The question of ethics has been a mainstay of philosophical inquiry for centuries. In research involving human subjects, the phenomenon is much more recent. In the development of ethical principles for research involving human subjects, medical research played a prominent role. For example, the Nuremberg Code constituted a key milestone. It was formulated in response to the inhuman medical experimentation practices under the Nationalist-Socialist regime in Germany and included principles such as voluntary participation and informed consent. Since then debates and ethics codes have evolved in many fields and disciplines throughout the world. Yet, until the 1960s it was still possible to expose human beings to extreme physical and mental stress – such as testing the chemical agent orange on a Canadian Forces Base or Stanley Milgram’s experiments where subjects were led to extreme distress when coaxed into punishing others by means of (simulated) electroshocks. Human research ethics boards around the world were created precisely to curtail
The question of ethics not also arises in experimental studies, but also in qualitative research. Ethical reflexivity is a core feature of qualitative research practice as ethical questions may arise in every phase of the research process. For example, researchers ask themselves: Will this project be worthwhile? Who will benefit from it? What are the potential risks for the participants? What are our roles and responsibilities as researchers? Who are we accountable to and what are we accountable for? Some of these and other questions have already been the focus of studies that appear in the debate on ethics that is an iintegral feature of FQS.
Various conceptualisations of research ethics exist and the topic has been at the centre of a heated debate internationally. The controversies mainly revolve around institutionalised review procedures (which give rise to a ‘procedural ethics’) vs the need to identify and reflect on the day-to-day ethical issues that arise in the doing of research (‘ethics in practice’).
In some national contexts, ethics reviews are obligatory not only for medical research, but also for social science research. A substantial critique has formed pointing to the shortcomings and dangers of these institutionalised ethics reviews and codified ethical standards and principles (ethics codes). Negative implications have been described for scientific quality and academic freedom in general and for qualitative research in particular. The institutionalised means for assessing research protocols are based on the medical and experimental sciences; they imply research situations and processes that may be inappropriate for qualitative research. The regulatory enterprise, some argue, only creates an illusion of ethical practice. Instead, ethical conduct should be more aptly conceptualised as an ongoing, critical and dialogical engagement with the moral and political questions of conducting research.
A growing body of literature addresses these and other ethical issues relating to specific methods and methodologies (e.g., ethnographic fieldwork, biographical interviews, participatory research, etc.), academic disciplines (e.g., anthropology, psychology, sociology, etc.) and fields of study (e.g., social media research, qualitative health research, research with indigenous communities, etc.). However, many social science textbooks cover research ethics in a less than optimal fashion and more discussion and analysis are needed concerning the practical experience and relevance of ethical issues in qualitative research contexts. Also, given the noticeable tendency towards increased regulation internationally, there is a need for thorough analysis of negative examples and promising cases.
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