Developments in the field of social science in recent years have been accompanied by a growing awareness of the attendant moral issues implicit in the work of social researchers and of their need to meet their obligations with respect to those involved in, or affected by, their investigations. This awareness, focusing chiefly, but by no means exclusively, on the subject matter and methods of research in so far as they affect the participants, is reflected in the growth of relevant literature and in the appearance of regulatory codes of research practice formulated by various agencies and professional bodies. 1 Ethical concerns encountered in educational research in particular can be extremely complex and subtle and can frequently place researchers in moral predicaments which may appear quite unresolvable. One such dilemma is that which requires researchers to strike a balance between the demands placed on them as professional scientists in pursuit of truth, and their subjects’ rights and values potentially threatened by the research. This is known as the ‘costs/benefits ratio’, the essence of which is outlined by Frankfort-Nachmias and Nachmias (1992) in Box 2.1 , and is a concept we return to later in the chapter when we consider how ethical dilemmas arise from various sources of tension. It is a particularly thorny dilemma because, as Aronson et al. (1990) note, it cannot be shrugged off either by making pious statements about the inviolability of human dignity or by pledging glib allegiance to the cause of science. Most standard textbooks on ethics in social research would, in this case, advise researchers to proceed ethically without threatening the validity of the research endeavour in so far as it is possible to do so. Conventional wisdom of this kind is admirable in its way, but the problems for researchers can multiply surprisingly when the principle comes to be applied: when they move from the general to the particular, from the abstract to the concrete. Each research undertaking is different and investigators may find that on one occasion their work proceeds smoothly without the Hydra-headed creature of ethical concern breaking surface. At another time, they may come to realize that, suddenly and without prior indication, they are in the middle of an ethical minefield, and that the residual problems of a technical and administrative nature that one expects as a matter of course when pursuing educational research are compounded by unforeseen moral questions.
Ethical issues may stem from the kinds of problems investigated by social scientists and the methods they use to obtain valid and reliable data. In theory at least, this means that each stage in the research sequence may be a potential source of ethical problems. Thus, they may arise from the nature of the research project itself (ethnic differences in intelligence, for example); the context for the research (a remand home); the procedures to be adopted (producing high levels of anxiety); methods of data collection (covert observation); the nature of the participants (emotionally disturbed adolescents); the type of data collected (highly personal information of a sensitive kind); and what is to be done with the data (publishing in a manner that causes the participants embarrassment).
Our initial observations would seem to indicate