It is important to be sure that no physical or psychological harm will come to those who take part in the research. The British Sociological Association's (2002) Statement of Ethical Practice states that researchers have a responsibility to ensure that the physical, social and psychological well-being of research participants is not adversely affected by the research.
For example, if a sociological study explores the impact that death has on the functioning of the family, it would normally be considered inappropriate, insensitive and an invasion of privacy to try and interview bereaved family members at the funeral or to turn up at the wake with a video camera recording social interactions.
Researchers are also expected to be aware not just of the ethical issues whilst undertaking the research but also of the possible consequences of the publication of their work and should attempt to anticipate and guard against predicted harmful consequences for participants.
Research is about people's real lives and can have a harmful impact on them that lasts longer than the research process. For example, in research in Italian prisons it was important that the prisoners, who talked to the researcher about using drugs while in prison, could not be identified as they would face further time in prison if the authorities were aware of their drug-related activity (MacDonald, 1998).
When considering ethical questions, it is important to look at the relationship of the researcher to the subjects of the research: Howard Parker (1974), for example, chose to withhold some data from publication in his View From The Boys and discussed publication of certain information with the gang members (he left the final decision over some matters with them). His main concern was that his research did not harm gang members. This may resolve ethical concerns that are particularly acute when the researcher becomes closely associated with the research subjects but raises the problem of not being able to give a full account of the behaviour studied.
Donna Luff (1999, pp. 699–700) faced a similar dilemma
I was aware that some of the views expressed by the women in the interviews, especially on feminism, might place them in a potentially vulnerable or marginalised position within their organisations. Here I was left with a real personal dilemma. I had no desire, as a feminist, to encourage women to remain, unchallenged, in such organisations but, on the other hand, as researcher, I had ethical commitments to them as participants in the research. In the end this latter concern won out, though I was left with a sense of unease, not least about the potential identity conflicts and contradictions of being a 'feminist researcher'.
No code or guidelines can cover all eventualities and situations and researchers have to use their own judgment bearing in mind generally accepted practice.
Experimentation is an area where there is high likelihood of psychological harm. For example, Haney et al. (1973) undertook an experiment with a simulated prison, which came to an abrupt end when some of the individuals playing prisoners experienced severe depression and those playing the guards actively enjoyed the role.
Field experiments and ethnomethodological experiments also use unwitting subjects. These can also cause anguish and annoyance, for example, children upsetting their parents by acting like strangers in their own home (see Section 9.3). Indeed, Mehan and Wood (1975) argued that there is no need to do any more ethnomethodological experiments as the point has been made by Garfinkel and it would not be ethical to carry out any more. Experiments by Malamuth and Centi (1986) had concluded that sexually aggressive men who consume a lot of sexually aggressive pornography will commit a sexually aggressive acts (see Section 9.1.5). As a result, Malamuth gave up experiments for ethical reasons! Furthermore, there was a fear that such experiments might lead to being sued if someone claimed that committing an act of rape was the result of having been exposed to certain materials during the experimental research.
Experiments can also lead to physical harm, as in the case of the notorious Tuskegee Syphilis Study (Brandt, 1978). This was a forty-year medical experiment, started in 1933, conducted by the US Public Health Service on the effects of syphilis. The purpose of this longitudinal study was to identify a population of syphilitic black men and to observe in these subjects, over a period of time, the consequences of untreated syphilis.
The 400 black males who had contracted syphilis and were part of the study were given a 'special' treatment. In fact, they were not treated at all. The aim of the experiment was to observe the course of syphilis up to the point of death (Heller and Bruyere, 1946). Needless to say, the subjects were not aware of the aims of the experiment.
Although the researchers on the study did not themselves infect the subjects, once the study have begun the investigative team actually interfered with the lives and health of the subject without their consent (Chadwick et al., 1984). The study began during the mid-1930s, when no cure for syphilis existed, but after a cure (penicillin) was identified, the research team actively sought to keep treatment from their sample. This included offering free so-called treatment and health services to the sample of men, as well as contacting local black physicians and instructing them not to treat (for syphilis) any of the 400 men involving the study. So, even when sample members went elsewhere for treatment it was denied them.
