Lecture 3: The Ethics and Politics of Research

Past Conception of Research to Action: What are the Consequences of our Choices?

Welcome to Week 3 in the Research Methods in Social Science course for the University of Maine at Augusta.  This week, we move away from the abstract conceptualization of social paradigms and theory to the consideration of what we actually do, whether in the act of measurement or in the publication of research we affect the well-being of others. In a turn to the ethics of research, I ask you to consider whether, after all those ethical mistakes of old, social research has really resolved those old problems in its profession. Apart from actively avoiding hurting subjects in research, what are the responsibilities of a researcher who wants to use research skill and apply it in practice through politics?

No DIY activity is due this week, but do be sure to complete Problem Set 2, available via our course Blackboard page under the “Problem Sets” link on the left.

Questions about Chapter 3?

In many ways, Chapter 3 of your Dixon textbook is difficult to read. After all, it covers so many possible missteps, pitfalls, ethical failings and political blunders that can torpedo a research project. It might seem like enough to make a person want to never pick up a clipboard and get started.  But that’s just half the project of building an ethical awareness in research. The real goal shouldn’t be to dispirit a young research, but instead to encourage you to keep the spirit of justice and compassion that helps you do it right.  Social science research has helped many a person, many a community find justice and a better way of life. You can be part of that positive trajectory, too.

As you read through Chapter 3, what questions arise in your mind? Share your questions in this Padlet (or in the comments section at the bottom of this lecture), and let’s talk about them.

Ethics: A Problem that is All Fixed Now?

When reading a chapter on research ethics like the kind Dixon has served up in our text, it may be tempting to conclude that ethical scandal was a feature of some old, fusty, black-and-white-photo period of our history.  Now that we’re in modern times, haven’t we fixed the problem and moved on?

Certainly, that is a temptation.  When we learn how cruelly people can treat one another as in the Tuskeegee Experiments, it’s tempting for us to think we are exempt from the trend. Every year, students in my Introduction to Sociology class at the University of Maine at Augusta review data from Stanley Milgram’s chilling classic shock experiment, in which 65% of subjects followed orders to deliver apparently lethal shocks to innocent people. Often, my SOC 101 students point out that the original experiment took place at Yale University, in 1961, with male subjects. Yalies are especially conformist, some suggest, and people are more enlightened nowadays. Women, they hypothesize, would be more kind. But as we read on, we find that Milgram repeated his research with women as subjects, who produced the same rate of seemingly violent conformity. A replication in the UK in 2009 led to similar findings despite a different place and a more recent date.

Milgram’s subjects were not the only ones to exhibit worrisome behavior. To satisfy his intellectual curiosity, the professor of social psychology deceived those under his sway into believing they had killed someone. Milgram’s infliction of mental anguish helped provoke a wave of ethical reviews and reforms to prevent harm and institute informed consent in research.

Milgram is not the only one with a shocking problem.  In the modern period, in that UK replication I referred to, what are participating psychologists doing but replicating the ethical mistake of convincing people that they have killed someone else?  Watch the re-enactment for yourself and ask whether this experience is something that social scientists should inflicting on unwitting participants. The television producers focus on the ethical choices of research participants.  But what about those who are enacting the research program?  What new insight have we gained by subjecting another generation of participants to this experience?  At what cost?

[Update: Unfortunately, this video has become unavailable.]

It may be tempting for professors of today to think that ethical scandals are a feature of some uncouth, unenlightened past. But have we really changed so very much? Torture is an official federal crime under Chapter 18, Section 2340 of United States Code. Assistance in the commission of torture is also a direct violation of the ethical code of the American Psychological Association. Despite this, for a decade rank-and-file members of the APA have been voicing concerns about psychologists working to help the U.S. government make its interrogation techniques more torturous. These psychologists used methods of social research to determine which torture methods were most efficacious in breaking the will of detainees. A 542-page report issued in 2015 after an independent investigation not only confirms this but also finds that the leadership of the APA, dependent upon the goodwill of the federal government for large research grants, helped to preserve and extend a system of psychologist-enabled torture.

The video below features an interview with two rank-and-file academic activists within the APA, explaining that finally, the use of psychological research to enable torture has been prohibited. Psychologist Steven Reisner explains that the change affected “hundreds of psychologists,” revealing the scale of the torture scandal among psychologists during this young 21st Century. This change from psychologists aiding torture to psychologists rejecting torture was not a matter of ancient history, it did not pass until August of 2015, scarcely a year ago:

Ethical challenges are not a matter of black and white. We continue to face these challenges in the current day, in living color.

I am tempted as a sociologist to identify psychology as a uniquely flawed social science and reassure myself that sociologists are diferent, that we would never act with such reckless disregard of human rights and dignity. Indeed, the American Sociological Association Code of Ethics insists that professors of sociology respect privacy, anonymity and the rights of all people in “responsibility to the communities and societies in which they live.” Yet in my own subfield of social network analysis, scholars routinely devise techniques for uncovering relationships and predicting behaviors that people may wish to keep private. This is no mere technical potential; the academic discoveries of sociologists have been implemented by governments and corporations to track and profile ordinary people without either permission or a warrant on the basis of mere “metadata.”

Consider it a final but important part of this week’s lecture to click here to listen to a roughly 50-minute episode of the Maine Public Broadcasting Network show Maine Calling in which University of Maryland computer scientist Dr. Jen Golbeck and I discuss the role of social media in our society.  Very quickly, our conversation turns to the question of just what kind of research on social media is being carried out by social scientists, and to what end.  The research you will hear described includes the ability to discover facts about people that they actively don’t share on social media.  This research has been funded with grants from wings of U.S. military surveillance — including the National Security Agency, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, and the group called Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity.  Whether you agree with the ultimate goals of these government agencies or not, they have proximate methods of inquiry that do not follow the standards of The Belmont Report.  This is one avenue of research in policy action, and its primary principle is not “first, do no harm.”

The bottom line is that American public universities were founded for public benefit but are filled with fallible people. Our fallibility as researchers does not change, even as the years do.  Even with good intentions, none of us is exempt from ethical temptation. Therefore, none of us should be exempt from ethical questions.

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