In searching the Internet for examples of ethical problems in social research, I found two common problems: deception about the nature of the research and invasion of privacy. Let me show you an example of each problem and briefly discuss the ethical questions it raises.
The man who would be queen
The first example is illustrated by the work of psychologist J.M. Bailey, chairman of the psychology department at Northwestern University. In his book, The man who would be queen: The science of Gender-Bending and Transsexualism, Bailey includes “numerous interviews with and several stories about transsexual women, but these women say they were never aware they were Bailey’s research subject.” (www.web-miner.com/researchethics.htm).
What does it mean?
In the case above, we might ask whether deception in social science research can ever be justified. Put another way, is deception in social research always wrong? What if Mr. Bailey worked for the Federal Bureau of Investigation and needed to find out if public figures were members of the local Klu Klux Klan? Revealing the fact that he worked for the FBI wouldn’t get him far. There isn’t space in this post to examine the circumstances in which scholars have argued that deception isn’t wrong in social science research. For example, they point out “subterfuge maybe an acceptable and ethical research tactic in studies of public roles where the individual studied would not knowingly permit the data to be collected.” (www.indiana.edu/appe/gre.htm).
I think the Bailey case doesn’t meet the rear instance where one can argue, though reluctantly, that deception is justified.
What about something closer to home?
Now we can talk about the second case. More precisely, let’s talk about the Internet. D.L. Teeter, and B. Loving in their book, Law of mass communication: Freedom and Control of Press and Broadcast Media, make the following observations:
The Scripps Howard news service reported in mid-2000 that persons who typed in search terms as “grow pot” at some web sites would see a banner ad pop up on their screens. That banner ad was created by the Federal drug office. If a computer user clicked on the ad, the computer would be directed to the anti-drug site freevib.com, operated by the White House drug office. Once the user reached the site, a tracking cookie would be inserted by the site program. Using cookies to track the moves of an Internet user appears to violate his or her privacy.
Is it really that simple?
So, is using the Internet to intrude on people’s privacy always wrong? The answer may not be an absolute yes. For example, take a look at the situation of a company that monitors a chat room. On the surface, one might find it unethical for a company to snoop in on a chat room. What if members of a chat room are thrashing a company’s good name? D.K. Breakenridge, executive vice president of an integrated marketing communications firm, makes the following observation about companies becoming involved in chat rooms that disparage them:
The best strategy might be to observe the communication to see how far it advances and then take the information back to the PR or marketing team to begin addressing the issues at hand. Making the wrong move or identifying yourself in a chat room as a member of the company that’s being thrashed may halt any further communication on the topic of interest. (F.P. Seitel (2001). The practice of public relations.)
In short, it might be prudent for a company to monitor a chat room if it becomes clear that the company’s reputation is being tarnished by what is said in the chat room. Having said that, it would still be a tough ethical dilemma.
To sum up, when it comes to social science research, ethical problems are not always black and white.
Seital, F.P (2006). The practice of public relations. Pearson Education Inc. Upper Saddle River. New Jersey.
Bailey, J.M. (2003). The man who would be queen: The Science of Gender-Bending and transsexualism. Joseph Henry Press. Washington D.C.
Teeter, D.C. & Loving, B. (2008). Law of Mass Communications: Freedom and Control of Print and Broadcast Media. Foundation Press. New York