Research Considerations

Have you heard of the Stanford Prison Experiment? It has been widely criticised for being an unethical research project. 

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Table of contents

    Sociologists must consider ethical issues, among other things, before they conduct research. We will discuss the most important research considerations in details.

    • We will start by planning considerations in research.
    • Then we will mention philosophical considerations.
    • We will move on to practical considerations, such as time, funding and personal interest.
    • Finally, we will look at ethical and social considerations in research.

    Research considerations in sociology

    There are a number of research considerations in sociology you will encounter whilst choosing your research methods.

    They can be broadly divided into four categories: planning considerations (nature of the research topic), and philosophical, practical, and ethical/social considerations.

    Planning considerations in research

    Depending on your research topic, the corresponding research question and your hypothesis, you will choose suitable methods.

    Investigating the association between race and educational achievement could be a cross-sectional study with a large sample using questionnaires.

    On the other hand, the evolution of deviant subcultures over time may require a longitudinal ethnographic study.

    Philosophical considerations in research

    The two essential philosophical positions in sociology are positivism and interpretivism.

    Positivist researchers tend to choose quantitative methods and study social phenomena from a scientific perspective. Whereas, interpretivists prefer qualitative methods and assert that society is too complex to study human behaviour the same way as rats in laboratory conditions. There are also researchers practising methodological pluralism through the use of mixed methods.

    Practical considerations in research

    Every researcher also needs to take into account the following factors.

    Time to consider in research

    Some methods require more time than others. For example, the Millennium Cohort Study is following the lives of approximately 19,000 young people born across the UK in 2000-02.

    Funding to consider in research

    Non-commercial research does not generate revenue. Researchers need money to sustain their projects, i.e., to pay their own wages, and for resources such as travel, equipment, renting space, etc. Large-scale research projects are very costly. As an example, the 2021 UK census has cost over £900m to date. A small focus group would cost less, of course.

    Characteristics and skill sets to consider in research

    Some researchers prefer to stay at their desks, whilst others would rather dive into fieldwork. Personal characteristics such as gender could also be a factor in certain studies: a male would not be able to do participant observation in Muslim women-only beauty salons, for example.

    Access to consider in research

    If a researcher does not have access to the research subjects, they will have to rely on secondary sources as opposed to collecting data themselves.

    Trends and personal interests to consider in research

    Every researcher has their own areas of interest that they will focus their research on. In many cases, researchers choose to investigate trending issues as they assume it will make their work more publishable and may provide them with recognition. This can result in some research areas being neglected because of their 'unpopularity'.

    Ethical considerations in research

    These concern the moral aspect of research. We should ask ourselves, 'How should we treat people on whom we conduct our research?'. In the section below, you will find examples of some of the most notorious ethical violations in social science.

    However, the danger of ethical violations these days is not in the extreme cases, but rather in the seemingly straightforward ones. For example, one could argue that there is no harm in asking simple questions or inducing non-harmful behaviours from a seven-year-old. Yet, at that age, it is difficult if not impossible to obtain informed consent. Therefore, the child's parents should have a say. As another example, is it wrong to observe people without them knowing? Well, without proper justification, that is simply spying. Even with justification, it can cause a great deal of psychological trauma that cannot be undone.

    Social considerations in research

    Ethical issues in research can be broadly divided into four categories: avoiding harm, obtaining informed consent, maintaining confidentiality, and avoiding deception.

    Avoiding harm and social considerations in research

    Physical and mental harm is unacceptable in sociological research. A large proportion of researchers strictly oppose any harm-inducing research, even if it is in the best interest of science. It was not always so.

    In 1920, John Watson conducted a study, the 'Little Albert' experiment, during which he tried to find whether he could induce a phobia of rats into an emotionally stable infant. He used the same classical conditioning techniques as Pavlov did when he taught his dogs to salivate in response to stimuli associated with food.

    Some of the most common questions of this research were about its consequences. Did Little Albert grow into a man with a fear of rats? Was it reversible? Is it evil to purposefully make someone be scared?

    Research Considerations, Little Albert crying in the Little Albert Experiment, StudySmarterFig. 1 - The Little Albert Experiment.

    Another study that has been widely criticised for its ethical violations is Phillip Zimbardo's (1971) 'Stanford Prison Experiment'. He was interested in finding whether prison brutality was caused by the sadism of the prison guards or the nature of the prison environment. He created a mock-up of a real prison and invited volunteers to participate in his experiment, assuming the roles of prisoners and guards.

    He tried to make the experiment as realistic as possible, so the prisoners were treated like real criminals. They were arrested, taken to the police station, 'booked', and taken to the prison blindfolded. They were stripped naked on arrival at the prison, given prison robes, referred to only by number, and put into tiny cells without windows. The guards were not allowed to perform any physical punishment, but they were instructed to maintain 'law and order' as much as they could. They harassed the prisoners day and night trying to instil 'discipline', making them do endless push-ups, giving them disgusting tasks, etc.

    Less than 36 hours into the experiment, one of the prisoners began to suffer through an episode of acute emotional disturbance. By day six, the experiment was over, due to the excessive aggression of the guards and the subsequent mental breakdowns of the prisoners. Without allowing the participants to assume the roles of prison guards and giving them the power and opportunity to abuse the prisoners, it was clear the experiment would not have been valid. Although this study was largely successful in answering its research question, it raised countless red flags regarding ethical standards.

    Informed consent and social considerations in research

    Every researcher should get consent from their participants. Sociologists should exercise honesty and transparency in their work so that participants fully understand what they are signing themselves up for, i.e., informed consent. However, sometimes it may be difficult if not impossible for the researchers to obtain it. In other cases, It could invalidate the whole research.

