Scientific American has an article up (January 13, 2009) about about ethics in social science research: Brave, Stupid and Curious: Dangerous Psychology Experiments from the Past. This one, however, focuses less on taking care to protect the subjects of the research than it does on protecting the researchers themselves. They provide a number of examples including this one:

…in one study from the mid-1980s, investigators staged a rape scene on a college campus in which a male research assistant appeared to be sexually assaulting a struggling female research assistant. The man leaped out from behind some bushes and grabbed the female roughly, one hand around her waist and the other over her mouth. The female screamed, “Help! Help! Please help me! You bastard! Rape! Rape!” The investigators wanted to know whether passersby—random people who had the bad fortune of stumbling across this troubling event—would heroically intervene and save the girl.

The other examples also make for interesting discussions about the advantages and disadvantages of research risk. We want to gain new information and often times we want that to be in contexts that are as natural a possible, but we have a serious responsibility to protect both our subjects and our selves.

The American Sociological Association provides a the following Code of  Ethics as a guideline:


The following General Principles are aspirational and serve as a guide for sociologists in determining ethical courses of action in various contexts. They exemplify the highest ideals of professional conduct.

Principle A: Professional Competence

Sociologists strive to maintain the highest levels of competence in their work; they recognize the limitations of their expertise; and they undertake only those tasks for which they are qualified by education, training, or experience. They recognize the need for ongoing education in order to remain professionally competent; and they utilize the appropriate scientific, professional, technical, and administrative resources needed to ensure competence in their professional activities. They consult with other professionals when necessary for the benefit of their students, research participants, and clients.

Principle B: Integrity

Sociologists are honest, fair, and respectful of others in their professional activities-in research, teaching, practice, and service. Sociologists do not knowingly act in ways that jeopardize either their own or others’ professional welfare. Sociologists conduct their affairs in ways that inspire trust and confidence; they do not knowingly make statements that are false, misleading, or deceptive.

Principle C: Professional and Scientific Responsibility

Sociologists adhere to the highest scientific and professional standards and accept responsibility for their work. Sociologists understand that they form a community and show respect for other sociologists even when they disagree on theoretical, methodological, or personal approaches to professional activities. Sociologists value the public trust in sociology and are concerned about their ethical behavior and that of other sociologists that might compromise that trust. While endeavoring always to be collegial, sociologists must never let the desire to be collegial outweigh their shared responsibility for ethical behavior. When appropriate, they consult with colleagues in order to prevent or avoid unethical conduct.

Principle D: Respect for People’s Rights, Dignity, and Diversity

Sociologists respect the rights, dignity, and worth of all people. They strive to eliminate bias in their professional activities, and they do not tolerate any forms of discrimination based on age; gender; race; ethnicity; national origin; religion; sexual orientation; disability; health conditions; or marital, domestic, or parental status. They are sensitive to cultural, individual, and role differences in serving, teaching, and studying groups of people with distinctive characteristics. In all of their work-related activities, sociologists acknowledge the rights of others to hold values, attitudes, and opinions that differ from their own.

Principle E: Social Responsibility

Sociologists are aware of their professional and scientific responsibility to the communities and societies in which they live and work. They apply and make public their knowledge in order to contribute to the public good. When undertaking research, they strive to advance the science of sociology and to serve the public good.

These are available here (pdf) for easy downloading and printing.

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