Ethics guards are 'stifling' creativity

August 25, 2006

Social scientists claim methods that inspire students are sidelined by 'protectionist' outlook. Tony Tysome reports.

Undercover investigations by academics are being marginalised by a "misguided" concern with research ethics that could damage the future health of the social sciences, it was claimed this week.

Leading social scientists said that covert research techniques, such as working undercover with criminals or studying drug use, had yielded information that could not be obtained through conventional methods. But such techniques were under threat from a new "protectionist" outlook by research standards watchdogs.

David Calvey, a senior sociology lecturer at Manchester Metropolitan University, said that a tradition dating back to the 1950s of using covert techniques was in danger of being "submerged" as institutions and academics overreacted to heightened concerns about ethics in research.

He said that although such techniques were frowned on by some social scientists, who considered them more appropriate for investigative journalism than serious research, they could enthuse and engage research students and young researchers.

In a provocative paper submitted to the BA Festival of Science, which will take place in Norwich next month, Dr Calvey calls for "a certain creative rethinking of professional ethics in social science" to recover for future use the "hidden tradition" of covert research.

The paper argues that undercover research is "frowned upon as a type of last-resort methodology", even though it is "a potentially creative strategy that can yield analysis of areas that are problematic to access".

In an interview with The Times Higher , Dr Calvey cited the Economic and Social Research Council's guidelines on research ethics as an example of this kind of disapproving outlook.

Dr Calvey pointed to the results of his own research as an example of what could be achieved. Six years ago, he posed as a bouncer for six months to explore the "professionalisation and criminalisation of bouncers and the governance of the night-time economy" in Manchester's nightclubs. "I discovered during that time elements of criminal collusion that I would not have found using any overt approach to research," he said.

"Rather than creating more codes, bureaucracy and regulation, we need a fuller discussion about the role of covert research, particularly since I think there is an appetite for it among students and young researchers," he said.

Dr Calvey's paper has prompted a debate among social scientists on the merits of covert research and the guidelines that aim to keep it in its place.

Paul Spiker, professor of public policy at Robert Gordon University, said the tradition of covert research was under attack from inappropriately applied ethical guidelines such as those of the ESRC. "Research is being put in a straitjacket. It is being assumed that ethical procedure in one field, such as medicine, applies equally to other areas."

Ian Shaw, professor of social work at York University, agreed with Dr Calvey that there was an interesting relationship between covert research and journalism that warranted more exploration.

But he warned that covert research could backfire. "One of the most important things about research is that it depends on people's trust, and that can be used up. You might find that in using covert methods to gain one piece of information about a particular group, it can be more difficult to work in that area in the future."

Stephen Struthers, senior policy officer for the ESRC, said the council's guidelines had been created in consultation with social scientists and did not rule out the use of covert research.

"The framework says it is appropriate in certain circumstances. But the important thing is that it is not taken lightly or without thinking through the issues."

tony.tysome@thes.co.uk  

ESRC CHECKLIST

  • Does the study involve participants who are... unable to give informed consent?
  • Will it be necessary to undertake the study without the knowledge or consent of participants at the time?
  • Will the study involve discussion of sensitive topics (for example sexual activity, drug use)?
  • Are drugs, placebos or other substances to be administered to the study participants or will the study involve invasive, intrusive or potentially harmful procedures of any kind?
  • Could the study induce psychological stress or anxiety, or cause harm or negative consequences beyond the risks encountered in normal life?
  • Will financial inducements be offered to participants?

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