Ethics & Social Science Research

If we are to generalise about what constitutes ‘ethical research’, we should start by saying that there is no such concept. As Denscombe (2003) outlines all social science research should be ethical, identifying three major strands of thought that provide a framework for social researchers must obey in order to conduct ‘good ethical research’. Firstly, that social science research must consider the rights of those who are actively involved in the research process. As Dworkin (1977) comments it is a contradictory notion, in which ‘the acknowledged right to free speech [doesn’t necessarily] include the right to participate in nuisance demonstrations?’ (p.184 – text in square brackets added). Landeweerd et al (2005) accurately summarises the debate on ethics from within the normative-descriptive dichotomy that ethical study is about ‘how people behave in a certain way or […] how people should behave?’ (, p.2 – emphasis in the original) The theoretical debate on ethics from within philosophy has also found it extremely difficult to see ‘beyond such dualisms as subject and object, Descartes’s res cogitans and res extensa, and the Ego and non-Ego of Kantians, post-Kantians and neo-Kantians’ (Lefebvre, 1991, p.39: Landeweerd et al, 2005, p.29).

The framework of ethical value is fundamentally based on neo-Kantian statements in which the pseudo-benevolence of good value-free research takes precedence. Foulcauldian notions of ethics as falsified knowledge/power are indeed ‘praiseworthy, but the risk is that the idea will command the empirical materials too strongly’ (Alvesson & Sköldberg, 2000, p.230). Importantly, it is a framework that places ethical concern and Intellectual Property Rights (IPR) over notions of human interest, creativity and desire (Warnock, 1967, p.52: Bently & Maniatis, 1998). This framework is hard to define, in which old concepts are prosaically regurgitated by new ones, more retrospective than forward looking (Bryman, 2004).

In the second strand of research ethics, in principle, researchers are advised that the research process should not pose a threat to any one individual involved and they have a responsibility to consider their participants (Landeweerd et al, 2005). As Bryman (2004) identifies potential harm to participants is a slippery concept. Research can have a multitude of negative consequences in which the contradictory tension of allowing the researcher to follow their own free will is met by the participant’s right to protect themselves (Dworkin, 1977). Indeed, much ink has been split over researcher where informed consent has not been considered. As Gray (2003) identifies it is important that ‘we approach our subjects of study as participants in our research not as ‘objects’ to be investigated’ (p. 76). It is for this reason institutions draft up codes of conduct, by which researchers must abide (Denscombe, 2003). In many cases researchers are presented with controversial data that they don’t necessarily know how to interpret, it is here where the normative-descriptive dualism is most problematic. As Back (2003) reveals it is perhaps best to be cautious in such situations, but also states that researchers should be at least aware that controversial data is sometimes the most interesting part of the study!      

The final strand of thought is that social research should strive to be honest. As Landeweerd et al (2005, p.258) suggests principal-based ethics can be problematic when put into practise. Or rather it is ‘urged that ‘rightness’ is properly an attribute of means, not of ends: so that the attribution of it merely implies that the act judged right is the fittest or only fit means to the realisation of some end (Sidgwick, 1981, p.26). Critically, it must be said what is this ‘rightness’ anyway? Is it the ways in which we are concerned with ‘a Euro-American culture of knowledge production’, that ignores its own subjectivity (Jazeel and McFarlane, 2007, p.781). In  conclusion, there is a growing concern that social scientists must recognise that we have a responsibility to recognise this ethical framework as a structure that makes this ‘rightness’ a more representative concept. One can see that ethical theory provides a framework of sorts to social research. However, future concerns on ethical theory must securitize the cloud that still hangs over normative-descriptive dialectic. Furthermore, if we are to visualise these rights and ethics that represent the prerequisite ‘framework’ to moral discourse – we should allow ourselves sufficient space to explore this point further as we enter ‘an era of informationalization’ (Britz, 1999, p.9).




Bently, L. and Mantiatis, S.M. (1998) Intellectual Property and Ethics: Perspectives on Intellectual Property Series. Volume Four. London: Sweet and Maxwell  


Britz, J.J. (1999) ‘Access to Information: Ethical Guidelines for Meeting the Challenges of the Information Age’, 9-28

Bryman, A. (2004) Social Research Methods. Second edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Denscombe, M. (2003) The Good Research Guide: For Small-scale Social Science Research Projects. Second edition. Buckingham, Open University Press  

Dworkin, R. (1977) Taking Rights Seriously. London: Duckworth

Gray, A. (2003) Research Practise for Cultural Studies: Ethnographic Methods and Lived Cultures. London: Sage

Jazeel, T. (2007) ‘Responsible Learning: Cultures of Knowledge Production and the North-South Divide’, Antipode, 39 (5), 781-789  

Landeweerd, L. (2005) ‘Normative-Descriptive and the Naturalistic Fallacy’, in Landeweerd, L, Houdebine, L.M., and Ter Meulen, R. (eds) Biotechnology-Ethics: An Introduction, Firenze: Angelo Pontecorboli Editore, 29-36

Landeweerd, L. (2005) ‘Principalism and the Problem of Deductive Ethics’, in Landeweerd, L, Houdebine, L.M., and Ter Meulen, R. (eds) Biotechnology-Ethics: An Introduction, Firenze: Angelo Pontecorboli Editore, 257-262   

Lefebvre, H. (1991 [1974]) The Production of Space. trans. Nicholson-Smith, D. Oxford: Blackwell

Sidgwick, H. (1981) The Methods of Ethics. Cambridge: Hackett

Warnock, G.J. (1967) Contemporary Moral Philosophy. London: Macmillan

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