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Ethical Issues in Social
Inquiry: the Enemy Within?
Roger Penn and Keith Soothill
Lancaster University
The ‘Ethical Turn’
• There is an accelerating tendency to
introduce ‘ethical’ issues into all areas of
social science.
• We consider this to be misguided and
• Indeed we believe this ‘ethical’ agenda is a
deliberate attempt to neuter proper social
scientific inquiry
The ‘Ethical’ Movement
• We are not trying to say that social science has no
ethical dimension: rather the opposite.
• Social science is inherently ethical and political: however
these are contested terrains
• The new ‘ethics’ movement is designed to remove
professional judgments and replace these with
bureaucratic codified regimented rules
• This involves a systemic de-professionalization and the
substitution of low-trust relations for the previous hightrust professional autonomy
Why this Development Now?
• There is very little external concern about the
ethical problems in social science
• No obvious scandals [nothing like the Milgram
experiments or the ‘Tearoom Trade’ or
‘Pygmalion in the Classroom’ in the USA]
• Indeed the opposite is true: social scientists are
making little impact on the social world in ways
that would upset those in power
A Changing World: 3 Elements in
the ‘Ethical Turn’
• American Hegemony: there is strong
evidence that US templates are being
copied in Britain*
• New Labour authoritarianism: the
Faustian compact.
• Natural Science Paradigm: attack on
hermeneutic developments over the last
40 years.
US Hegemony
• US Universities have Institutional Review Boards
that review all research that involves human
subjects [this is a clear extension of the medical
• No research can be done without the formal
agreement of these boards: this has led to a lack
of primary research and an emphasis on safe
secondary analyses.
• Extended to Canada and Australia. Britain next?
The globalization of McEthics?!
New Labour Project
• New Labour has greatly extended the research
arm of Government.
• During RPs participation in the Skills Task Force
between 1998 and 2000 he saw how political
considerations determined a great deal of the
research agenda and how results were
massaged [see Penn,1999a and 1999b].
• Research in the fields of health, education and
employment now follows a safe ‘ethical’ path:
one central plank of the new ethical protocols
are that sponsors should not be ‘upset’.
Natural Science Paradigm
• Lurking behind much of the new
‘ethicalization’ of research is the natural
science ‘medical model’.
• Review of all medical research by an
appropriate research ethics committee is
now ‘de rigueur’.
• Enshrined in the World Medical
Association’s declaration of Helsinki, 1964.
Natural Science Paradigm 2
• In 2005 the UK’s Chief Scientific Adviser
convened a working group that developed
a universal ethical code for scientists
under the auspices of the Council for
Science and Technology.
• This clearly assumed that one coat fits all
The Medical Model Probed
• The medical model was set up to deal with
issues specific to medical trials.
• These centre on the use of patients in
double-blind experiments [these are
experiments where neither patient nor Dr
know who takes the trial drug or the
The Medical Model Probed 2
• Such ethical controls derive from the
history of medicine itself and the need to
test drugs on humans.
• They centre on the need to protect
patients [patient vulnerability].
• We believe that much recent development
in the ‘ethics’ industry in social science
involves reducing respondents to patients
Problems with the Medical Model
• The erection of these bureaucratic controls
within the medical sphere has led to a
series of negative consequences that
should cause alarm bells within the social
• A template to be avoided!
Problems with the Medical Model 2
• The forms to be completed are enormous,
confusing and off-putting. They are designed to
restrict research opportunities to ‘insiders’.
• There is a requirement to have the approval of
a ‘statistician’ for all proposals irrespective of
the actual use of statistics*
• Issues of research design have been
subsumed under the aegis of ‘ethics’.
Problems with the Medical Model 3
• Contemporary patient care is supposed to be
• However, in practice, any attempt to develop
new ‘evidence-based’ practice has to receive
prior approval by the appropriate Ethics and also
R&D Governance Committees.
• There is a great deal of confusion about what is
‘scientific’ and what is ‘ethical’.
A Paradox
• The net effect has been to drive much medical
research that has a social scientific angle
• Practitioners now take an ‘audit’ route that
avoids the aggravation of dealing with ethics
• The pharmaceutical companies also provide
grants to fund small projects that evade scrutiny.
