Sociology & Anthropology
Department Policies

Ethics and Research on Human Subjects

Ethical Issues Regarding Participants In Research

To encourage responsible research by students and faculty, the Department of Sociology and Anthropology has adopted a policy concerning the treatment of participants in research. The policy and procedures apply only to research that entails the active engagement, direct involvement, and/or individual identification of persons as research participants. They apply, therefore, to most interview, survey, experimental, and participant observation studies.

Ethics in the social sciences is rooted in what is called teleological ethics; that is, acts are considered moral or immoral based on consideration of potential consequences of actions. No act is considered inherently immoral; rather, any conduct while performing research is considered a moral issue because it has negative consequences on some party. (Deontological ethics assumes that certain behaviors are inherently immoral-for example, because they violate divine laws or natural law.) The two primary parties that might be hurt by research are the subjects of the research and the discipline or the scholarly community as a whole. Humans are not objects to be manipulated at will; human beings are valued as experiencing, thinking, feeling beings that are of intrinsic value. Their wholeness as reflective selves, their physical safety, and their integrity as free and autonomous persons must be respected. Research may also impact the scholarly community of which the researcher is a part. If research undermines willingness of subjects to participate in future research or undermines legitimacy and integrity of the scientific enterprise among the public, a serious disservice has been done to all scholarly endeavor.

One cannot always anticipate every consequence, but the obligation of the researcher is to be as complete as possible in predicting any harm that could be done by the research. In protecting the subjects and the discipline from deleterious consequences, sociologists have identified a number of concrete behaviors or issues that researchers must acknowledge and observe.

The following summarizes some of the most important ethical agreements in social research.

Voluntary Participation. Since social research may represent an intrusion into people's lives and may require that people reveal personal information about themselves, it is important that the participants in research volunteer for the project. Where possible, informed consent should be obtained from all participants. Informed consent does not necessarily mean a written or signed form, for this formality does not necessarily fulfill one's obligations. In fact, in some rare cases a signed form may not be absolutely necessary. Informed consent is an ongoing issue during the research, not an issue to be relegated to a simple signature on a form. In studies of large public crowds in public settings, informed consent is usually deemed to be impractical and unnecessary. Yet even in an athletic stadium, consent of the manager or owner is required. A sample form for obtaining written consent for particaption in research is found here.

No Harm to Participants. As the most important ethical norm, it is essential to pay attention to the subtle ways in which participants may be harmed. Research participants may be asked to reveal deviant behavior, unpopular attitudes, or demeaning personal characteristics such as low income, receipt of welfare payments, or general information that they view as personally compromising. It may also force them to face aspects of themselves they may not be ready to face. If this norm needs to be violated, there should be compelling scientific or educational reasons for doing so, and the "harm" cannot involve any sort of physical injury. An Institutional Review Board-which is always skeptical of any need to harm people-must approve any action that negatively impacts even the self esteem of a subject.

Protecting Privacy. It is essential that those who assist us in our research not then be subject to embarrassment or harassment in any way. Thus, we must protect the privacy of all participants. This is done through two processes: anonymity and confidentiality. A respondent may be considered anonymous when the researcher cannot identify a given response with a given respondent. In a confidential survey, the researcher can identify a given person's responses but essentially promises not to do so publicly. Anonymity or confidentiality must be guaranteed to prevent harm to participants. In addition to participants, if this principle is not honored the prospect of continued participation in research would be severely limited. Thus, future researchers and the integrity of the discipline are also subjects of concern.

Deceiving Participants. Because deceiving people is unethical, deception within social research needs to be justified by compelling scientific or administrative concerns. Even then, it may be necessary to debrief the participants after the research project is complete. The subjects of concern in this case are both the participants and the continuing integrity and viability of the discipline; people will not agree to participate if they are deceived.

Reciprocity. Researchers may benefit from their research, but they must not exploit their participants. They must recognize their debt to their participants - and when studying people in other parts of the world - to their societies. They should recognize their obligation to reciprocate with people studied in appropriate ways.

Analysis and Reporting. The researcher has an obligation to make technical shortcomings and failures of the study known to the reader. Science progresses through honesty and openness about the research process and the research results. While some of the principles listed above may be compromised if there are compelling reasons and an Institutional Review Board has approved the research, integrity in reporting and analysis is absolute. Under no circumstances is this principle to be violated. Scholarly research cannot be used by society if the integrity of the researchers is in doubt. A disservice would be done to the discipline and to the society as a whole if policy decisions were based on fraudulent data.

In addition to these principles, please also refer to ethics statements of the scholarly professional organizations. The ASA policy is available at http://www.asanet.org/members/enforce.html and the AAA statement appears at http://www.aaanet.org/committees/ethics/ethcode.htm.


It is the policy of the Department of Sociology and Anthropology to protect the rights and welfare of the participants of research conducted as part of the courses, independent studies, thesis projects, faculty research, and other academic activities that we sponsor. The Department prohibits research that poses a demonstrable danger to the safety and security of research participants. The Department also prohibits research that does not adequately protect the identity of participants, the confidentiality of information obtained from them, or their right to refuse to participate.

The Department strongly discourages the use of designs and procedures that entail substantial deception of participants with regard to the nature and purposes of the research project. In all cases where deception is employed, the researcher(s) must demonstrate convincingly that deception is essential for assuring the validity of the research and does not pose a significant risk to participants. The Department also cautions against research projects in which the researcher's safety and security might be in doubt; compelling arguments must be provided regarding the value of the research and the necessity of the proposed research methods.

Any research that may result in publication or in a formal presention at A professional meetingmust be approved by the Hanover College Institutional Review Board.


Several types of research are exempt from departmental review:

" Research conducted in established or commonly accepted educational settings, involving normal educational practices, such as (a) research on regular and special education instructional strategies, or (b) research on the effectiveness of or the comparison among instructional techniques, curricula, or classroom management methods.

" Research involving the use of educational tests, survey procedures, interview procedures or observation of public behavior unless (a) information obtained is recorded in such a manner that participants can be identified, directly or through identifiers linked to the respondents; and (b) any disclosure of the participants' responses outside the research could reasonably place them at risk for criminal or civil liability or be damaging to their financial standing, employability, or reputation.

" Research involving historical studies, secondary analyses of existing data that do not involve confidential materials (such as the General Social Survey), and most forms of passive or unobtrusive observation in which the investigator observes an ongoing social scene but does not directly participate or intervene in it.

Review Process

Faculty research involving original data collection must be circulated to all members of the department. The proposal should ordinarily be approved by all departmental colleagues, but in cases where a difference of judgment exists between colleagues about acceptability of a form of research, at least 60% of the departmental faculty must endorse the project, and must be approved by the Hanover IRB.

Ethical review of research projects in standing courses normally will be handled by the instructor. However, if the research might put participants at risk, involves intervention or deception, requires interviews or surveys on sensitive topics, or involves special populations (such as minors or prisoners), the proposal must be submitted to the Hanover IRB.

In the case of original student research for Independent Studies, every member of the department will be consulted. The instructor will make the final decision, but completed proposal forms for research will be submitted to all other members of the department. They will give their comments to the mentor of the project for deliberation and decision.

Approved by the Department of Sociology and Anthropology
April 13, 2004