professional codes (see, for example, the President’s preface to the current British Educational Research Association ethical guidelines, 2011), and in the rationales provided for ethics committees (see Universities UK’s Concordat to Support Integrity in Research, 2012; and the sections on research ethics of many UK university websites).
  • We might ask: What’s wrong with ‘acceptable’ or ‘satisfactory’ standards?
why commitment to high standards is problematic
Why commitment to ‘high standards’ is problematic
  • Conflicts amongst ethical principles
  • Conflicts between these principles and epistemic or methodological requirements
  • As a result, compromises are inevitable.
  • Furthermore, both ethical principles and methodological requirements must be interpreted to determine how they apply to particular situations, and there is scope for reasonable disagreement about this.
the consequences of ethical regulation
The consequences of ethical regulation
  • There is a tendency for thinking about both ethics and methodology to be reduced to the following of procedures.
  • The autonomy required for researchers to engage in ethical deliberation is infringed by ethics committees.
  • There is a displacement of responsibility for both methodology and ethics.
  • (see Hammersley 2009)
reduction to procedures
Reduction to procedures
  • This results from the fact that:
  • Research committees consider a large number of research projects, and must try to deal with these in a consistent and economical fashion;
  • Their members often do not have detailed knowledge regarding all the kinds of research about which they make judgments;
  • In relation to any particular project, they must make decisions in abstraction from contextual knowledge about the people and places being researched.
infringing the autonomy of researchers and its consequences
Infringing the autonomy of researchers and its consequences
  • To a large extent, ethics committees now decide what research can be done, and what methods can and cannot be employed in particular projects. Potentially, this damages the quality of research, and also partially removes ethical responsibility from researchers.
  • Ethical regulation is characteristic of modern corporate organisational forms: accountability (in terms of the allocation of potential blame) is delegated independently of actual control.
ethicism or moralism
Ethicism or Moralism
  • This is ‘the vice of overdoing morality’
  • (Coady, 2005, p. 101)
  • It is ‘a class of defects of thought and understanding’, not least ‘thinking about morality, including its place in our lives, in the wrong kind of way, specifically in ways that discount the importance of other (non-moral) values’ (Taylor 2012:1-2)
ethicism in qualitative research
Ethicism in qualitative research
  • Demanding that the process of research should exemplify ethical ideals, such as equity or democracy. For example, insisting on equality in research relations, or the subordination of researchers to those being studied.
  • Redefining the goal of research to include non-epistemic values in addition to, or instead of, the pursuit of knowledge. These values include: improving education, health, or some other practice or service; challenging inequalities; emancipating the oppressed; serving indigenous communities (see Mertens and Ginsberg 2009).
sources of ethicism
Sources of ethicism
  • Qualitative research demands appreciation of others’ perspectives, perhaps even empathy. This can easily turn into sympathy or a sense of solidarity, especially when the researcher has an affinity with those being studied, or pities them.
  • This tendency is reinforced by the instrumentalism of the age, according to which knowledge is of no value in itself, only for its consequences. In these terms, the pursuit of knowledge, even of policy- or practice-relevant knowledge, is regarded by many as insufficient warrant for research.
power treated as evil
Power treated as evil
  • All research is seen as necessarily implicated in power relations; with power – or inequalities in power – typically condemned and resisted.
  • Research findings are viewed as inevitably serving some interests and damaging others, and it is concluded that the researcher has an obligation to ensure that the right interests are served.
  • The pursuit of research is itself believed to involve the exercise of power by the researcher, so it is argued that power relations need to be equalised within the research process, for both ethical and methodological reasons.
consequences of ethicism
Consequences of ethicism
  • Ethicism is the prioritising of non-epistemic values, both in relation to the intended product of research and to the processes through which it is pursued.
  • Its result is that attention and effort are distracted away from the difficult task of producing sound knowledge about the social world. Given that social scientists have a long way to go before they can produce research findings that match the level of cogency frequently claimed for them, and which others expect, this is clearly undesirable.
conclusion
Conclusion
  • We have identified two developments over the past few decades that we believe have distorted thinking about social research ethics:
  • The rise of ethical regulation; and
  • The emergence of ethicism amongst qualitative researchers.
  • We see these as leading to insufficient emphasis being given to epistemic values and virtues, and believe that this is resulting in serious damage to social inquiry.
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References

  • Bronfenbrenner, U. (1952) ‘Principles of professional ethics: Cornell studies in social growth’, The American Psychologist, 7, pp452-55.
  • Coady, C.A.J. (2005) Preface, Journal of Applied Philosophy, 22, 2, pp101–104.

Douglas, J. D. (1979) ‘Living morality versus bureaucratic fiat’, in Klockars, C. and O’Connor, F. (eds.) Deviance and Decency: The ethics of research with human subjects, Beverly Hills CA, Sage.

  • Hammersley, M. (2009) ‘Against the ethicists: on the evils of ethical regulation’, International Journal of Social Research Methodology 12, 3, pp 211-225.
  • Hammersley, M. andTraianou, A. (2011): ‘Moralism and research ethics: a Machiavellian perspective’, International Journal of Social Research Methodology, 14, 5, pp379-390.
  • Hammersley, M. and Traianou, A. (2012) Ethics in Qualitative Research, London, Sage.

Mertens, D. et al (2009) ‘Transformative research and ethics’, inMertens and Ginsberg (eds)

Mertens, D. and Ginsberg, P. (eds) (2009) Handbook of Social Research Ethics, Thousand Oaks CA, Sage.

Taylor, C. (2012) Moralism: A study of a vice, Durham, Acumen.

an advert
An Advert
  • Hammersley, M. and Traianou, A. (2012) Ethics in Qualitative Research: Controversies and Contexts, London, Sage.
  • Traianou, A. and Hammersley, M. Ethics and educational research. Available at:
  • http://www.bera.ac.uk/category/keywords/ethics