Sociologists conduct studies to shed light on human behaviors. Knowledge is a powerful tool that can be used toward positive change. And while a sociologist’s goal is often simply to uncover knowledge rather than to spur action, many people use sociological studies to help improve people’s lives.
Public Sociology or Applied Sociology refers to sociological research that has an aim at ‘fixing’ or creating policy to create change or ensure that things stay the same. This sociological approach does not require for the striving for objectivity that more traditional sociological research does.
However, whether or not a researcher is trying to uncover knowledge without bias striving towards objectivity, or engaging in public sociology – conducting a sociological study comes with a tremendous amount of responsibility. Like any researchers, sociologists must consider their ethical obligation to avoid harming subjects or groups while conducting their research.
The American Sociological Association, or ASA, is the major professional organization of sociologists in North America. The ASA is a great resource for students of sociology as well. Founded in 1905, the ASA is a nonprofit organization located in Washington, DC, with a membership of 14,000 researchers, faculty members, students, and practitioners of sociology. Its mission is “to articulate policy and implement programs likely to have the broadest possible impact for sociology now and in the future.” Learn more about this organization at http://openstaxcollege.org/l/ASA and through the organization’s website at asanet.org. The ASA maintains a code of ethics—formal guidelines for conducting sociological research—consisting of principles and ethical standards to be used in the discipline. It also describes procedures for filing, investigating, and resolving complaints of unethical conduct.
Practicing sociologists and sociology students have a lot to consider. Some of the guidelines state that researchers must try to be skillful and fair-minded in their work, especially as it relates to their human subjects. Researchers must obtain participants’ informed consent and inform subjects of the responsibilities and risks of research before they agree to partake. During a study, sociologists must ensure the safety of participants and immediately stop work if a subject becomes potentially endangered on any level.
In terms of ethics, the first rule of sociological research is: Do not harm the subject. Easy, right? Well, it can be a bit tricky. The three types of harm that are most common in sociological research are:
Physical and financial harm are usually straightforward and involve the researcher not putting their participants in physical harm’s way, nor causing the participant to lose their job and/or other financial opportunities by participating in the research. Emotional harm is a bit more nuanced. The participants define the harm. What could invoke emotional harm for one might not for others. Researchers must be both systematic and thoughtful when attending to emotional harm of the participants. It might be ‘common sense’ that discussing past experience with domestic violence could cause emotional harm. But, we must also consider that emotional harm could occur for some students as they talk about their choice of academic major.
Researchers are required to protect the privacy of research participants whenever possible. Even if pressured by authorities, such as police or courts, researchers are not ethically allowed to release confidential information. Researchers must make results available to other sociologists, must make public all sources of financial support, and must not accept funding from any organization that might cause a conflict of interest or seek to influence the research results for its own purposes. The ASA’s ethical considerations shape not only the study but also the publication of results.
Pioneer German sociologist Max Weber (1864–1920) identified another crucial ethical concern. Weber understood that personal values could distort the framework for disclosing study results. While he accepted that some aspects of research design might be influenced by personal values, he declared it was entirely inappropriate to allow personal values to shape the interpretation of the responses. Sociologists, he stated, must establish value neutrality, a practice of remaining impartial, without bias or judgment, during the course of a study and in publishing results (1949). Sociologists are obligated to disclose research findings without omitting or distorting significant data.
Is value neutrality possible? As we have discussed, many sociologists believe it is impossible to set aside personal values and retain complete objectivity. They caution readers, rather, to understand that sociological studies may, by necessity, contain a certain amount of value bias. It does not discredit the results but allows readers to view them as one form of truth rather than a singular fact. Some sociologists attempt to remain uncritical and as objective as possible when studying cultural institutions. Value neutrality does not mean having no opinions. It means striving to overcome personal biases, particularly subconscious biases, when analyzing data. It means avoiding skewing data in order to match a predetermined outcome that aligns with a particular agenda, such as a political or moral point of view. Investigators are ethically obligated to report results, even when they contradict personal views, predicted outcomes, or widely accepted beliefs.
Sociologists and sociology students must take ethical responsibility for any study they conduct. They must first and foremost guarantee the safety of their participants. Whenever possible, they must ensure that participants have been fully informed before consenting to be part of a study.
The ASA maintains ethical guidelines that sociologists must take into account as they conduct research. The guidelines address conducting studies, properly using existing sources, accepting funding, and publishing results.
Sociologists must try to maintain value neutrality. They must gather and analyze data objectively and set aside their personal preferences, beliefs, and opinions. They must report findings accurately, even if they contradict personal convictions.
Why do you think the ASA crafted such a detailed set of ethical principles? What type of study could put human participants at risk? Think of some examples of studies that might be harmful. Do you think that, in the name of sociology, some researchers might be tempted to cross boundaries that threaten human rights? Why?
Would you willingly participate in a sociological study that could potentially cause you emotional harm, but had the potential to help educate hundreds of thousands of people about a life experience that afflicts many ? For example, would you participate in a study about the toll of addiction of family life (if this is something that you experienced)?
If sociologists must be aware that subjects define emotional harm differently, could and should a sociologist assume that all college students would be comfortable talking about their majors and that all domestic violence survivors would not want to discuss this experience? Explain your thinking.
For further exploration of contemporary sociological research, examine these citations provided by the American Sociological Association:
Abramson, C., & Dohan, D. (2015). Beyond text: Using arrays to represent and analyze ethnographic data. Sociological Methodology, 45(1), 272-319.
Alwin, D., & Beattie, B. (2016). The kiss principle in survey design: Question length and data quality. Sociological Methodology, 46(1), 121-152. doi:10.1177/0081175016641714
Moors, G., Kieruj, N., & Vermunt, J. (2014). The effect of labeling and numbering of response scales on the likelihood of response bias. Sociological Methodology, 44(1), 366-399.
Code of Ethics. 1999. American Sociological Association. Retrieved July 1, 2011 (http://www.asanet.org/about/ethics.cfm).
Rossi, Peter H. 1987. “No Good Applied Social Research Goes Unpunished.” Society 25(1):73–79.
Weber, Max. 1949. Methodology of the Social Sciences. Translated by H. Shils and E. Finch. Glencoe, IL: Free Press.
a set of guidelines that the American Sociological Association has established to foster ethical research and professionally responsible scholarship in sociology
a practice of remaining impartial, without bias or judgment during the course of a study and in publishing results