The Concept And History of Research Ethics

The Concept And History of Research Ethics


Content Outline

  1. Introduction
  2. The concept and context of research ethics
  3. The history of research ethics
  4. Conclusion  


Ethics are guidelines that inform society about what should be done under a set of circumstances and what is not appropriate. They flow from a recognition of the rights of persons in relation to others. One such set of circumstances is research. While we may want to believe that social workers who are motivated by working towards the well-being of others would be familiar with ethics, or would automatically recognize the right course of action in a difficult situation which requires a decision, social workers are human beings who may make decisions based on compulsions other than the well-being of clients and research participants, or they may make decisions based on a misguided reading of the situational aspects.

The concept and context of research ethics

  • Human beings have evolved and progressed over the centuries. While their bodies have not shown much differences from their evolutionary ancestors, through the use of science and technological advances they have learned to defeat illnesses through antibiotics and antivirals, they have learned to cover distances at super-human speeds through the use of airplanes and cars, and they have acquired the ability to change their immediate environment through the use of heating technology and air-conditioning which enables them to survive and flourish even in very inhospitable places. Such adaptations in human behaviour would not be possible without scientific research.
  • Scientific research often involves the use of human beings because the scientific advances must suit the end user. For instance, the process of developing a new car, starts with drawing up ideas in a notebook or a black board. But at the end, before a new car is launched, there are many trials with human drivers to ensure that the technology is easy to use. Sometimes, when the scientific testing is not done properly, we have strange situations arise. For instance, this writer recalls that when the Indian railways made a decision to adopt German technology, a complaint was reported in the newspaper that the Indian motormen found it difficult to reach the controls from the driver’s chair. The chair had been tested on the German population whose average height was taller than that of the average Indian male!
  • However, while science promises to hold out an easier, more comfortable, more profitable life to people, the research process itself may endanger the well-being of the persons on whom the testing is done. For
  • instance, if you look back into the early history of medicines from the last century, you will find that some scientist doctors had to inject themselves with their own medicine to prove that it worked. Looking back you may be tempted to say, “What is the problem with that?” Science tells us the story of the successful medicines. For every successful medicine injected, there are likely to be untold stories of unsuccessful medicines.
  • The history of science does record for us the fact that early scientific advances sometimes were tested on persons who could not refuse the treatment, or who were not properly informed about the risks. This is the grey zone where scientists weigh the benefits of a new technology against the rights of people who are participating in such trials. This is where ethical decisions are made. This is where, sometimes, profit motives or motives of personal advancement sometimes – wrongly – outweigh the rights of human beings. 
  • The term ‘ethics’ itself is from a Greek word ‘ethos.’ It refers to principles within a society that reflect what that particular society rules as being right or wrong behavior. Research ethics refer to guidelines that affect how we perceive the rightness and wrongness of research decisions
  • We need to understand that these perceptions are contextual to that time, to that era. We look back on previous centuries and we judge certain actions or events to be wrong. For instance, when we look back at the last century, we recognize that colonial powers looked down on colonized societies and populations as morally inferior and backward. They termed them the “White Man’s Burden.” It took much conscientization to understand the inherent inequality in this position. In a similar manner, a lot of scientific experimentation was applied to persons with intellectual disabilities. The very words used to classify them indicate the view prevalent in society at that point about such individuals – such persons experiencing what was then called mental retardation were termed morons and idiots. At that time, such insulting terms were considered apt and were not believed to be a hurtful label. The simple lesson to you as a student, from all this, is that as you read through the module, try to absorb the underlying ethical principle. Remember that people looking back at us from the next century may find some of our practices outdated and unjust

