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Study notes

Issues & Debates: Evaluating Socially Sensitive Research

  • Levels: A Level
  • Exam boards: AQA, OCR

The considerations outlined by Sieber and Stanley provide a mechanism to safeguard individuals who are indirectly affected by psychological research. Because of the problems associated with socially sensitive research, it is not sufficient to simply safeguard the interests of the participants taking part in the research.

There is also the potential for an indirect impact on the participant’s family and co-workers, and therefore it is important for researchers to consider the wider implications of their research. Current ethical guidelines are focused on the direct effects of research practice on participants, but may not address the other ways that research might inflict harm on people in society.

For example, the current ethical guidelines do not require researchers to consider how their findings may be used by other people or institutions to form and/or shape public social policy. Sieber and Stanley recommend that researchers should consider this when interpreting and applying their findings, to ensure that psychological research does no indirect harm to other members of society.

Furthermore, because many marginalised groups (such as those with disabilities, the elderly, and the economically disadvantaged) are largely excluded from research, they may in some way be harmed by its conclusions and application.

Socially sensitive research can lead to issues of discrimination and therefore some psychologists would argue against conducting this form of research. For example, research examining racial differences in IQ has been used to justify new (and often unwarranted) forms of social control.

For example, between 1907 and 1963, over 64,000 individuals were forcibly sterilized under eugenic legislation in the United States, and in 1972, the United States Senate Committee revealed that at least 2,000 involuntary sterilizations had been performed on poor black women without their consent or knowledge. This could be ‘justified’ by (flawed) research findings (e.g. Robert Yerkes) which argued that black Americans had lower IQ scores in comparison to white Americans.

The issues with conducting socially sensitive research (like those highlighted above), are why some psychologists simply suggest that we should avoid conducting such research, and steer clear of sensitive topics, including: race, gender and sexuality. Some psychologists believe that such research could have a negative impact for the participants. However, this would probably leave researchers with nothing but trivial questions to investigate.

A more acceptable solution might be for psychologists to engage more actively with policy makers after the publication of their findings to help reduce the likelihood that data is misused and to ensure that evidence-based research is used in socially sensitive ways.

Furthermore, some psychologists argue that ignoring socially sensitive areas (e.g. race or gender related research) amounts to an abdication of the ‘social responsibilities’. Scarr (1988) argues that ‘science is desperately in need of good studies that highlight race and gender variables…to inform us of what we need to do to help underrepresented people to succeed in this society. Unlike the ostrich, we cannot afford to hide our heads for fear of socially uncomfortable discoveries’.

However, it is important to recognise that not all socially sensitive research is controversial and some is desirable and beneficial to society. For example, research examining eye-witness testimony, especially the use of child-witnesses (e.g. Flin et al.) has found that young children can be reliable witnesses if they are questioned in a timely and appropriate manner. In this area, socially sensitive research has resulted in a good working relationship between psychologists and the legal profession to help improve the accuracy and validity of children eye-witnesses.

It is also important that psychologists are free to carry out whatever research seems important to them because if governments start passing laws to prohibit certain kinds of research (e.g. race-related research), then there is a real danger that research will be stopped for political rather than for ethical reasons. However, there is some evidence that socially sensitive research (at least in the US) is more likely than non-sensitive research to be rejected by institutional ethical committees.

For example, Ceci et al. (1985) found that the rejection rate was about twice as great which suggests that university ethics departments are mindful of socially sensitive research and appropriate measures are put in place at an institutional level to protect individuals and the wider community from socially sensitive research.

Ethical Implications & Social Sensitivity

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