Responsibility in the research process1


The aim of this section is to help you bring together the principles and the practicalities of good social research. In this section we consider the limits of social research and the need for responsibility in the research process. The diversity of social research and the wide range of contexts with which it is practiced are broad. Undertaking social research is about negotiating the dilemmas inherent in the research process. These dilemmas come to the surface if we consider social research as a contrived relationship with consequences - it is an intrusion in other people's lives.

Case Study 7 Responsibility in the research process (.docx)

The dilemma of generalisation

Social research seeks to examine and explain aspects of the social world and researchers rely on making generalisations. This is problematic because to over–generalise is potentially harmful. This dilemma stems from the central premise of social research – that neither people's actions nor the social world are transparent. People are different. One way this takes shapes is through different personal values, attitudes and beliefs about the world. A researcher is more than likely to have a very different set of values to their research subjects, see the world in a different way and act in the world differently, according to their beliefs, values and assumptions. This means that as people, researchers necessarily bring particular assumptions and values to their practice. 'Social research can never be entirely objective, itself being conducted within a social and political context' (Tarling, 2006:162/163). As researchers we bring our own implicit values and beliefs to our research which influence the research process in terms of:

As values influence the social research process, this raises the dilemma of how to negotiate difference that will allow for generalisations. This is important because inappropriate generalisation leads to biased research. Hammersley and Gomm (1997) give an excellent overview of the whys and wherefores of bias in social research.

Underlying much bias in social research is the problem of inappropriate generalisation. This is when a researcher has generalised too far and presumes that the findings from one group can be generalised uncritically and un–reflexively onto others. A key strategy for early second wave feminist critiques of social science was to highlight that many conclusions drawn solely from white, middle class male respondents were excluded from the research process, these experiences and lifeworlds were negated inappropriately generalised to whole populations. As non–white, non–middle class, non-male experiences (Oakely, 1974).
Inappropriate generalisation is particularly problematic when the groups themselves refuse the legitimacy of that generalisation. This is important because it signals that the dilemmas of researching otherness are in great part an embodiment of and engagement with power relations. The old adage that wealth creates boundaries and poverty invites inspection says much about the politics of who researches whom and why. 'The politics of doing research are real and they are unequal' (Tolich & Davidson, 1999:89). As we live in a hierarchical society, some groups are given more respect and authority than others. Different individuals experience different advantages and disadvantages in direct relation to their assigned gender, ethnicity and class to name a few of the broadest categories of social differentiation. As social researchers, it is not ethically acceptable to either deny or ignore the reality the impact these categorisations have on the everyday aspects of people's lives–from applying for a bank loan, to walking down the street, to studying for a higher research degree. As social researchers in training, it is important to become sensitised to the power dynamics that define research subjects, topics, practitioners and contexts.

Power dynamics are complex–they are also relative. Take for instance the situation of most graduate research students. The starting point for most research students is that they are in a subservient position of power vis-á-vis their supervisor and enrolled institutions. The flip side of the graduate researcher's position is in also recognising that by being enrolled for an advanced degree the student is signalling a desire to become legitimated as an authority in a particular academic subject area or analytical technique. Graduate students are also junior members of a social group privileged through their educational attainment. Only a very small proportion of the population ever have the opportunity to study for higher degrees and once qualified, the researcher gains access to a highly valued and heavily gated employment domain. Furthermore, it often grants the people who gain the qualification the right to make decision that can have far reaching consequences for those who do not have access to the same educational possibilities.
In sum, it is important to become sensitised to the power dynamics that define research subjects' lives, our own lives as researchers and the relationship between us as researchers and the people we intend to research. This stands regardless of the democratic intent of the actual piece of research that we are engaged–the good willed act of research does not necessarily produce the intended results–it may further exploitation and oppression. Even though the researcher makes the ultimate decisions, this is done in a context of awareness: the claims of the researched must also be recognised in the research process.