The history of research ethics

The field of research ethics is an interdisciplinary one which takes its cue from various fields such as medicine and psychology. The recent formal developments in this field trace directly back to the Second World War.
  1. Nuremberg Medical Trials
    Following the Second World War, there were attempts made to restore justice through trials of military officials under the Nazi regime in Germany. They were considered ‘war criminals’ – people who committed atrocities against the populations who were subjugated under them. But as news of Nazi atrocities in the concentration camps emerged, there was also a realization of other atrocities committed against the inmates of the concentration camps by doctors and medical scientists. Among the inmates were Jews (mostly from Poland), Romany gypsies, and Russian Prisoners-of-War. Some of the so-called medical experiments were exposure to freezing temperatures, malaria pathogens and bone regeneration attempts. These were scientific explorations to assist Germany’s war efforts, and were done in the name of scientific advances. Several of the medical personnel involved as well as the administrators of these facilitators underwent a trial where witnessed testified against them. They were sentenced. From this emerged the Nuremberg code whose principles form the basis of ethical codes of many biomedical organisations.
     When social scientists explored this situation in depth, they found that people involved viewed their actions as justified by the end goal, and that they viewed their research subjects as less than human.
  2. Milgram’s Study on Obedience
    The next development concerns a study by a psychologist, Stanley Milgram who was attempting to understand why Germans under Nazi rule succumbed to such compulsions and took part in such procedures against concentration camp inmates who were clearly against such experimentation. His initial hypothesis was that the Germans have a character which responds to authority which made them susceptible to taking orders.
    To prove his theory he planned an experiment where the research participant would be asked to deliver an electric shock to another person if they failed to complete a particular task. In reality, the person who was supposed to receive the shock was only pretending. But the research participant was not aware of this. He truly believed that he was administering the electricity charge. Further as the number of mistakes increased, the voltage of the electricity was supposed to increase.
    Stanley Milgram had planned to run the same experiment in the US as well as in Germany. He hypothesized that in comparisons to Germans, Americans would resist the pressure of the commands from the experimenter and would stop delivering the electric shock. However, his findings in America itself were so revelatory, that he never moved his experimental materials to Germany. His American subjects (all male) continued to deliver the electric shocks at increased voltage to the participants. They did this despite hearing groans of distress, cries and pleas to stop from the person who they believed they were shocking. The participants all showed tremendous stress and pressure themselves, but continued with the experiment as the experimenter told them that “they had to continue.”
    Milgram’s study showed us that all of us, under external pressure and stress, can ignore our own distress and sense of doing something wrong to administer harm to other people. That is, even good people can do bad things. But Milgram himself found himself heavily criticized because of the psychological distress his own participants were made to undergo for this study. His study has become an example of what “not to do” in research.
  3. Tuskegee Syphilis Experiments
    Simultaneous to Milgram’s shocking findings, the medical community in the United States of America slowly became aware of an experiment which was taking place in Tuskegee county in Alabama state on a group of poor, rural-based Black men. Beginning in the 1930s, these men had been identified as infected with syphilis. Health researchers enrolled these men into a study to understand syphilis. Shockingly, the study went on for about 4 decades and the men were not administered treatment even though during those 4 decades, penicillin was discovered as a viable treatment for syphilis. Instead, the group of men, some of whom died, received painful procedures such as a spinal tap.
    It was only in the 1970s, that the men received justice. This happened largely on advocacy from Senator Edward Kennedy who held hearings in the US Senate. Later there was a class-action suit where the men received compensation. Later on, in the 1990s, President Bill Clinton delivered an official apology to the men 


  • The primary mission of the social work profession is to work towards human wellbeing and in the alleviation of the problems and challenges faced by those marginalized by mainstream society. It focuses mainly on the weaker, poorer and more vulnerable sections of society and therefore social work research concerns issues dealing with obtaining or accessing basic rights or challenging a violation of these rights.
  • Social workers seek to enhance the capacity of people to address their own needs, while also seeking to promote the responsiveness of organizations, communities, and other social institutions to individuals’ needs and social problems. Research enables the social worker to assess the needs of the individuals, families and communities that form the client base, elicit their responses and feedback regarding existing programmes and services, highlight areas for future intervention and evaluate the intervention programmes and strategies used.
  • In such a scenario it is important to be pro-people and be ethical in one’s profession as a social worker and a social work researcher. It is hoped that this module serves as a simple yet effective guide in this process.


Thank You