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Study Notes

Issues & Debates: Socially Sensitive Research


Last updated 22 Mar 2021

Sieber and Stanley (1988) used the term social sensitivity to describe studies where there are potential social consequences for the participants or the group of people represented by the research.

Sieber and Stanley (1988) identified four aspects in the scientific research process that raise ethical implications in socially sensitive research:

  1. The Research Question: The researcher must consider their research question carefully. Asking questions like ‘Are there racial differences in IQ?’ or ‘Is intelligence inherited?’ may be damaging to members of a particular group.
  2. The Methodology Used: The researcher needs to consider the treatment of the participant's and their right to confidentiality and anonymity. For example, if someone admits to committing a crime, or to having unprotected sex if they are HIV positive, should the researcher maintain confidentiality?
  3. The Institutional Context: The researcher should be mindful of how the data is going to be used and consider who is funding the research. If the research is funded by a private institution or organisation, why are they funding the research and how do they intend to use the findings?
  4. Interpretation and Application of Findings: Finally, the researcher needs to consider how their findings might be interpreted and applied in the real-world. Could their data or results be used to inform policy?

Also, any research linking intelligence to genetic factors can be seen as socially sensitive. For example, Cyril Burt used studies of identical twins to support his view that intelligence is largely genetic. His views greatly influenced the Hadow Report (1926) which led to the creation of the 11+ which was used from 1944-1976. This meant that generations of children were affected by the 11+ exam, even though there has been huge controversy regarding whether Burt had falsified his research data.

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