A Few Thoughts on Research Ethics


One key aspect in the research process that is often ignored or overlooked by students when doing social research is the question of ethics. When students go out to do their own research for the first time, they are usually excited and nervous about it and all they do is think about how they can get their research question answered and how they can best collect the data they need. This is totally understandable. I myself usually get really excited when I have a research project in mind and I don’t immediately think about ethical issues and dilemmas involved. Nonetheless, after the first excitement about a new research idea has cooled off a little and I start thinking about how to operationalize my project, the question of ethics is one of the first ones that I need to consider.

Ethics discussions can often be very abstract and philosophical due to which many people quickly switch off. I sympathize with these people, I really do, but when you really think about what ethics entails, you quickly realize that it is one of the most important aspects to consider in doing research. For three reasons:

  1. It affects you as a researcher, your health and safety.
  2. It affects other human beings (your research subjects, possibly your families), their health and their safety.
  3. If affects the social sciences more generally, their reputation and chances of getting access in the future.

When I talk about ethics I am referring to moral questions of what is right and what is wrong in doing research, who may get harmed in the process, and who needs to be protected and how. Usually, there is no black or white answer to what is ethical or unethical in social research. Rather thinking about ethics is supposed to make you reflect on important issues and it wants you to justify your approach, while minimizing any harm (to your participants, yourself and other researchers and your discipline). It urges you to consider all possible consequences (including unintended) and what they mean to you and others. One key dilemma in the discussion on ethics is the question of covert vs. overt research.

Covert vs. Overt Research: The debate whether covert, that is, “undercover” research is ever justified is one of the key ethical dilemmas social scientists face and there is no yes or no answer to this question. Generally speaking there are quite a few celebrated research studies out there where researchers have conducted covert research. However, quite often they put somebody at risk, either themselves, their families and friends, their participants or their discipline. So, even though important insights may be won e.g. about drug dealers or gang culture, by doing covert research. There are huge ethical issues involved that you should NEVER try to solve or handle by yourself, as a student researcher.

So in general, the key thing to ethical research is trying to think through a variety of possible scenarios and consequences before you go out to do research. In addition, not having done this beforehand will most likely put you into difficult situations and then you are not sure how to respond. You may well be unsure how to respond even if you think about ethical issues beforehand, nonetheless, you are much better equipped at responding to tricky situations in an acceptable, ethical manner if you have considered potential ethical dilemmas beforehand.

Some more practical tips for “doing ethics”:

Informed Consent: One key tool that social researchers usually draw on to minimize ethical dilemmas is informed consent, which basically refers to a written statement in which your participants agree to take part in your research. Such consent should clearly state purpose and process of the study, as well as use of the data gathered afterwards and it is crucial that you talk through this with your informants prior to e.g. doing interviews. Obviously, seeking informed consent is not always possible, especially if you are doing ethnographic research in public spaces like attending an official political debate. Nonetheless, there are ways around this issue. For instance, you can try to seek approval from the formal organizers of the event you want to study or you can explain your research to people you talk to during the event. Verbal informed consent is better than no informed consent.

Key questions you should ask yourself before doing research:

  1. Am I the right person to do this research? Is my background suitable to this kind of research? Here I am particularly referring to issues of class, gender and race. For example, is a white, middle class man the best person to research black, working class females’ experiences of motherhood? Consider the issue of power and privilege in this research setup. A researcher has always a position of power.
  2. Who can get harmed in this process? Is the organization you research put at risk because you reveal too much information about their internals to the outside world? Are you endangered because you are trying to get access to a subculture such as gangs or organized crime? Are your informants endangered because you may reveal sensitive information about them and their doings that may put them in jail or make them outsiders of their community?
  3. What can be done to minimize any harm? Here think about your methods of doing research. About protecting anonymity of your informants. About their emotional experiences and their wellbeing when they talk about sensitive experiences. What about your emotional investment in your research participants?
  4. Who will I be able to talk to about any ethical dilemmas that come up and that I didn’t expect? This is very important, as quite often you will encounter dilemmas that you would like to discuss with other, more experienced people, such as your supervisor, but sometimes due to reasons of protecting anonymity this may not be an easy thing to do.


If you find answers to these questions and you follow the ethics guidelines of your institution, you should be well equipped to deal with ethical dilemmas that may appear in your research. And, as the head of department, Professor Mike Savage, thinks, the most interesting research usually entails a variety of ethical dilemmas. So be ready to deal with them!


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