Becoming practical

There is a broad consensus in the international social research community about what constitutes good, responsible research. Tarling (2006) organises these into these two themes:

These admonitions are weighty. They are also difficult to convert into everyday research practice. There is no magic recipe to good social research. However, there are some dimensions that, as Tolich and Davidson (1999:64) note, seek to codify or at least set ground-rules for researchers. Responsible research is reflexive and inclusive.

Responsible research is reflexive and inclusive

Understanding multiplicity in world views is important, especially when we find ourselves doing research with groups who make assumptions that are very different from our own. A responsible response to difference is reflexivity. Reflexivity in the research process means an awareness of our own and other world views and their influence over the project at hand. One way to foster reflexivity is for researchers to 'reflect self-consciously on their research, to question one's own assumptions and to work to make your values an explicit part of the process' (Tolich & Davidson, 1999:65). This can be done by asking who is watching whom and why.
Denying difference has the potential to bring the profession into disrepute and to harm research subjects - it is potentially a form of oppression. In addition, it is only by 'making implicit values apparent that we can act consciously to overcome the effect of those values on our research' (Tolich & Davidson, 1999:49). One approach to consciously overcome the effect of those values and to negotiate difference is to set inclusive practices in the research process. As it is difficult to see the consequences that one's perspective may have on another group, a useful way to do this is to seek guidance from those who know better i.e. the group you are seeking to include in your study. A way to do this is to form an informal research advisory group to check on the research assumptions being made and to seek guidance. Another way is to explicitly negotiate the ownership of the research process and product with those you seek to include in your research.

Benchmarks for responsible research

As said, responsible research is reflexive and inclusive. To set the ground for good practice as researcher we have to learn what is appropriate. One dimension is through external checking. Identify and abide by appropriate and available Codes of Conduct (web-links to some existing codes is included at the end of this section.) Good publicly accessible benchmarks for responsible social research are emerging. Some institutions have led the way. For instance Massey University developed a general code of research conduct as early as 1990. The key priorities of this code are to encourage an ethos of partnership and accountability in the research community. The section on Interethnic Research is reproduced from Tolich & Davidson (1999) at the end of this document.

Another equally important dimension, especially for the novice researcher is to develop habits of internally checking your projects. These may include checks for internal consistency. Do methods match the question being asked? Is the group to be researched appropriate for the question being asked? Internal consistency is helpful because it allows you to gauge whether your research questions, methods and respondents are appropriate for each other.

Another method is to incorporate procedures to ensure accountability. Although accountability can be managed in many ways, it is important to show in what way the research procedures used are designed to keep the project accountable. This may include gaining ethical approval from external review committees. Research is also kept accountable by involving research participants in key research decisions. This can this be done practically by sharing the process and the product. Devise strategies within your research framework that make clear the terms and conditions of knowledge production. Ways to do this include working together with participants–getting them to verify and 'pass' your account of their voice. This can be done by making sure that transcripts are returned and signed off by participants and that any changes they want are made. Also, ensure they have access to the results / study outcomes. Often this is done by producing a non thesis account of the research and giving it to participants.

Fundamentally, I am advocating that good social research is aware of how and why specific methods are being used, the context in which they are used, and also that the processes are demonstrably coherent and accountable.


Key Questions

Further Reading

Ess, C. and AoIR ethics working committee (2002). 'Ethical decision-making and Internet research: Recommendations from the working committee'.
Hammersley, M. and Gomm, R. (1997). 'Bias in Social Research', Sociological Research Online, 2, 1.
Oakely, A. (1974) The Sociology of Housework, London Martin Robertson.
Tarling, R.(2006). Managing Social Research: A Practical Guide London & New York, Routledge Taylor & Francis.
Tolich, M. and Davidson, C. (1999). Starting Fieldwork: An Introduction to Qualitative Research in New Zealand, Auckland, Oxford University Press.
Massey University Code of Conduct for Interethnic Research - download document (.docx)

Web Resources

British Sociological Association Code of practice guideline
RESPECT project
Association of Internet Researchers (Ess & AoIR ethics working committee, 2002)


1. © Dr Ruth McManus


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