Since childhood, we have learnt to take on certain responsibilities, such as looking after ourselves and our surroundings, like making our beds in the morning. We also learnt that certain behaviour is good and acceptable (showing respect to the elderly), whilst other behaviour is bad and unacceptable.
When doing research, as social scientists we also have responsibilities and we too are called upon to follow certain standards of behaviour. But our behaviour has far greater significance, because (as researchers) we are dealing with other people and what we do (or omit to do) may have a detrimental effect on others.
Is there something like "ethics" in researh?
To the layperson, "ethics" represents certain standards according to which a particular community or a particular group (Christians, soccer players, or social workers) agrees to regulate its behaviour. For examle, most countries (as collective communities) have a legal constitution which is a supreme law designed to protect its citizens. In the case of South Africa, for example, the country's constitution makes provision for freedom of religion, belief, opinion, expression and association as well as racial and gender equality.
Secondly, certain occupations and professions, such as nursing, teaching, social work, psychology, policing or journalism, have a certain professional code of conduct. In other words, each profession recognized a set of principles and attitudes that must guide that professional's behaviour. Let us take the case of the medical profession. The purpose of the medical profession is to promote health, to prevent and cure disease, and to care for the terminally ill. Given this, we know that everything we tell our doctor will be treated with confidentiality - this means we can be completely honest with him or her and the doctor, in turn, is therefore justified in asking us very personal questions and carrying out a physical examination. If applied to research in general, this example illustrates that, once the purpose of the research has been clearly established, the moral principles on which the research is based can be judged to be either ethical or unethical.
Ethics, in research, have been developed against the background of professional codes of conduct and the laws governing a particular country.
Instead of dealing with the content of moral principles that guide our behaviour, we can thirdly be concerned with the question : what are the general logical rules of any morality? This question takes us to other questions: are moral judgments objective or subjective? Is there a logical relation between moral beliefs and facts? Are moral beliefs reflections of some objective truth, or guided by our personal vies? These questions highlight the ethical problems that face us as researchers. These questions take us back to the real question of morality: what is morality?
Grab a piece of paper and then make notes about the steps you would follow when doing research. Next to each step, make notes of those aspects which you regard to be of ethical significance in each step.
Whilst doing this activity, you may have realized that certain standards and norms apply to our behaviour as researchers, irrespective of whether we are collecting, analyzing or publicising research. In other words, ethical guidelines apply to every step of the research process.
One of the primary responsibilities that we have towards the people whom we research is that we must not harm them in any way. This is why - in certain instances - we may need to obtain their permission to involve them in our research; this is also why we need to take measures to ensure their privacy.