Ethical Research

What kind of researcher do you want to be?

In this lecture we were introduced to the idea of being an ethical researcher and what that would involve. Being an ethical researcher means both the collection of the material and the publication of it.

Ethics was not always a concept recognised and acknowledged in academic and as a result, there have been some studies conducted in history that are now considered to be highly unethical. Humphrey’s study on sex in public places is a good example, he joined this culture as a ‘watch queen’, which meant protecting those involved against being found. However he abused this power and took down the registration numbers of those engaging in the activity. He then tracked these individuals down and interviewed them in their daily life. Humphrey’s findings were ground breaking as he found that only 14% of the men were openly gay, 54% were married and for all of them, their public personas were very different. As this research took place in the 1970s when being gay was publicly frowned upon, it was expected for many men to conceal their true sexuality. However it was unethical for Humphreys to track these people down and extremely unethical for him to publish his findings, which made his subjects identifiable by their friends, family and work colleagues. In addition to this, he didn’t ask consent from the participants and didn’t give them an option to opt out of the study because they were never aware that they were being observed in that way.

Another historic example of an unethical experiment was the Stamford prison experiment, where students were asked to roleplay guards and prisoners. This was controversial because some of the students were reported to have been overwhelmed with the sense of power they hand. Perhaps one of the most well known and discussed experiment, which is also regarded as unethical is the Milgram study of obedience. In order to question why so many people submitted to the Nazi regime and committed mass genocide, the study involved the deception of the subjects in believing they were administering electric shocks to other test subjects. The individual was tested to see whether they would conform to the authority that was telling them to harm another human being. The deception of the subjects and the traumatic experience they were put through as a result made this study unethical. Ethical procedures come from a scientific discourse in order to prevent studies like these happening again.

Procedural ethics, such as the ethics form an individual must fill out before completing a research project appear to be limiting and bureaucratic however it gives the research integrity and credibility and also protects the researcher and participants. Personal ethics involves considered who the research is for, who benefits from it and what informs your own personal ethics. Problems facing ethical research are the involvement the researcher has and their relationship to the content. In addition to this, in order to research in detail the researcher has to narrow down, which involves the inclusion of some content and the exclusion of others. How do you decide what to include and exclude ethically? Many researchers investigate concepts that affect them personally, meaning that many issues that are problematic in our lives, we also make problematic in the research. However as the research can challenge ethical, moral and political perspectives, it would appear to be a flawed idea to give voice to a concept you don’t agree with. What is important is reflexivity, being able to respond ethically when confronted with the unexpected.

The emotional researcher is a concept not often though about in research, as there hasn’t been many incorporations of emotions into studies. This is an effect of the masculine ideology of the emotionless researcher, the scientific, objective researcher apart from the content they are investigating. However research is the practice of emotional labour, from interaction with the subjects, creating emotional states to hiding our own emotions. Consider the pain of the researcher, which could possibly cause harm to them as they are having to cope with other people’s emotions. In order to prevent harm coming to the researcher, it is important to recognise subjectivity in the research process, form networks of support and keep a research diary.


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