The ethical practice of social enquiry (Or, Never mind the question, let’s get the answer right)

Alan J. Scott, Independent researcher: 

(Editor’s note: This is a revised version of an article first written in 1979. The questions it raises are still relevent today.)

There is a group of words that are often used as if they have precise meanings, but in practice they overlap and are interwoven, to the extent that people think they know how they should be used but no-one is entirely sure as to what they mean.

This group of words is popular with sociologists and others, and they play an important part in understanding and communicating the emotional life of people. The words are:

Without going too far into defining these words, I simply want to point out that they are all used to indicate the parameters that societies regard as necessary for the maintenance of social order. The emphasis of the words can vary but there are three with strong emphasis and three weaker words. Most people don’t get too excited when talking about ethos, values or mores, but ethics, morals and laws can generate strong emotive responses. If we forget the derivation of the words and associate them in their current usage we get this table of progression:

In any examination of the process of social inquiry all these concepts will play a part and must be taken into consideration. However, quite apart from the interest of sociologists in these concepts as factors in the society they study, they must also be considered in relation to sociologists as a group and to the practice of sociology. The important issue is ethics, or to put it another way, there is a need for sociologists to be concerned about the openness and credibility of sociologists and the practice of sociology. Being observers and interpreters of society does not exempt us from being participants in society.

Most organisations with any semblance of formal structure, epecially within the past 100 years, have formulated acceptable behaviour concepts into a codified form based largely on a 19th century view of Judao-Christian ethics and sin. (TASA’s Code of Ethics can be viewed here.) Most organisations feel safer when they are buttressed by an established fixed ‘ethical’ code. The ‘safety’ of this approach lies in the fact that it provides ‘directives’. Solutions are preset and you can look them up, but because they never cover all contingencies, adjustments continually have to be made and an accumulation of exemptions and compromises needs to be added. In the end, so many rules for breaking rules are generated that any situation and any decision is encumbered with a whole apparatus of somewhat irrelevant, and often contradictory, prefabricated rules and regulations.

The question we face, along with other organisations, is that although we have a code of ethics for sociologists, do we in fact have guidelines for the ethical practice of sociology? I think the answer is clearly no! This is because the ethical precepts that came out of the 19th century are unable to provide instructions which are unambiguous both in their general form or in their concrete application in real life situations. Historically, society has tried to work out ethical theories by an abstract approach to the nature of good and bad and has then tried to apply these theories as rules for prescribing actions. The difficulty with this approach is that society refuses to fit our theories and, with sanctions or without, what we end up with is not a formula for acceptable ethical behaviour but a formula for what one should not get caught doing.

In 1974, Robert Gullis was awarded a PhD by Birmingham University on the basis of a thesis that appeared to represent significant work in an area of biochemistry. During the following three years pressure began to be applied from a number of sources questioning the validity of Gullis’ data. In 1977, Dr Gullis wrote to his supervisor admitting that the data presented in papers derived from his PhD work were not bona fide results of experiments performed. Another letter was sent to the journal Nature, retracting all papers related to Gullis’ work and stating that the extensive data in his papers were not experimentally determined, merely hypothesised.

Can we say that the pressure which caused Dr Gullis to own up that his data were fabricated was a triumph for ethical practice? Not really. In the natural sciences, unlike the social sciences, the sample used in the collection of data must be precisely identified and the validity of data is established by others being able to repeat, with the same basic material, what was done originally. This, it is said, places responsibility for what is done and reported squarely on the shoulders of the researcher and acts as a deterrent for cheating. What it does not do is require any examination of all the factors associated with any particular situation, nor ask how they contributed to the end result. In Dr Gullis’ case, his supervisor, department Head, University, funding bodies, and so on, were all involved in some measure in bringing Robert Gullis to the point of deciding it was better to invent data to gain his PhD. The ethics of the whole situation have not been called into question, only the behaviour of one person who at one point happened to judge that getting the ‘right’ answers to achieve a particular goal was more important than the inaccurate experimental answers he was getting.

