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Ethics & Sensitive Research


The four ethical principles outlined by the British Psychological Society are identified as the need to consider autonomy (informed consent), non-maleficence (to do no harm), beneficence (the benefit of research must on balance out-weigh the risk) and justness (research strategies must be fair and just).  As most of us are now aware these guidelines form the basis of the occupational codes of conduct that research psychologists must follow throughout their working lives, Beauchamp & Childress, 1994.  This is so researchers can protect both the interests of their participants but also themselves from potential ill-effects.  So it is prudent to recognise, where ethical codes are most commonly challenged?

As the researcher moves away from the controlled environment of the laboratory to a situation where they enter into the lives of individuals it can introduce unpredictability and ambiguity.  Ethical concerns are therefore most commonly raised in situations of qualitative research as its emergent nature presents challenges to full and thorough assessment Robertson, 2000.  Participants’ lives may have been affected by either child abuse, or domestic violence, or rape, or prostitution, or homelessness, or disability and so researchers need to be mindful that they are interfacing with the both the marginalised and the vulnerable, and so with such emotionally charged topics inevitably ethical boundaries will be challenged.  Some researchers have even questioned whether such areas should ever be approached by research asking questions such as “should they be mining the minds of the vulnerable”, Cherry Russell, 1999.  Although, Morse 2000, rebuts such views and vehemently argues that there is greater moral reason for researching the vulnerable and thus consequently outweighs any cost of potential harm.  Additionally that development of services and provisions to support the vulnerable is dependent upon such research, Beaver et al., 1999.

Carol Gilligan, 1977, 1982 suggested an ethic of care, one that highlights the importance of care and compassion in research relations that not only applies to individuals but one that extends beyond to families and social groups, Israel & Hay, 2006.  The consideration of care within ethics signifies important implications for researchers as it broadens the moral and ethical frameworks to recognise the wider implications for both community and politics.  Paradis, 2000 reflects upon her own research conducted with homeless women and acknowledges that “homeless women are vulnerable to harm as individuals but also in the wider sense as a community because they are often stigmatized and many become victims of prostitution and suffer further marginalisation”.  

The challenge facing researchers then is to develop methods of enquiry that minimise the potential for further harm to be caused to vulnerable individuals as a consequence of investigation.   Therefore can you offer any other examples of how researchers may be comprised when investigating the vulnerable or marginalized and what methods might you apply in order to minimise and overcome the potential for further maleficence?

Categories: Uncategorized
  1. May 2, 2012 at 5:16 pm

    I believe that ethical guidelines are a hindrance to researchers because there could be huge advantages to the general public if ethical guidelines weren’t so restricting in psychological research or research in general. The potential psychology has to benefit many different areas such as the education system or hospitals could be reached if ethical boundaries were not put in place. Not only would scientists and more specifically psychologists have gained much more knowledge in particular areas but so would everybody else.
    Cost-benefit analysis is very useful for problems such as the ones mentioned above. This is where you weigh up the costs and the benefits and make an informed decision on whether it is ethical to carry out the research. Although, there are many studies still that if they had gone ahead, we potentially could have had extremely valuable information. So it seems there is still a strong guard over what experiments are acceptable and it’s so filtered that we’re not reaching the potential we could do.

  2. urpharmacist
    January 30, 2013 at 10:12 pm


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