Old Research Ethics: Old or Just Buried?

Stanford Prison Experiment collection

Image by Susan Groppi via Flickr

We’ve all heard about the Zimbardo prison experiment where researchers assigned volunteers to act as either guards or prisoners resulting in the abusive treatment of volunteer prisoners. In another famous example, Milgram’s authority study led volunteers to believe that they were giving electric shocks to people in order to help them learn materials. Both are great experiments from a strictly scientific perspective. At the same time, however, they are classic studies in ethics for any student of psychology. Though at the time the studies did not seem too much out of bounds, most people would clearly not approve these studies today.
So lately, I’ve been reading an old text book on qualitative methods. I’m finding it interesting from two points of view. First, it’s a great refresher on the basics of qualitative research, a great reminder of the types of work I did a number of years ago. Second, it’s interesting because it is so obvious that is is out of date. The methods themselves hold strong and true, and continue to be extremely important – participant observation, interviews, ethnography. What is mildly funny and disturbing at the same time is the discussion of ethics. I’m able to get past the word ‘informant’ that is used to describe the people they interview. I can appreciate that they use the phrase ‘persons labeled as mentally retarded.’ What’s causing me issue is when they discuss passive observation of abuse within institutions, without intervention, and without reporting it to authorities. The reason given is that the researchers are able to truly understand the situations under which abuse takes place and they can learn what steps may be taken to prevent that abuse in the future.
It irks me though. Is this theory of research ethics still acceptable today? Is this just an old text book or is this an accepted methodology?
If you know the answer, I would love to hear it.
If you’re interested, here is the ethics guide from the American Psychological Association. If you’re a researcher, read it often. The pressures of the workplace make it easy for you to gradually slip away and forget what you’ve been taught. Don’t forget.

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  • 2 responses

    1. ooh great question. Its a point of vulnerability because although fieldwork is series of personal exchanges whether in individual depth or in a group setting, the interpretation phase works on the level of the representativeness of the research data. So if I am in a nursing home and see a member of staff handling a patient roughly – the level of engagement is the representativeness of that act, why it took place and how many times such acts are likely to occur. Its an appalling admission but if I felt that the abuse was taking place as a direct consequence of my observing it or researching it then I would be compelled to intervene. But…. if abuse was happening – and I won’t make excuses here about how bad it would have to be before I stepped in – then I would hesitate because if what I was observing was going to happen anyway then my stepping in eliminates the possiblity of learning something which might change the situation for everybody. But I fully admit I am on hugely dubious territory.

    2. Surely such ‘ethics’ aren’t acceptable today – and I learnt mine in anthropology which is pretty relativistic! Possibly gaining knowledge and possibly preventing harm in future is no justification for not stopping harm now – future speculative goods are worse, not better, than goods (stopping abuse) in the present moment. Besides, other methods can be used for understanding why people abuse and how. Wouldn’t it be better to interview to get the perpetrators’ points of view rather than using observation methods and just speculating about such things?

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