The alleged security of an ethical system of prefrabricated morality is relied upon by too many people. It is my contention that this is not what ethics is about and that codes of ethics are not about the ordering of desirable human interaction at all. Codes of ethics have at their theoretical base the concept of absolutes. Something must be always right or always wrong, always good or always bad. But the basis of behaviour, the basis of social interaction, is never an abstraction but always situational. It therefore follows that judgements about ‘right’ behaviour, about ethics, must always be determined by the situation.

When the situation is the basis for determining what is right or wrong, good or bad, proper or improper, a different set of precepts applies, not the least of which is responsibility. Rights have been the concern of many in recent years; but what has not so readily been embraced is the reciprocal responsibilities. The two go together and are both part of the ethical interaction of society. Responsibility is at once individual and collective. Sociologists have rights as individual sociologists and collectively as sociologists but they also have responsibilities to other sociologists as individuals and as a group and vice versa.

Situation ethics moves the emphasis of ethics away from ‘what you ought not get caught doing’ to a positive declaration of the rights and responsibilities of any situation. To put it another way, legalistic ethics is an ethic of scapegoatism When something has been identified as being wrong, immoral, unethical or whatever emotive adjective you like to use, someone must be identified to take the blame. The rest fall back and gladly point the finger – that person did it, they must be punished. Abstraction has triumphed and all the others who have not been caught breathe a sigh of relief.

Let me extrapolate from the Robert Gullis case into sociology. In the natural sciences, not only must researchers relate their methodology and the interpretation of their findings, they must also precisely identify the sample. This is what makes fraud difficult. In the social sciences precisely identifying your source is largely regarded as taboo, thus making it very much easier for fraud to be perpetrated and go undetected. Who knows whether questionnaires have been corrected to adjust data to the theory? Who knows whether questionnaires were ever sent out at all? The government’s same sex marriage postal plebiscite (survey, or what you will) is a case in point.

Because social science is looking at people in society, the solution to ethical social inquiry lies in the same place. There are no abstractions in societies, no-one is an island. Once a person moves outside their own thoughts into words or actions, they affect others. Sociology is about the business of understanding these effects. It is like the difference between the physicist and the sociologist measuring the effects of an explosion in a river. Physicists say x amount of explosives will displace y amount of water to a height of h, generating waves of w. Sociologists ask: ‘What will happen to those people who live on the river bank when the waves hit?’ The ethics involved are of a different order. Physicists will be unethical if they pretend to know the value of x, y, etc. when they do not, while sociologists would be acting unethically if they did not point out that the end product of x, y, etc. will have some sort of effect on people.

The ethical practice of social enquiry must be based in the interrelatedness of society itself. Ethics are a recognition of the need for responsibility, as well as the safeguarding of rights, in society, because ethos gives no such guarantee. Codes of ethics do not guarantee that the best interests of society, the organisation or the individual are being served, but only provide a scapegoat when society is sufficiently affronted by professional self interest.

The ethical solution I would offer is based clearly on the factors involved in any given situation. What is really at stake in any ethical or unethical situation is whether some person, group or society as a whole has been manipulated or disadvantaged as a result of any particular activity by some other person or persons. Nothing will ever stop the determined person from serving self interest, whatever is done. The aim of any guide to ethical practice ought to be to provide a lead to the elements in any situation that must be considered, so that as far as possible the rights of those who will be affected are safeguarded. Involvement is always two way and in two dimensions. As a sociologist I will be affected by these external elements and I in turn in some way will affect them. As a person I will be affected by these external elements and I in turn will in some way affect them. The ethical practice of social enquiry requires that all these elements must be recognised and declared so that the ethics are determined in the light of each separate situation and the rights and responsibilities of all have been clearly identified. The check on what is done is then provided by the sociologist’s peers, and sanctions, if they become necessary, can be applied through peer group pressure rather than legal or pseudo-legal measures.

I therefore propose that the ethical statement on the practice of sociology by members of TASA (as a standard for all sociologists in Australia) should emphasise the rights and responsibilities of the sociologist in the practice of sociology and offer this statement in the following form:


Every sociologist undertaking social inquiry should freely declare their relationship to all the elements in society which can affect and be affected by such an enquiry.

(Alan Scott has had a long and distinguished career as a sociological researcher working outside of universities. In 2015, he was awarded the inaugural TASA Sociology in Action Award.)



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