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An examination of ethical issues pertaining to educational research

Author - Greg Gallagher

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Accountability and relevance

Good people do not need laws to tell them to act responsibly, while bad people will find a way around the laws.
Plato (c.429-347 BC)

The many stakeholders involved in the process of educational research would tend to imply that researchers have many masters to whom they are ultimately accountable. Because of the impact that some educational research may have and by a process of extraction, society in general stands to benefit from any progressive advance that such research can uncover. As Winch reminds us, the overall objective that educational researchers are concerned with include: ‘pursuit of the truth, enduring worth, clarity and enlightenment, however these are conceived’ (2002: 152).

Researchers are faced with both growing internal professional critics as well as external critics both influential and otherwise. Winch goes so far as to say that: ‘It is evident that educational research has powerful enemies, both within and without education, and that it can only defend itself if it develops a proper perspective on its own nature and purpose’ (2002: 153). While, this comment may appear paranoid, there may be some justification behind it.

One of the many criticisms that some ethical approaches to educational research are accused of today is a failure to be ‘pragmatic’. Pragmatism is a school of philosophy, which is based very much on the work of William James and John Dewey. The essence of pragmatism is that purely theoretical analysis of philosophical problems is insufficient, and that it should be complemented by a very practical approach to issues. The pragmatist would laud the many schools of ethical thought and the principles behind their thinking. However, the pragmatist would not subscribe to any one school, indeed the pragmatist would warn against the viewpoint that one school has a superior approach to ethics than another. No one school can have the answer to all of life’s ethical dilemmas and to adopt such a stance would be both erroneous and dangerous. Moral principles evolve and change, and such developments demand that a contingent and open ethical position be adopted based on codes, policies, procedures and guidelines.

While relevance may be the desired outcome of any research undertaking, it is a difficult term to define. This point is endorsed by May who attempts to refine our understanding of what constitutes relevant research. He states: ‘It is usually taken as that which serves the ends of particular interests. In such cases, the social researcher should ask the questions ``relevant for whom and why?''' (May 2001: 51). May goes on to advise us that we should bear three other factors in mind, namely, ‘culture, history and power’ (2001: 51). There are competing forces at work within these three factors and adherents to the different perspectives will view ‘relevance’ in different ways.

Winch (2002), provides us with a number of headings under which we can adjudicate the degree of relevance that a particular piece of research has. These include: the production of knowledge about education, the formulation of educational policy, the promotion of improvements in educational practice, and the promotion of radical change in society. While Winch (2002) sees these pursuits as four clearly identifiable aims of educational research, and spends time explaining each one, he also points out that these are also the responsibilities of educational researchers, and outlines exactly what each responsibility entails.

On the other hand, as Nixon and Sikes point out: ‘Educational research is grounded, epistemologically, in the moral foundations of educational practice. It is the epistemological and moral purposes underlying the ``usefulness'' and ``relevance'' of educational research that matter’ (Nixon and Sikes 2003: 2). They make the valid point that ‘usefulness’ and ‘relevance’ are not just ‘a matter of impact and influence’. For Nixon and Sikes (2003: 2), we need to radically reconceptualize what is educationally worthwhile in what we deem to be ‘useful’ and ‘relevant’.

There are those who see the current interest in ethics as a passing fad, a simple and superficial expression of a deeper crisis within the educational field, a consequence of the decline in ideology and religion, and the apparent failure of philosophy to produce laws that will be universally acceptable, or as a knee jerk reaction to the failures of strong leadership and stable political climates. Others may view ethical imperatives as a way for researchers, and the institutions that they belong to, to reduce their exposure from both a legal and a social perspective. If the researcher goes outside the rules in the pursuit of truth and fails, then the institution can distance itself from the individual researcher. On the other hand, if the researcher succeeds then they can simply ignore the fact that a few rules were broken. Others may view the recent upsurge in interest in a more constructive light, as a combination of all these aspects, but also a search for truth and the genuine need for direction. A direction, which is both needed and practical and will assist and not hinder genuine researchers in their unrelenting attempts to uncover truth to assist our understanding of the world we live in. The profession of a genuine educational researcher is a noble one, and must be above any accusation of unethical behaviour.


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