Academic journal article Electronic Journal of Business Research Methods

Integrating Sustainable Development into Research Ethics Protocols

Academic journal article Electronic Journal of Business Research Methods

Integrating Sustainable Development into Research Ethics Protocols

Article excerpt

1. Introduction

The concept of sustainable development (Brundtland, 1987) came into being because of the enormous environmental, social and economic challenges manifesting in contemporary life. Due to its very nature, sustainable development has pervaded all aspects of society - including business - in recent decades. Managers of organisations have been challenged to apply their minds, modify business practices and potentially amend their worldview based on this dynamic and maturing understanding of sustainable development. It therefore behoves all academics and professionals in business and management to consider their activities and the ethics of their research in the context of this paradigm.

There are many theoretical perspectives from which ethics can be viewed, including philosophical, legal, historical, moral, cultural, and human rights. However, research ethics will be addressed from a broad practical and applied perspective in this paper. It will be shown using historical examples that research ethics are dynamic and evolutionary. It can therefore be deduced that the ethical standards against which contemporary research is being judged are unlikely to be the same as those which will be applied by future researchers, who will apply profoundly different social, professional and academic values. Further, the insufficiency of contemporary research ethics will be demonstrated by showing that unanticipated negative consequences of particular historical research would not have been mitigated by the application of contemporary research ethics.

The paper concludes by suggesting that an ethical protocol based on the twelve features of a sustainable society will narrow the gap between current research ethics protocols and the standards by which contemporary research will likely be judged by future generations.

2. Progression of research ethics

A number of historical research projects have achieved notoriety on account of their methodologies or unanticipated consequences. Some of these have been well-publicised, and have been dubbed "Mad Science" by Schneider (2009).

The experiments involving "Little Albert" (Watson & Rayner, 1920) are controversial for a variety of reasons. In these experiments, the reactions of a nine month old boy to a variety of animate and inanimate objects were observed. Thereafter, the researchers conditioned the infant to fear a white rat by associating the rat with a loud clanging noise, resulting in the boy crying at the sight of the white rat (even when the noise was absent). The manner in which the experiments were carried out and the analysis reported have been the subject of criticism by subsequent authors (Harris, 1979; Paul & Blumenthal, 1989). Deliberately invoking fear in an infant in a laboratory setting, with or without parental consent, would not be contemplated by contemporary social scientists.

The Tuskegee Syphilis Study by the United States Public Health Service which began in the early 1930's involved withholding of medical treatment from a racially distinct group of syphilis infected individuals (Thomas & Quinn, 1991). Such was the affront to the dignity of not only the participants, but also an entire demographic group, that a presidential apology was offered by Bill Clinton on behalf of the United States government in 1997 (Harter, Stephens, & Japp, 2000). The study involved taking advantage of vulnerable individuals and is highly unethical in a number of respects (Experiment-, 2008).

The so-called "Milgram experiment" (Milgram, 1963) purported to be an experiment to determine whether the administering of increasingly painful electric shocks by a volunteer research assistant (the "teacher") would improve the memory of the volunteer research subject (the "learner"). In fact, it was the "teacher" that was the actual subject of the research, and the "learner" was receiving no electric shock whatsoever and was merely an actor in collusion with the researchers. …

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