Ethics Research Paper

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Ethics in the social sciences can be best understood by distinguishing normative ethics from metaethics. Normative ethics derives from the practical purpose of guiding how we ought to live and inquires into the proper guidelines of conduct for a responsible human being. Metaethics asks what ethics is, how it can be distinguished from other forms of human practice, and where it finds its proper place. Twentieth-century social science was dominated by normative ethical questions: questions about what ethical guidelines a professional social scientist should adopt. Normative ethics dominated the discussion because social scientists generally took the model of professional ethics—institutionalized in the codes of conduct and peer review committees of associations of (among others) legal or medical practitioners—for granted. This preoccupation with professionalist models reduced social scientists’ interest in metaethics and thus their capacity to understand what ethics is. Since the 1970s, however, processes of “deprofessionalization” or “horizontalization” have reduced the independence of professional practitioners, giving rise to new forms of institutionalizing ethics and increasing the demand and opportunity for metaethical reflection.

In the context of the rise of the welfare state’s demand for expertise, sociologists, in particular, propounded a folk ideology of professionalism, and its model of ethics—of safeguarding the quality of professional service by codes of conduct administered, in the case of conflict, by a committee of peers—was adopted by social scientists from the 1950s onward. Two famous cases in social psychology— one in which religious informants seemed misinformed about researchers’ own beliefs (Smith 1957), and another where experimental subjects appeared to be put under intolerable stress (Milgram 1964)—became paradigmatic in sensitizing many social scientists to the possible abuse of people researched. In addition, anthropologists and sociologists were worried by the use of research for U.S. counterinsurgency operations in Latin America and Southeast Asia, and made the interests of people researched paramount in their first ethical codes. This resulted in guidelines of conduct that focused predominantly on the responsibility to avoid doing unnecessary harm to research subjects—by the experimental situation itself, by secret or clandestine research, or by insufficiently protecting the research subjects’ privacy. When institutionalized by social scientific associations around 1970, such codes and committees were primarily seen as a prerogative of professionals, whose expertise allowed them to speak for or interpret the interests of “clients.” This assumption of professional autonomy remains dominant today in many ways. Most social scientists think that an ethical code is a necessary and self-evident element of their profession, despite the fact that they managed without codes for half a century or more.

In society at large, however, professional autonomy decreased by changing practices of professional control. In the field of ethics, this was particularly manifested by the increasing insistence on the right to “informed consent” of people researched, adopted from the medical profession since the mid-1960s. If “informed consent” already “horizontalized” the professional expert’s relationship to some of his audiences, the increasing employment of social scientists outside the university system since the late 1970s forced them to be more explicitly responsible to private employers and sponsors as well. While some protested this dual loss of professional autonomy, others embraced the new ethics of accountability to sponsors and people researched—although neither group always knew how “accountability” was tied to the spread of neoliberal market models and auditing techniques throughout the academic world.

These developments implied new institutionalizations of ethical practice: From the 1980s onward, codes of conduct and “good practice” mushroomed, but now increasingly produced by universities or funding agencies rather than professional associations. These institutions’ internal review boards introduced ethical audits, for example, at the level of the grant application, thus increasing the possibility of external control of practitioners by ethical codification (while previously, codes were aimed at safeguarding the practitioners’ professional autonomy). Meanwhile, professional social science associations reduced their involvement in ethical arbitration (partly because, unlike the medical or legal professions, they could not effectively sanction violations of their codes) and fell back more insistently on the role of the ethical code in professional public relations and education. Surprisingly, such pleas for an education in ethics often focus on teaching by codes rather than by the more appropriate—because more     practice-oriented—casebook method.

This crisis of the professional model exacerbated existing problems with normative ethics, and especially with ethical codification. In the professional model, the ethical code presupposes a community of scholars who hold each other accountable to its guidelines, but this Enlightenment conception of social contract breaks down once infractions of these guidelines cannot be sanctioned. Moreover, when the membership of such communities is not exclusive, practitioners may find themselves subject to the rules of a multiplicity of organizations (including, of course, ordinary citizens’ duties)—a situation in which most members of social scientific associations find themselves. The adoption of codes of conduct by universities and funding bodies is criticized for merely increasing the means of such institutions’ internal control, while falling short of achieving its actual goal: improving academic practice. This gives rise to the metaethical question of whether one can speak of an administrative fetishization of ethical codes, and whether this distracts from academic ethical awareness, so that ethical codes reduce rather than promote ethical practice (Bauman 1993). The answer to this question is not unequivocal: the codification of good practice may be a necessary instrument to sensitize practitioners to the possibility of doing harm (there is, for example, surprisingly little agreement on the ethics of research into human genetics). Once a code is in place, however, it can perform some of the less desirable functions mentioned above.

Other recent metaethical reflections radically broaden social scientific ethics, if only because they do not restrict themselves to normative ethics and the do’s and don’ts of the research relationship. Inspired by philosophers such as Michel Foucault (1926–1984) or Charles Taylor, social scientists increasingly discuss ethics as the way in which people constitute themselves—and others— as subjects, by not just considering what it is “right to do” but, more broadly, striving after “what it is good to be” (Taylor 1989, p. 3). In this way, ethics is recognized as part of the everyday technologies of the self, and therefore as a topic of social scientific study in its own right, claiming a place next to and in comparison with law, politics, or economics (among other things) in understanding human behavior. Thus, sociologists of culture can be seen to study ethics when discussing, for example, the Protestant or the romantic ethic.

The comparative study of ethics, started by the Finnish anthropologist and philosopher Edward Westermarck (1862–1939) around 1900 and only feebly followed up by anthropologists in the 1950s and 1960s, may be revived. Such studies also open up spaces for alternative models of ethics: sociocultural anthropologists and archaeologists, for example, have explored a model of open-ended ethical negotiation (Meskell and Pels 2005)—an ethics as necessary for the research relationship as it is for human behavior in general. Such explorations can also question the implicit distinction between fact and value that still often keeps the teaching of research methodology apart from the teaching of research ethics, impoverishing social science education in the process. It seems obvious that only the latter move—toward a full integration of ethics and methodology—can lead to a truly ethical social scientific practice, in which students are made aware of the situational, case-bound ethics of research from the moment they start their first training.


  1. Bauman, Zygmunt. 1993. Postmodern Ethics. Cambridge, MA: Blackwell.
  2. Meskell, Lyn, and Peter Pels, eds. 2005. Embedding Ethics. New York and London: Berg.
  3. Milgram, Stanley. 1964. Issues in the Study of Obedience: A Reply to Baumrind. American Psychologist 19: 848–852.
  4. Smith, M. Brewster. 1957. Of Prophecy and Privacy: When Prophecy Fails, by L. Festinger, H. W. Riecken, and S. Schachter. Contemporary Psychology 2 (4): 89–92.
  5. Taylor, Charles. 1989. Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.

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