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Towards a model of critical ethics to inform the research process in postgraduate research


Author - Aidan Kenny


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Research ethics in the social sciences

The incorporation of ethical guidelines into professional associations is evident in the social science domain. Sarantakos (1998: 21) notes the American Association of Public Opinion Research (AAPOR) adopted a ‘Code of Professional Ethical Practice’ in 1977, The Australian Psychologist Society (APS) incorporated ethical guidelines into its ‘Code of Professional Practice’ in 1986 and the Australian Vice-Chancellors Committee produced the ‘Guidelines for Responsible Practices in Research and Dealing with Problems of Misconduct’ in 1990. Busher (2002: 75) lists the following professional bodies located in the UK that have adopted codes of ethics: British Psychological Society (BPS) ‘Code of Conduct for Psychologists’ 1993; British Sociological Association (BSA) ‘Statement of Ethical Practice’ 1992; British Educational Research Association (BERA) ‘Ethical Guidelines’ 1994. From a brief review of these documents several commonalities can be identified. Some of these can be traced back to principles inherent in the Nuremberg Code. For a typology[7] of other similarities see Table 1.

It is interesting to note that all three examples are based on ‘voluntary’ implementation of the code, convention and guidelines by members of the different associations. As such the onus is placed on the individual members to act in a professional and proper manner and to give due consideration to the traditions, expertise and expectations of each particular discipline (psychology, sociology and education). Each of these documents encourages a collegial culture of peer review with support systems and processes in place for members. This leans towards a form of professional self-regulation of the research activities of members of the discipline. However, in all cases there was a mention that investigations, research and inquiries should be mindful of the ‘law’ and indeed not act contrary to it. This is important, as it adds an external control mechanism to modulate the inherent interests of the specialised knowledge, inquiry and curiosity of the individual disciplines into the broader socio-political reality of civil society. Of course there are power dynamics present here between the interests of capital, science and society, with powerful ‘elites’ and interest groups vying to regulate (for either economic or moral reasons)[8] the freedom of scientific research. Stem cell research is one such case where some science research centres need substantial financial investment to carry out their research. Certain capital interests are willing to invest large resources in this research because of potential projected returns, and some civil and religious groups are campaigning against stem cell research on ethical and moral grounds.

These ‘elites’ and interest groups are lobbying for legislative, binding regulation, which has international standing and can afford some protection to their respective positions. This seems to be in contrast to the self-regulation assertions of the professional associations, who want to rely on the internal discipline-specific expertise to make judgements based on mechanisms such as peer review and ethics committees. This form of self-regulation positions the ‘locus of control’ firmly within the professional discipline, and gives some protection to the notion of ‘freedom of inquiry’ and acts as a buffer zone against external vested interests.

Cohen et al. (2004: 56) suggest that social scientists have a responsibility to both their discipline and to the subjects of their research. Fundamental to this duty is the respect for the dignity of the human subject[9] and the quest for truth and knowledge. They caution that ethical guidelines are not ‘definitive’ but rather they should be applied in context, with professional considerations and the value judgements of the benefit of the research. They note that this leads to ‘sources of tension’ between the ‘absolutists’, who argue that the code of ethics should be strictly adhered to, with no room for deviation, and the ‘relativists’, who argues for leeway based on the context of the research and the personal judgement of the professional researcher. The argument here centres on the notion of scientific research freedom, and whether the interests of society and the greater good are best served by applying full legally binding regulation on scientific inquiries or by accepting self and peer review based on expert professional judgement. Although this question in itself adopts an absolutist approach, seeking a decision either way, it leaves out the complexity of the research process and the creative engagement with the unknown, the necessary risk taking and the questioning of ‘perceived wisdom’.

Howe and Moses (1999) offer an interesting perspective suggesting two dominant approaches to research ethics, the ‘traditional’ and the ‘contemporary’: The ‘traditional’ approach to research ethics is characterised by the distinct separation of the scientific merits from the moral, political and social domain (questions). In essence the proposition is that this distancing increases the neutrality of scientific inquiry thereby adding to the validity of the research process. This approach is most associated with experimental, medical or what is generally termed as the ‘quantitative’ research paradigm. In contrast, the ‘contemporary’ approach places the social at the heart of research ethics, the engagement with and within the socio-political and moral discourse, giving consideration to the culture, beliefs, norms, gender, traditions, and social structures of the research environment. The notion of creating a distance between researcher and subject is rejected and replaced with a negotiated process, which occurs in a social context and as such is ‘value laden’. The scientist/researcher does not seek to operate in a social space removed from human society, but rather accepts the social context, the political and moral engagement, and endeavours to construct an appropriate research ethics process, that is sensitive to the social phenomenon and informed by the specific discipline’s theory and practice. This type of research approach is mostly associated with what has been generally termed as the ‘qualitative’ research paradigm.[10]

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