The concept of Ethics can be seen as set moral values that guide and affect each person’s behaviour and determine their actions. Immanuel Kant describes it as:
“Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, always at the same time as an end and never merely as a means to an end’
(Immanuel Kant (1785), Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals)
In order to understand different societies and the social relationships within these societies, ethnographers conduct experiments that help them test different theories through approaches such as participant observation. This is called ethnographic research, which can also involve the researcher becoming a participant of their own experiments. However, in that case they must remain impartial to the experiment meaning that they “must be constantly self-critical and reflexive to ensure an analytical description and interpretation of the case”. Ethnographers encounter many ethical principles throughout the research period such as honesty, invasion of privacy and remaining impartial. Nonetheless, it is not always easy to follow these principles and many issues may arise during different parts of the study which must be dealt with in an ethical manner
Firstly, the basis of ethics in any experiment lies with the principle of informed consent. It must be obtained from the participants before the researcher can proceed with the experiment. This is to ensure full cooperation and understanding between both, the researcher and the participants. The participants must be willing to participate in the experiment and thus must be informed of not only the purpose but also the risks of the study. This may not be as important in small scale studies such as questionnaires but is essential in large scale studies such as medical trials. The participants must be allowed to withdraw at any point of the experiment, especially if they feel threatened or harmed in any way. Anonymity must also be ensured if the participants wish to remain unknown due to confidential information that might be published. This must be established at the beginning of the experiment to, to once again, avoid any misconceptions. Informed consent can be problematic, especially when dealing with covert studies. Covert studies are usually done if the researcher believes that the knowledge of the participants may affect the outcome therefore they make a conscious decision to hide the truth. In this case, the social researcher must be aware of the consequences they may face if the subjects of the study are harmed in any way. It is difficult for researchers to be ethical if they believe that revealing the truth may cause participants to lie or alter their stories to perhaps portray themselves as someone they are not, or provide information that they assume the researcher wants to hear. The researcher must evaluate the situation, and to the best of their abilities, acquire informed consent. If a situation arises that consent cannot be requested from the participants due to reasons such as covert research and young children, it can be sought from a legal authority that may have the power to provide consent on behalf of the participants. In some extreme cases, the participants may not be physically able to give consent, such as trauma or coma pacients, thus introducing exceptions to the rule of informed consent: “The Council for International Organisations of Medical Sciences/World Health Organisation guidelines and Declaration of Helsinki make exceptions to the requirement for informed consent in these situations”. At the end of the study it is also compulsory to debrief the subjects about the experiment to ensure avoidance of any legal issues such as getting sued for publishing confidential or incorrect information.
However, on some occasions social researchers may face the difficulty of being honest with their subjects, especially when the research is covert. This means that the ethnographer may not only misinform the subjects or participants that the experiment is being carried out but also deceiving them into believing that the purpose or the risks involved are not what they are set out to be. The participants may unknowingly give out personal information that they do not wish to be made public yet were encouraged to share by the deception of a safe environment, which in some cases may be quite dangerous not only for the researchers but perhaps even the public. Therefore, hiding certain aspects of the research such as its purpose or outcome may cause harm to the people involved. In 1932 a study called the Tuskegee Syphilis experiment was carried out in order to observe the symptoms and long term effects of the disease in a sample of 600 black men. The subjects, however, were not informed of the purpose of the study and were given misleading details such as the length of it. As a result, the men did not receive suitable treatment even after a cure was discovered. This clearly showed a lack of ethics amongst the researchers thus causing many people to suffer and even die. Once the study was stopped, the researchers were sued and fined 10 million dollars and the surviving participants as well as the families of those who died were provided lifetime medical benefits and burial services. Also, the participants were given wrong information about the study, claiming to be only testing ‘bad blood’ which deceived them about the purpose of the study making them more vulnerable and more likely to agree to participate. On the other hand, avoiding such mistakes may be easier said than done; the knowledge of the subjects may affect the outcome of the study and perhaps making the data unsuitable. A certain detail of the experiment, if exposed, may lead the participants into trying to provide the answers that they think is the correct one. They may also alter or hide things that they may be ashamed of or deem as irrelevant whereas in reality those things could be the focus of the study. Ethnographers must choose suitable subjects since some studies may be more dangerous than others. Some studies may not only cause physical harm but also distress the subjects mentally thus not only harming them but in addition producing insufficient results for the study itself. This can be avoided by assessing the potential participant’s mental health to ensure mental stability. Not only would this ensure more reliable and successful results but also reduce the risk of harm.
In addition, researchers must take the safety of the public as well as the participants into consideration as the results may affect the public as well as the people taking part. Protection from harm is an important ethical principle that has to be followed before a study is allowed to be started. Harm does not necessarily imply a physical injury as experiments may affect the participants mentally as well as prove to not be in the public’s best interest. The risk of harm extends to the researchers themselves if their ethical values are challenged. Ken Pryce, sociologist and the author of Endless Pressure, became a victim of violence when creating a study on organised crime. As a sociologist he immersed himself into his research; accompanying his subjects by joining in with their daily activities such as smoking cannabis. Not only did he break the law but also committed ethical violations such as lying to the participants in order to gain their trust and access into their lives – pretending to join the local church in Bristol. This inevitably led to his death hence emphasising the importance of safety precautions.
Furthermore, researchers have the responsibility of staying impartial throughout their experiments. A biased experiment will prove to be useless as it cannot be fully reinforced with scientific facts and actually will only be based on the researcher’s opinions. Positivists believe that scientific research must be carried out with no emotional attachment to the research as science is seen as ‘value-free’. However, in an interpretivist view, it is impossible to separate ones values from their research, and it is believed that not letting their values affect their research is an ‘illusion’. In some cases, this may raise ethical issues since it is inevitable for a person not to form a bias, especially in covert situations where the ethnographer becomes a participant of the experiment as well. If they develop an attachment to a specific part of the research they many naturally become more biased towards that side. Additionally, the ethnographer must remember that he or she is still a social researcher and that their job is to observe and record what they see rather than influence the outcome. In the Stanford prison experiment, Zimbardo, the social researcher conducting the experiment, involved himself too much until he realised that the role he was suppose to play started to merge with who he was. Later he admitted: “It wasn’t until much later that I realized how far into my prison role I was at that point — that I was thinking like a prison superintendent rather than a research psychologist.”. However, some social researchers such as Gouldner believe that staying impartial to an experiment is, in fact, possible simply by considering both points of view rather than ‘taking sides’ (1968). This type of multi-perspectival research attempts to incorporate both view points and interpret the world through different perspectives. An example
· Alison Liebling’s work that looks at the social world of the prison from the perspectives of both prison staff and prisoners; two groups who obviously have different views and interests.
In most cases, ethnographers ensure they use reflexive turn in order to reduce the bias that may arise from their research. It involves taking a step back and re-evaluating ones research to be able to produce a more objective approach. This mostly occurs in covert research since it is likely that the their “social location and background” including gender, age and social class in order to establish whether these influenced any part of their research. Even though this is a suitable way to avoid biases, it can still become problematic in some cases. The reflexive turn must not take a prolonged amount of time because the research must be transcripted as soon as possible in order to remain as accurate as possible and thus be authentic. Social researchers may also over evaluate a certain aspect of the study and thus risking altering the qualitative data. This would cause their research, to once again, be more biased or inaccurate. Similarly, some researchers do not believe that one can fully remove themselves from the fieldwork and thus unnecessarily delaying to reveal the conclusion of the experiment.