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An examination of ethical issues pertaining to educational research

Author - Greg Gallagher

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Reason guides our attempt to understand the world about us. Both reason and compassion guide our efforts to apply that knowledge ethically, to understand other people, and have ethical relationships with other people.
Molleen Matsumura, Church-State Activist and Outreach Director of the National Centre for Science Education (NCSE)

It must be accepted that the society of today is replete with ethical lapses and moral ambiguity. Any attempt to resolve the inherent inconsistencies, obvious contradictions and cognitive conundrums that are pervasive within the minefield of ethical dilemmas researched for this paper would be a Herculean task beyond mere mortal ability and fraught with tautologies. For this reason, no definitive answers are proffered, as the author believes that no definitive answers are possible, merely prescriptive contingent discriminations to resolve the current impasse. To assist in this process allusion will be made to some of the conclusive points made by some of the authors already cited within this paper.

Eisenhart (2001) has no specific answers to the dilemmas confronted by ethnographers. In her final remarks she concludes:

ethnographers will rarely, if ever, be in leadership positions. Instead, we will have to participate, along with others, with one perspective or voice among many. We will have to be clear about our own agendas and commitments. We will have to speak what we know and believe in, but we will also have to listen, deliberate, negotiate, and compromise around the knowledge and beliefs of others who are involved. Perhaps needs identified out of everyday experience, such as for adequate nutrition, medical care, or educational opportunity, should be the basis for intervention. Perhaps agreed-upon principles, such as justice or equality, should be the basis. Perhaps some combination of the two or some others. Specific plans for change will have to emerge from local deliberation and collaboration around the various possibilities.
(Eisenhart 2001: 24)

The point made by Christians tends to reinforce this very issue when he says that: ‘Only a reintegration of autonomy and the moral order provides an alternative paradigm for the social sciences today’ (2000: 135). Perhaps, the very ethical principles that are currently so much in vogue are outdated and need to be reviewed in light of current circumstances and actual practices.

As Punch observes: ‘a strict application of codes’ may ‘restrain and restrict’ a great deal of ‘innocuous’ and ‘unproblematic’ research (1994: 90). Punch goes on to say that encoding privacy protection is meaningless when ‘there is no consensus or unanimity on what is public and private’ (1994: 94).

Christians asserts that:

the moral task cannot be reduced to professional ethics. How the moral order works itself out in community formation is the issue, not first of all what practitioners consider virtuous. The challenge for those writing culture is not to limit their moral perspectives to their own codes of ethics, but to understand ethics and values in terms of everyday life.
(Christians 2000: 147)

Cohen et al. deduce that:

However inexperienced in these [ethical] matters researchers are, they will bring to the world of social research a sense of rightness on which they can construct a set of rational principles appropriate to their own circumstances and based on personal, professional, and societal values.
(Cohen et al. 2001: 71)

Eisner and Peshkin remark that:

Clearly, researchers need both cases and principles from which to learn about ethical behaviour. More than this, they need two attributes: the sensitivity to identify an ethical issue and the responsibility to feel committed to acting appropriately in regard to such issues.
(Eisner and Peshkin 1990: 244)

Gomm exposes that:

the difference between researchers adopting a value-neutral policy towards research and those who adopt a politically committed position underlies important differences in interpretation of what is ethical conduct for researchers.
(Gomm 2004: 321)

May warns that:

Overall, rigid and inflexible sets of ethical rules for social research (deontology) could leave us with undesirable consequences. Going so far down this ethical road, we might also conclude that the only safe way to avoid violating principles of professional ethics is to refrain from doing social research altogether.
(May 2001: 61)

Pring attests that:

the values of a democratic community would seem to be essential for the tradition of educational research which serves the many interested parties and which can give assurance that, through openness to criticism, it will at least approximate to the truth.
(Pring 2001: 155)

Smith rationalizes that:

The core of the resolution of value conflicts is to treat the values as dimensional concepts and ask oneself how much of one value one is willing to give up for how much of another value. And that is a very difficult intellectual process in complex practical situations.
(Smith 1990: 274)

Soltis expounds that:

Whether codes of proper professional conduct are made explicit or remain implicitly embedded in the practices of the group to which one belongs is not the point, even though making such norms explicit may be desirable. The point is that membership in a professional community carries with it binding collective obligations and forces us to view ethics from a shared perspective.
(Soltis 1990: 250)

It must be fully accepted that the more contemporary approaches to educational research do not meet all the principles or guidelines that have been the ethical tenets used by the profession to date. However, it must also be stated that these approaches have added to our knowledge within this field and in the majority of cases no actual harm has been caused as a direct result of the process. This being said we effectively have choices. We can outlaw these approaches on the grounds that they contravene certain ethical principles. We can adopt the principles to incorporate these new approaches. We can give a dispensation to these new approaches, which will allow them to continue, but with a clear conscience, or we can avoid taking any action and hope the problem goes away. Obviously the latter solution is not a real solution but appears to be the main stance adopted by many institutions that have not attempted to reconcile the current dilemma. Perhaps some combination of the first three solutions might be a more plausible approach and would ensure that all the vested parties directly affected by any resolution could be appeased. Care must be taken to ensure that any constraint placed on the researcher will not be unduly onerous or impede the functionality of their undertakings. Flexibility would have to be a key factor in the negotiation of any universal approach to resolving the current impasse.

As stated earlier, perhaps it is impossible to realistically resolve all of the dilemmas that the problems with these conventional approaches to research present. However, the noble nature of the profession alluded to earlier and all those entrusted with its governance owe a duty of care to those working in this field. The general public too are guided by the wisdom of the profession and its researchers and so there is an onus on the governing bodies of the educational sector to resolve the current impasse and restore full confidence to all research methodologies being prractised by their agents.


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