Ethics in Sociological Research

Ethics are self‐regulatory guidelines for making decisions and defining professions. By establishing ethical codes, professional organizations maintain the integrity of the profession, define the expected conduct of members, and protect the welfare of subjects and clients. Moreover, ethical codes give professionals direction when confronting ethical dilemmas, or confusing situations. A case in point is a scientist's decision whether to intentionally deceive subjects or inform them about the true risks or goals of a controversial but much‐needed experiment. Many organizations, such as the American Sociological Association and the American Psychological Association, establish ethical principles and guidelines. The vast majority of today's social scientists abide by their respective organizations' ethical principles.

A researcher must remain mindful of her or his ethical responsibilities to participants. A researcher's primary duty is to protect the welfare of the subjects. For example, a researcher whose study requires extensive questioning of volunteers' personal information should screen the subjects beforehand to assure that the questioning will not distress them. A researcher should also inform subjects about their expected roles in the study, the potential risks of participating, and their freedom to withdraw from the study at any time without consequences. Agreeing to participate in a study based on disclosure of this type of information constitutes informed consent. After the study is finished, the researcher should provide subjects with complete details about the study. Providing details at the conclusion of an experiment is called debriefing.

Many critics believe that no experiment justifies the intentional use of deception, or concealing the purpose and procedures of a study from participants. Not only does deception carry the risk of psychologically harming subjects, it reduces the general public's support for research. Proponents, however, view deception as necessary when prior knowledge of a study would sway a subject's responses and invalidate the results. If subjects learn that a study measures attitudes of racial discrimination, they may intentionally try to avoid appearing prejudiced.

Even the most ethical and cautious researcher cannot anticipate every risk associated with participating in a study. But by carefully screening subjects, informing subjects of their rights, giving them as much information as possible before the study, avoiding deception, and debriefing following the study, the researcher can at least minimize the risks of harm to the subjects.