Social Sciences & Humanities

Research Ethics in the Social Sciences and Humanities: Overview

When many people think about where human participant research is being conducted, the areas of biomedicine and health care are the first things that come to mind. However, disciplines within the social science and humanities conduct a great deal of human participant research. Often social scientists and humanists are grouped together — however, traditionally, social sciences include disciplines such as geography, history, political science, anthropology, economics, psychology, criminology and sociology while the humanities can include literature, philosophy, theology, visual and performing arts and cultural studies. Each of the disciplines and the kinds of research that are undertaken in these areas are unique — encompassing markedly different approaches to studying human behaviour, the human condition and the notion of the social life of individuals and groups. Furthermore, many research endeavors in this context cross disciplinary borders, and may be noted as being interdisciplinary or “area studies”…. [continued below]

Social Science Research Ethics Resources

Articles & Opinion on Social Science Research Ethics

Research Ethics in the Social Sciences and Humanities: Overview [cont’d]

While many researchers from these traditions might not agree that the two groups of disciplines or their endeavors are similar, research in the social sciences and humanities is often grouped together, when we consider unique ethical issues that arise.

An important issue that arises in the ethical review of social science and humanities research is risk of harm. Notions of risk and harm in human participant research have evolved from a biomedical tradition, having been borne out of atrocities such as medical experimentation carried out by Nazi physicians in the Second World Warand the Tuskegee Syphilis Study alongside tragic events such as the Sonoma State radiation experiments and the experimental use of thalidomide in the 1950 and 1960s in North America. However there have also been ethically questionable research endeavors in the social science and humanities, such as sociologist Laud Humphrey’s ethnographic studyThe Tearoom Trade, psychologist Philip Zimbardo’sStanford Prison Experiment and social psychologist Stanley Milgram’s experiments on obedience to authority.

Clearly, there is risk of harm involved for participants who take part in many kinds of research, not just biomedical or health research. Harms resulting from participating in research may be physical, social, psychological, emotional, financial or legal. Physical harms might include side effects from being given a drug for which little information is known or being given a well-known drug for a new use. Most physical harms arise in biomedical research but there may be experimentation in social sciences that involve risk of physical harm. Social harms may include having something about a participant publicized without prior consent and the participant, as a result, being embarrassed or marginalized by the exposure of these views, opinions or attributes. Psychological or emotional harms may result from being deceived in research or from being asked to recall or recount traumatic or difficult experiences without adequate preparation or counsel. Financial harms may come from having participants’ employment security placed in jeopardy because of participation in a research study. Legal harms may result from the exploration or exposure of participants’ involvement in illegal practices.

Many research projects in the social science and humanities are what we would classify as being minimal risk of harm. That does not mean, however, that we should then not attend to risk of potential harms that do exist. As always, risk of harm should be considered in a contextual manner. Moreover, risk of harm must be considered against the potential for benefit to individuals and society in all types of research. Finally, noting that risk of harm will always be present and to some degree, uncertain, the burden rests with the researcher, alongside REBs, to put strategies in place to mitigate potential harms and minimize risks.

The new Tri Council Policy Statement takes a fresh approach to risk by noting that a proportional approach to risk in research must be taken by REBs as they review all types of research, including social science and humanities research.