In order to ensure that an autopsy could be done on each of the subject who died during the experiment, the team offered free burial services. Surviving family members typically were unaware that the burial was conditional on allowing on autopsy.
The study ended in 1972 after the news media expose it and public pressure forced officials to terminate the study. Estimates of how many men died directly from advanced syphilis range from 28 to 100 subjects (Brandt, 1978). Shortly after the termination of the study, the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (the parent agency of the Public Health Service) appointed a panel that concluded that the research had been 'ethically unjustified'.
The 'rationale' for this horrendous study, with its echoes of the Nazi concentration camp medical atrocities during the Second World War, was that it would benefit society. There is though, a big difference between covert observation that might benefit society by infringing privacy and a study that was content to let people die. It is also difficult not to see this study as underpinned by a racist ideology.
One would imagine that such unethical research could not possible happen in the 21st Century. However, Volkswagen, the world's biggest carmaker, has been shown to be funding experiments in which monkeys and humans breathed in car fumes for hours at a time. Kate Connolly (2018) reported that:
Initially reported in the New York Times, the tests, carried out in May 2015 by the New Mexico-based Lovelace Respiratory Research Institute (LRRI), involved locking 10 Java monkeys in small airtight chambers for four hours at a time. The animals were left to watch cartoons as they breathed in diesel fumes from a VW Beetle. The ultimate aim of the tests was to prove that the pollutant load of nitrogen oxide car emissions from diesel motors had measurably decreased, thanks to modern cleaning technology.
In a second round of tests, the animals were forced to breathe in the fumes of a Ford F-250 used for the purposes of comparison, because the car was an older model with apparently less sophisticated filter technology.
According to some reports in the Süddeutsche Zeitung and the broadcaster NDR, the monkeys were subsequently anaesthetised and intubated, so their blood could be examined for inflammatory markers. Their lungs were then washed out and their bronchial tubes examined.
According to the LRRI, the Java monkey species was chosen by the EUGT itself.
The Süddeutsche Zeitung reported the experiments [involving inhaling nitrogen dioxide] were also carried out on 25 young and healthy human beings.
According to the Stuttgarter Zeitung, the experiments were carried out at an institute of the University Clinic Aachen and involved the group having to breathe in varying different concentrations of nitric oxide after which they were physically examined for any side-effects
The German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, is among the worldwide voices demanding an explanation about the research commissioned by the European Research Group of Environment and Health in the Transport Sector (EUGT), a body funded by Volkswagen, Daimler and BMW. Volkswagen was recently found to have manipulated tests on about 11m cars worldwide to make it appear they met air emissions tests, when in reality they exceeded them many times over when used on the road. Volkswagen tried to put the blame on a small group within the company (as they did with the 'dieselgate' omissions manipulation) and subsequently suspended its head of external relations and sustainability after admitting that he had known about the experiments (Connolly 2018a). However, commentators on the industry are not convinced since the experiments had been well-documented and the results presented to managers at BMW, Daimler and VW.
Connolly (2018) added that the German environment minister, Barbara Hendricks, called the tests "vile" and said "That a whole branch of industry has apparently tried to discard scientific facts with such brazen and dubious methods makes the entire thing even more horrific" and she was "appalled" that scientists had "made themselves available as willing supporters of such despicable experiments".
Cultural issues should also be taken into consideration when undertaking research. It is important to be aware of cultural sensitivities. Communities have different norms and values that affect the analysis and publication of research about such things as, historical artefacts, religious texts, historical events, human remains, sacred places and so on.
Communities react differently to the publication of photographs of people who have subsequently died. Researchers should, for example, as far as possible avoid the publication of images of human remains without having considered the views of any genealogical descendants or pertinent communities; or consulted with and sought permission from an appropriate curating institution.
This is about being aware of different perspectives and not being unthinking when focused on the research issue to the extent that the researcher tramples on the beliefs, ideologies, taboos, or norms of a culture that is not their own.