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 Second, it’s interesting because it is so obvious that is is out of date.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.