Ethics in social research is fundamentally about care and consideration for the subjects of the research. The researcher is expected to act ethically; that is, not to undertake research that ignores the impact the study has on individuals or social groups, either in the course of the research or in the publication of the outcomes.
Bruce Berg (1998, p. 33) explained it, thus:
Social sciences, perhaps to a greater extent than the average citizen, have an ethical obligation to their colleagues, their study population, and the larger society. The reason for this is that social scientists delve into the social lives of other human beings. From such excursions into private social lives, various policies, practices, and even laws may result. Thus, researchers must ensure the rights, privacy, and welfare of the people and communities that form the focus of their studies.
Similarly, Owen Gill (1977, p. 196) put this forcefully in referring to his own work in a 'delinquent area'.
The sociologist's responsibility to his subjects is a continuous one and does not stop once he returns to the sheltered employment of the university to write about his findings. In planning a study, in conducting it and in writing it the sociologist should have his subjects looking over his shoulder. He has responsibility neither consciously nor unconsciously to contribute to the stereotypes which afflict relatively powerless groups in society.
Ethical issues apply to all approaches to research. Chih Hoong Sin (2005, p. 279) argued that
Researchers should not treat research ethics as pertinent only when conducting particular types of research, with particular types of participants, or at certain points in the research process.
However, some approaches are more intrusive than others and the ethical issues are more evident or acute. Nonetheless, researchers need to consider the less obvious impact the research method will have, as well as the more direct intrusions that are part of some research methods, such as experimentation.
Ethical considerations in social research have increased in prominence since the start of the new millennium. However, the concern with ethics dates back to the advent of social research, albeit what constitutes an ethical issue has shifted over time.
Ethical issues in social research are about the principles that lay behind what constitutes acceptable research practice. This involves going beyond subjective declarations, of what a single researcher considers to be acceptable behaviour, to community-based views of acceptability. Such views will be based on moral codes that arise from intersubjective forms of agreement.
In many cases, these moral codes take the form of subject-based ethical guidelines for researchers. Most professional associations have ethical guidelines and increasingly researchers are expected to adhere to them.
Researchers should consult the ethical guidelines appropriate for their subject area before starting a research undertaking. In some areas, guidelines are accompanied by research practice requirements, especially in areas, such as medicine, where the research directly impacts on research subjects.
Anyone undertaking social research should discuss their intentions with a more experienced researcher, which will help highlight potential ethical issues at an early stage. If in the course of a research study an ethical issue is unclear, the ethical standards of the American Psychological Association (2016), for example, advises researchers to resolve the question through consultation with peers, institutional review boards, or those with expertise regarding any special population that may be affected by the research.
Students undertaking undergraduate research projects or graduate dissertations should always discuss any research ideas with a tutor before commencing the study. Tutors provide guidance on whom and what to consult, the feasibility of the proposal and the likely problems that will be encountered when collecting data, including ethical considerations. Under no circumstances should new researchers send out questionnaires, interview people, undertake participant observation or conduct experiments before discussing the research with an experienced researcher.
In the end though, researchers are responsible for their own ethical stance and must proceed in a way that they think is ethically sound, bearing in mind the norms and expectations of the subject area and the society. It is important that researchers ask themselves 'whose side am I on?' and 'who is the research for?'. Provide honest answers before getting too involved in the research.