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Ethics in Social Sciences

Recently, Science for Georgia has taken a look at Social Sciences: what they are (political science and psychology specifically) and why they matter. In the process, we’ve talked a lot about the importance of research methods. An invaluable aspect of research methodology is ensuring that the methods are ethical. Ethical research must protect against physical harm, but also protect against emotional and material harm.

Why Ethics Matter

The goal of all science research is to improve society through the uncovering of new truths (see more here). Basics ethics implies that researchers should not lie about findings to gain notoriety: while they might receive short-term fame, they would also undermine the work of their entire field. But ethics goes beyond this. Extreme cases in the near-past still haunt the field today, are the reason for stricter oversight, and the cause of distrust in science.

Ethics in science, however, goes beyond simply being honest about your research. Scientists have a responsibility to the people involved in their studies to make sure they are not harmed as a result of the study. Beyond the moral duty to treat others with respect, a violation of this would also significantly harm the research, for no one would participate in research when they might receive harmful treatment. 

Social Science has demonstrated that harm can be not just physical, but also emotional and material.

A Dark History

The Stanford Prison Experiment

One of the most notable studies that caused people to think about both the physical and mental effects a study can have was a 1971 study by Philip Zimbardo, a psychologist at Stanford University. Deemed the Stanford Prison Experiment, Zimbardo offered participants $15 a day for a “psychological study of prison life.” After dividing the participants into guards and prisoners, many of the guards became extremely cruel. Participants were deeply affected, and some “prisoners” becoming confused and depressed. It was only when an outsider was so shocked by the experiment did Zimbardo end it early, after only 6 days of these conditions. The experiment is a classic example of a scientist violating the trust of his research participants, and spurred the need for more oversight into scientific studies.  

The “Little Albert” Experiment

Social Science was also known for its unethical experiments on children. The “Little Albert” experiment, conducted by two Johns Hopkins researchers in 1917, researched classical conditioning by training a 9 month old baby, deemed “Little Albert,” to fear furry, white animals. The baby, who initially liked and played with the animals, was exposed to the sound of a large hammer beating a metal pipe each time he saw the animals, until the site of just the animals alone caused him to “cry and shake violently.” This is a prime example of an experiment directly harming a participant, specifically one that could not consent to it. 

Tearoom Trade - Wikipedia

The Tearoom Trade Study

Another experiment, by Laud Humphreys violated principles of both informed consent and material harm to those studied. In the 1960s, this sociological study followed gay men into public bathrooms and observed and recorded their behavior without their permission. The results, when published, outed many men and had material impacts on their ability keep jobs, etc. Read more here.

Current Practice

With such a troubled past, Social Science today places a large emphasis on conducting ethical research. In fact, due to concerns raised by studies like the ones listed above, oversight and conduct rules have changed for scientific research as a whole. Today, the largest priority of any study is the wellbeing of those participating, both physically and psychologically.

All scientific research on people is first reviewed by an Institutional Review Board (IRB). This board determines what type of consent is needed. Most scientific research involves obtaining Informed Consent from participants. This consent describes a research project, its possible impacts, and describes how a person can leave an experiment at any time. Researchers cannot enlist subjects in a potentially harmful study without their knowledge.

Deception, which used to be a regular aspect of psychological research, is used sparingly. If an experiment requires it, it is highly regulated by the overseeing IRB and participants are informed of the true goal of the experiment after it is finished. No information can be withheld in an experiment which might cause physical or mental harm. 

Further, research with particularly vulnerable subjects like children, prisoners, people with past trauma, or anyone who may have trouble freely consenting to research, requires further justification. Researchers must also carefully consider the type of rewards or payment offered for a study, for a payment too high might result in subjects ignoring the risk of a study because of financial need. Researchers also follow careful guidelines around the use of social media data in studies. Data in research studies is also generally kept confidential. 

A series about the value of Social Science could not have been complete without a discussion of Ethics. The ethical guidelines by which Social Science researchers operate today was the result of the suffering of many vulnerable participants. These examples of harm sparked a change in ethical oversight for all sciences, as harm is not just physical, but can also be mental or material. This series has helped reveal the value of Social Sciences to our world today, but that value cannot be truly appreciated until we appreciate why it is possible— simply, ethical guidelines are the backbone of scientific research. 

See The Other Pieces in Our Social Science Series:

Why “Soft Sciences” Matter

What Is Political Science?

What is Psychology?

Updated on November 14, 2022

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