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An examination of ethical issues pertaining to educational research

Author - Greg Gallagher

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The importance that ethics now has within the field of social science is evidenced by the array of books devoted totally to the subject of ethics both for research students in general, for example Oliver (2003) and educational researchers specifically, for example McNamee and Bridges (2002) and Sikes et al. (2003) to name just two. Published books, solely devoted to the topic of ethics within these fields would not have been available several years ago as demand would not perhaps have justified their indulgence. It is interesting to note that such is the proliferation of ethics within the social sciences that the Illinois Institute of Technology has a Centre for the Study of Ethics in the Professions, and offers codes of ethics online (see Illinois Institute of Technology 2004). This point both elucidates and is testament to the recent increase in interest in ethics within the sphere of social research.

As Christians points out: ‘The theory and practice of mainstream social science reflect liberal Enlightenment philosophy, as do education, science and politics’ (2000: 135). Under the subtitle - Codes of Ethics – Christians informs us that: ‘By the 1980s, each of the major scholarly associations had adopted its own code, with an overlapping emphasis on four guidelines for directing an inductive science of means toward majoritarian ends’ (2000: 138). Christians (2000: 138-140) goes on to tell us and explain in detail what these four guidelines are, namely:

  1. Informed consent
    • Subjects must agree voluntarily to participate
    • This agreement must be based on full and open information
  2. Deception
    • Deliberate misrepresentation is forbidden
  3. Privacy and confidentiality
    • Primary safeguard against unwanted exposure
    • Made public only behind a shield of anonymity
    • No one deserves harm or embarrassment as a result of insensitive research practices
  4. Accuracy

Apart from this fourth guideline, which Christians (2000: 140) deems ‘cardinal’, he explains circumstances in which each of the other three guidelines can be breached, and are breached with some element of justifiable entitlement.

Christians goes on to inform us, under the subtitle –Institutional Review Boards – that where government funding is sought for research purposes, certain conditions are also put in place: ‘Three principles, published in what became known as the Belmont Report, were said to constitute the moral standards for research involving human subjects: respect for persons, beneficence, and justice’ (2000: 140-141). To some degree these principles reiterate the guidelines outlined above and this point is acknowledged by Christians (2000: 140).

If it is the case, as it appears to be, that many of the principles, guidelines, codes, procedures and policies do not have universal approval, and if by strict enforcement of ethical standards we restrict the freedom of researchers to uncover truth which in turn assists us in understanding our world, how can we ensure that ethical standards will be upheld and that research findings can be relied upon?
Perhaps the answer to this question is a bit like the unanswerable religious question – we must have faith. But faith in what or faith in whom? The answer to this question might be explained in the term ‘value judgement’, so let us now look at exactly what we understand by this term, which is in itself imbued with meaning.

Value judgements

To spend too much time in studies is sloth; to use them too much for ornament, is affectation; to make judgement wholly by their rules is the humour of a scholar.
Francis Bacon (1561-1626), Essays 1, ‘Of Studies’

In all of our lives we have choices to make between and among competing values. This is what ethics is about, and what distinguishes ethics as a theory of decision-making from morality, which concerns right and wrong, not `right' from `right'. As May explains: ‘Value judgements are dependent on beliefs and experiences in everyday life. They also concern what we would like our experience to be’ (2001: 49).

In attempting to understand morals we must view them as rules, effectively describing desirable and undesirable states. They describe right and wrong. Ethics effectively represent the rules for deciding how (desirable and undesirable) states are to be achieved or avoided. Ethics are, in essence, rules for making rules of conduct and action. That is, ethics are not codified in laws or nursery rhymes; they are principles or civic virtues that guide how we will choose between and among different values. They give us flexibility, with limits. To be effective, therefore, ethics must have a centrality based on a rational understanding of the ‘common good’. Sauer defines the common good in the following way:

The common good, by definition, goes beyond material, instrumental, or utilitarian forms of co-operation, because it embraces far more than the common goals produced by such patterns of co-operation, namely, the kind of community, the civility or civic temperament, brought into being and sustained through these patterns of interaction and co-operation, which is the goal of civic life. Viewed in this manner the common good is the normative dynamic of the way of life of a community, conditioned by and conditioning the growth and replacement of the structures and systems of socio-co-operative existence.
(Sauer 1997: 1184)


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