The application of moral rules and professional codes of conduct to the collection, analysis, reporting, and publication of information about research subjects, in particular active acceptance of subjects’ right to privacy, confidentiality, and informed consent. Until recently sociologists (and social scientists generally) often displayed arrogance in their treatment of research subjects, justifying their actions by the search for truth. This trend is now being redressed, especially in industrial societies, with the adoption of formal codes of conduct, and greater emphasis on ethical research procedures. Ethical issues are most salient in relation to case-studies and other research designs which focus on very few cases (with the risk that they remain identifiable in reports). Public opinion now resists invasions of privacy for genuine research purposes just as much as for publicity seeking mass media stories, as evidenced by periodic increases in survey non-response, despite the fact that anonymity is effectively guaranteed in large-scale data collections.
There are three key issues. Research subjects’ right to refuse to co-operate with a study is clear-cut in relation to interview surveys, but is not always observed in relation to case-studies, especially when covert observation is employed. Research subjects’ right for information supplied to researchers to remain not only anonymous but also confidential in the broader sense is rarely disputed, but again may be difficult to observe in practice, especially when analyses of study results reveal more than may be intended. The right to give or withhold informed consent, if necessary after the research has been completed, ensures that research results are not made public without the subjects’ knowing agreement. These and other issues are raised in Martyin Bulmer (ed.), Social Research Ethics (1982) and Ray Lee, Doing Research on Sensitive Topics (1993). See also ethics.