    People with cognitive disabilities or toddlers may not be able to provide informed consent.

    People could unintentionally misrepresent themselves through acting instead of being authentic due to the pressure of being studied.

    UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), an institution within the government responsible for science funding, suggests that researchers should not assume that children are necessarily always vulnerable and incapable of providing consent because of their age.

    According to the NSPCC Research Ethics Committee, a researcher must exercise caution when working with children at all times. The table below shows the breakdown of age groups and the corresponding requirements for consent.

    NSPCC Research Ethics Committee breakdown of age groups and the consent requirement

    Age

    Consent

    Under 8

    Parent, guardian or carer

    8 - 15 years old

    Young person + parent, guardian or carer if the researcher has any doubts about children's capacity to fully understand what they are signing up for

    16 - 18 years old

    Young person + consulting parent, guardian or carer is considered a good practice, but it is not compulsory

    Over 18

    Young person only

    Table 1 - a look at who can give consent depending on the age group of the participants.

    Overall, researchers should assess children's competencies and vulnerabilities based on the purpose and context of the research as well as factors such as age, gender, socio-economic circumstances, and disability.

    Purposefully covered studies raise another ethical issue in research.

    Sociologists researching secretive organisations: such as religious cults, gangs, invitation-only members clubs, and so on, may not be able to get access. They have to hold information about their research in order to gain access.

    Some sociologists suggest that there is a benefit to society in conducting such research, even though it bends the rules. They are able to justify their actions by trying to minimise the risks to others; however, it can never really be guaranteed.

    Nigel Fielding was able to infiltrate an extreme right-wing political party called National Front, while 'James Patrick' (a pseudonym) did the same with violent gangs in Glasgow.

    Before researchers engage in ethically questionable investigations, they must provide a robust justification. However, even with a justification, there is no guarantee that there will be no harm done.

    Confidentiality and social considerations in research

    All research participants have the right to privacy and confidentiality. All researchers should follow rigorous data protection procedures.

    General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) is one of the most comprehensive privacy and data protection laws that addresses the transfer of personal data outside the EU and EEA areas.

    Any research participant has the right to request anonymity, i.e., the researcher must use false names or codify their participants in a way that makes respondents unrecognisable to the general public. Without these protections, people would not be willing to volunteer for research. They should be able to trust that the researcher will not disclose the details of their lives, especially sensitive information such as sexual assault, self-reported crime, bullying at school, etc.

    Deception and social considerations in research

    Deception is very closely associated with consent. The issue is not just about withholding information, but rather purposefully lying about the nature of the research.

    Stanley Milgram (1963) investigated the conflict between personal conscience and obedience to authority. He was uncertain about the way Nazi officers justified their actions during the Holocaust in their post-WW2 trials (i.e., that they were forced to do it by a higher authority). He decided to conduct an experiment recreating the choice between doing horrific harm to another person or disobeying authority.

    The study's volunteers were divided into two groups, learners and teachers. The role of the learner was to memorise a list of words and then attempt to recall them in the test. During the test, the learner was strapped to a chair with electrodes attached to their body. Every time the learner got a word wrong, the teacher was instructed to administer an electric shock, increasing the voltage every time. Milgram wanted to find out how far a person could go in harming another under the instruction of a higher authority.

    What the 'teachers' did not know is that the 'learners' were actually Milgram's associates, otherwise known as confederates. He rigged the straw draw that divided them into groups so that the learners were always confederates. The wrong answers learners gave were on purpose, and the electric shocks were fake. All the pain and suffering that learners demonstrated was an act. Some researchers describe such deception, and the project itself, as reprehensible, because of the mental trauma the real participants went through, believing they had to electrocute a human being as part of the experiment.

    Research Considerations - Key takeaways

    • Research considerations in sociology can be broadly divided into four groups: nature of the topic, and philosophical, practical, and ethical considerations.

    • The nature of the topic concerns choices researchers make about the research design.

    • Philosophical considerations focus on the philosophical position of the researcher: positivist or interpretivist. This position is key to deciding between quantitative, qualitative, or mixed methods of research.

    • Practical considerations include time, funding, access to prospective research subjects, personal characteristics of researchers, and trends in research. All of these could both benefit and limit researchers' practice.

    • Ethical considerations concern the moral aspect of the way researchers treat participants. They broadly cover the following areas: avoiding harm, avoiding deception, maintaining confidentiality, and obtaining consent.


    References

    1. Fig. 1 - The Little Albert Experiment (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Albert_experiment.jpg) by Vibha C Kashyap is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0/).
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    Frequently Asked Questions about Research Considerations

    What are ethical considerations in research?

    Ethical considerations concern the moral aspect of how researchers treat participants. They broadly cover the following areas: avoiding harm, avoiding deception, maintaining confidentiality, and obtaining consent.

    Why is ethical consideration important in research?

    Ethical consideration is important in research to avoid harm and the deception of the research subjects.

    What are the 5 major sociological research methods?

    • Experimental research
    • Correlational research
    • Survey research
    • Observational research
    • Case studies

    What makes sociological research different from other kinds of research?

    The two essential philosophical positions in sociology are positivism and interpretivism


    Positivist researchers tend to choose quantitative methods and study social phenomena from a scientific perspective. Whereas, interpretivists prefer qualitative methods and assert that society is too complex to study human behaviour the same way as rats in laboratory conditions. There are also researchers practising methodological pluralism through the use of mixed methods. 

    What is sociological research in sociology?

    Sociological research aims to discover patterns within society by testing hypothesis and asking questions around certain social issues.

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