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Explain the importance of ethics in social research


Social Science research has long been concerned with ethical issues. Most sociological research uses people as a source of information. They may either be respondents to survey questions, subjects of observation, or participants in experiments. Unlike researchers in disciplines of physics or chemistry (who deal with non-living, inert matter), sociologists deal with human beings. It is for this reason that sociologists need to be sensitive to the people they study. It thus requires unique sensitivity and awareness to prevent any misuse and harm to people within the ambit of the research study. Ethical considerations of sociologists lie not only in the methods they use and the funding they accept but in the way they interpret their results. Hence, ethics should be incorporated in all stages of research.

Integrating ethics into the entire research process, from selecting the research problem to carrying out research goals and interpretation and reporting research findings, is critical to ensure that the research process is guided by ethical principles beyond informed consent. At all times, researchers should be aware of their responsibility to the communities and societies in which they live and work, and strive to serve the public. Researchers should aim to maximize the benefits of the research and minimize the potential risk or harm to participants and researchers. All potential risks or harm should be mitigated by robust precautions. Independence of research should be maintained and any conflict of interest or partiality on behalf of the researchers, funding, or commissioning body should be made explicit before and/or during a specific research project.

The issue of ethics is both important and complex in the context of social research for two main reasons: First, the research process involves many stakeholders, and the researcher holds responsibility toward all of them. This responsibility involves maintaining ethical conduct in the course of the research and presentation of data. Let us examine this issue closely. At the outset, the researcher holds responsibility toward the people he/she sets out to study. Also, his/her responsibility is due to the funding body (if any) of the researcher's work; and the colleagues and/or other researchers who will consult the research work. Second, the results of the study are likely to add to the body of existing knowledge. It could also be used by policymakers. Any research which does not adhere to ethics could be misleading. Ethics in research entails accountability towards those who have contributed to the research in any way as also the consequences of one’s research. Consider the example of a sociologist who heads a team of researchers. Let us assume he/she works on the issue of drug abuse among youth in Delhi. Now first of all he/she has to keep the well-being of the team members. They have to be paid well and in time. The social and psychological environment in which they work has to be conducive to their well-being. There could be a situation in which the researcher feels could be useful for research work but not for the team of researchers. The sociologist has to deal with the ethical dilemma of safeguarding the team or furthering research (even at the cost of well-being of the team of researchers). Additionally, a sociologist confronts the ethical issue of protecting the identity of the informants. There is a likelihood that social activists or the police seek of identity of the informants. The researcher confronts the ethical dilemma of revealing or concealing their identity. The third dilemma which a sociologist will encounter will relate with the presentation of data. Often informants provide information which they do not want to be made public. The sociologist owes ethical responsibility even as he/she such information (which could fetch him/her popularity) or keeping the confidence of informants in view.

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