The Construction of Research Ethics Involving Human Subjects: A Preliminary Analysis

By Reyes, Julie Anne | Michigan Academician, April 2000 | Go to article overview
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The Construction of Research Ethics Involving Human Subjects: A Preliminary Analysis

Reyes, Julie Anne, Michigan Academician

Many issues surrounding research ethics have been highlighted throughout higher education as a result of research misconduct cases that have received considerable national attention. Despite this attention, less consideration has been given to research ethics involving human subjects and how this knowledge is actually transmitted to faculty and graduate students.

This paper uses preliminary data analysis from ongoing ethnographic dissertation research from 23 interviews with faculty members of three departments in the Colleges of Human Medicine, Social Science, and Nursing at Michigan State University. This study also draws on the Acadia Institute's national survey regarding ethics in higher education which focuses on the effectiveness of research ethics training utilizing both formal and informal interaction (Swazey et al. 1993). [1] The Acadia Institute's survey found that both faculty and students believe that informal modes of communication and interaction are the most effective ways to impart ethical and professional values. Conversely, most faculty and graduate students believe that formal means, such as brown bag series, colloquia, printed policy statements, and courses devoted to research ethics are the least effective methods for engendering ethical and professional values within a department.

While there is consensus concerning the importance of imparting ethical practices and teaching ethical decision making in higher education, little research has been conducted concerning how this process actually takes place. The actual social construction and transmission of research ethics within the university setting has not been systematically studied from a social science perspective, especially an anthropological one. Examining research ethics from an anthropological perspective is useful and significant because outlining the process of informal transmission of ethical knowledge and culture may enable departments to take steps to conduct this process more consciously and reflectively. Most significantly, however, this research may have an impact on the ethical environment of research through the development of an anthropologically grounded approach to teaching research ethics.

Two anthropological perspectives called praxis and the theory of scructuration structure this research to determine how informal communication influences the process of learning about research ethics involving human subjects. Praxis theory enables us to connect the relationships between the structures of academia (i.e., academic departments) and agency among faculty to determine how this process influences the culture of ethics (Bourdieu 1990). The theory of structuration (Giddens 1984) breaks down structures into rules and resources that determine how research ethics regarding human subjects are generated among faculty.

Fundamentally, this research questions the value people place on informal communication, such as a mentoring relationship between faculty and student, as the most effective tool in teaching research ethics and addressing ethical issues. Most of the literature dealing with research involving human subjects is descriptive and does not delve into the ways in which research ethics is engendered, but rather is concerned with the existence of research policies and procedures as a result of research misconduct (Barber 1979; Elliott and Stern 1997; Harris 1995; Stern and Elliott 1997). Research misconduct in the literature deals primarily with falsification and fabrication of data and plagiarism but generally does not include ethical problems that arise in research involving human subjects.


The methods for this study consist of three phases of data collection. The first or preliminary phase (completed in fall 1998) involved interviews with department chairs to gather information about the graduate program and obtain permission to conduct interviews in each department.

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