Dangers for Social Science
• Stifling of innovative, creative research.
• Conflation of ‘ethics’ with ‘design’.
• Conversion of ‘respondents’ into ‘patients’
• Development of an ‘insider’ culture designed to
suppress research innovation.
Social Science Ethics Examined
• ESRC: ‘research should not cause distress
or annoyance’.
• Why? There are a range of circumstances
where the results of research may well annoy
respondents or funders.
• Examples: Skills Task Force: RP concluded that
‘skills shortages were inevitable and desirable
features of advanced economies’ and that much
previous research into labour market issues was
Social Science Ethics Examined 2
• This upset the Department of Employment who
tried to suppress RPs report.
• It annoyed those ‘research’ Centres in
Universities that have a symbiotic and cosy
relationship with the Department in terms of a
cycle of grants and anodyne Reports.
• It angered consultancy firms who endlessly
reported that every Government initiative was a
great success.
Mealy-Mouthed Sentiments
• The BSA section on Professional Integrity in its
Statement of Ethical Practice* argues that
‘sociological research contributes to the wellbeing of society’.
• This gets to the heart of the matter: who is able
to or can possibly say what that is??
• Sociologists? We hope not. This is akin to
Plato’s injunction that ‘Philosophers should rule’.
An elitist, undemocratic and plainly daft idea.
Ethics are Contested
• It is obvious that ethical debate and
disagreement are central to every-day
discourse. People disagree because they have
different ethical principles.
• An example is ‘arranged marriages’: most
autochthons in Britain disparage and denigrate
them whilst many South Asians take a parallel
view about ‘love marriages’.*
Ethics are Contested 2
• Social Science is also based on enormous and
profound disagreements about theories,
methods and substantive issues. [see Hawthorn,
• These cannot and should not be reduced to
bureaucratic decisions made by self-appointed
‘experts’ in closed committees. [NB most
members of ethics’ panels have very restricted
experience of actual research dilemmas]
Further Vacuity
• The Lancaster University Ethics Committee state
that all proposed research should be
‘worthwhile’ and that ‘techniques should be
• Where have they been over recent years?
• There is enormous dissension over both these
so-called principles.
• These cannot be resolved by bureaucratic fiat!
• These new ethical codes get themselves
completely tied in knots when they examine
issues of explanation of the research to
potential respondents and over covert
• Lancaster University Ethical gauleiters demand
that researchers give a ’full explanation of the
• This is actually impossible prior to research and
is also highly undesirable.
Contradictions 2
• It is not good practice to tell respondents
very much about the substantive issues
under scrutiny.
• This is to avoid the ‘Hawthorne’ effect and
also to minimize response-biases [i.e.
people telling researchers what they think
they want to hear or behaving in ways
affected by what they have been told].
Contradictions 3
• The BSA came up with a ‘nicer’ compromise.
They suggest that respondents should receive
‘appropriate details’ about prospective
• This must be to allow ethics committees to find
something to pontificate upon: otherwise it is
pure nonsense!
• These are matters for individual judgment and
cannot be codified ‘a priori’.
Covert Research
• This is generally proscribed within these codes
except when it is not! This ‘Alice in Wonderland’
world of the ethics industry beggars belief.
• Covert research is a matter for judgment: RP
used covert tape-recordings when researching
recruitment policies of major supermarkets.
• This was justified in terms of the research
hypotheses and this was enough.
The Law
• Researchers have to be aware of the legal ramifications
of their research. None of the ethical codes deal with
this explicitly but if they did they would not approve!
• Again we believe that this issue is a matter for
professional judgment: when RP was comparing
spectators in British and Italian football stadia he
photographed the policing of games.
• This is illegal in Italy [so he did it from some distance to
avoid arrest and the confiscation of his camera].
The Future?
• Ethics Committees come to dominate and
stifle innovative social science research.
• Under the pretext of ethics, social science
becomes ‘safe’ and averse to taking risks.
• Natural science paradigms of research
destroy hermeneutic strands of inquiry.
The Future? 2
• Social scientists get off their knees and use their
critical faculties to reject the ‘ethical’ industry.
• Sociologists reject the Faustian compact that
has ensnared them.
• The only issue is the quality of the research:
do not let the ethical tail wag the sociological