Orientation Observation In-depth interviews Document analysis and semiology Conversation and discourse analysis Secondary Data Surveys Experiments Ethics Research outcomes



Social Research Glossary

About Researching the Real World



© Lee Harvey 2012–2019

Page updated 25 January, 2019

Citation reference: Harvey, L., 2012–2019, Researching the Real World, available at
All rights belong to author.


A Guide to Methodology

10. Ethics

10.1 Introduction
10.2 Harm
10.3 Confidentiality, anonymity and privacy
10.4 Approval
10.5 Informed consent

10.6 Deception
10.7 Fraud
10.8 Publishing ethics
10.9 Conclusion

Activity 10.9.1

10.9 Conclusion

Although there are no definitive rules governing ethical behaviour in social research and ethical issues are complicated. However, researchers should bear in mind the following general principles and strive to comply with them.

  • Always consider the physical, emotional and moral well-being of the people being researched.
  • Do not abuse the trust of the subjects of the research.
  • Remember that the research subjects have to continue living their lives after the research study is completed;
  • Only perform those tasks for which you are appropriately trained and prepared.
  • Be clear about the limits of acceptability: generally avoiding illegal, underhand or deceptive practices.


Specifically, when planning and undertaking research, periodically ask yourself the following questions:

  • Are the methods chosen ethically justifiable?
  • Is the research of significant merit to the scientific community to warrant the methods used?
  • Has the research been approved by an appropriate research ethics committee? Does it need to be?
  • Are the research subjects aware of the role of the researcher(s)?
  • Are the research subjects provided with enough information to enable an informed consent?
  • Are the respondents adults or minors? If the latter was informed consent obtained from legal guardians? In Internet-based research how can their age (or other characteristics) be verified?
  • Are the research subjects aware of what will happen with the research findings?
  • Does informed consent include the use of quotes in publications?
  • Is the confidentiality and privacy of the research subjects ensured?
  • Are the subjects aware of what will happen to any records or data kept by the researcher?  
  • For Internet-based research, is it possible for outsiders to find messages from the person or the group by using search engines?
  • Has consent been obtained from any overarching organisation, such as a registered company for research on workers, or a social media platform for research on media posts.
  • Who is sponsoring the research and what effects, if any, will the sponsorship of the research have on the likely outcomes and findings of the research?
  • What is the likely audience of the research?
  • Is there any support structure for the research subjects if they become distressed as a result of the research?
  • Who will benefit from the research, are the outcomes of the research worth the possible disruption to people's lives?
  • What are the likely responses to the research outcomes when published?
  • What can I do if the research is used for purposes not anticipated or approved of by the researchers?
  • Has the researcher consulted knowledgeable colleagues or other experts about the ethical issues involved in the study?

Activity 10.9.1
In small groups consider what you think are the ethical issues raised in the following example. You have been asked by a large Health Authority to research why there is a high rate of teenage pregnancies in the inner-city area and to make recommendations for the Health Authority's future Family Planning Budget.
As a class activity this would take about 25 minutes in small groups with a 15-minute feedback session.


Next 11.1 Introduction