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The humanities and social sciences

Picture Humanities and the social sciences

In practice, humanistic and social scientific research often takes place without requirements for research ethics review and reflection being brought to the fore. However, many fundamental documents concerning research involving humans apply to humanistic and social scientific research. But even those who do not conduct research on humans must consider questions concerning a researcher's ethics. The Swedish Government has furthermore added an important goal for higher education and research that may influence choices of scientific perspectives and problems: It shall support a sustainable development that creates a good, healthy environment for this and future generations, economical and social welfare and justice (Högskolelagen - Higher Education Act).

Researchers in the humanities and social sciences should note that the former Humanistisk-samhällsvetenskapliga forskningsrådet (The Swedish Council for Research in the Humanities and Social Sciences - HSFR) developed Forskningsetiska principer i humanistisk-samhällsvetenskaplig forskning (research ethics principles in humanistic-social scientific research). These are however now outdated and no longer actively used. Instead there is the booklet Good research practice from The Swedish Research Council.

Act on ethical review

The Act (SFS 2003:460) concerning the Ethical Review of Research Involving Humans that went into effect 1 January 2004 applies to all research fields. The law is applicable to, among other areas, research that is conducted using a method the aim of which is to affect the subject physically or psychologically. Fundamental is that research is approved only if it can be conducted with respect for human dignity and if human rights and basic freedoms are considered at all times. Human welfare is to be given precedence over the needs of society and science. Applications for ethical examination of research are considered by regional committees, which constitute authorities. There is also a central committee for ethical examination of research which plays a supervisory role and considers applications that are appealed or handed over.

By a change of the Act effectuated 2008, the definition of research is clarified so that the activities subject to review is defined. Research is now understood to be scientific experimental or theoretical work to gain new knowledge, and developmental work on scientific grounds, but not such work performed at undergraduate level at universities. Also, the definition of handling personal data is redefined. Research involving handling of certain personal data shall from now on be examined regardless of whether research subjects give their informed consent or not. Research that clearly involves a risk of harming subjects, it can be interviews or surveys for example, shall likewise be ethically examined.

Social studies

In Europe, the RESPECT guidelines have been drawn up as a voluntary code for European socioeconomic research. UNESCO has published both the Code of Conduct and Ethical Guidelines for Social Science and the Ethical Guidelines for International Comparative Social Science Research in the Framework of M.O.S.T. (Management of Social Transformation). These guidelines apply to an important area, including anthropological or sociological studies of foreign cultures, indigenous peoples and the like. For more information, see Culture Studies and the guidelines from The Pluralism Project.

Professional ethics

The professional ethics codes, for example Statement of Ethical Principles and Etik för samhällsvetare, were formulated for many professions within these areas. Often used is the Code of ethics from The International Sociological Association. Research integrity is addressed in a National Statement on Research Integrity in Social Work from The Council on Social Work Education (US).

Controversial methods

Various methods, some controversial, exist within an area's disciplines. Should it be allowed that humans be unwittingly studied using modern visual media? Good research practice, from the Swedish Research Council, offers guidance in this question. In the field of medicine, there is the detailed Making and Using Visual and Audio Recordings of Patients from the General Medical Council (UK). Regarding participatory observation studies, there are a couple of guidelines from The European Society for Opinion and Marketing Research, ICC/ESOMAR International Code of Marketing and Social Research Practice, and Passive data collection, observation and recording. University of Toronto's Guidelines for Ethical Conduct in Participant Observation is but one of many attempts at creating a local guideline. When such research involves children one may use a Informed Consent Template for Research Involving Children (Qualitative Studies), from WHO.

To do research via mobile phones has its own guideline now, from the ICC/ESOMAR (Guideline on Research via Mobile Phone).

Research using the Internet is still in its infancy. Apart from the fact that the individual's integrity and personal information must be protected, this type of research presents difficulty as regards consent. Guidelines have been offered by The Association of Internet Researchers in Ethical Decision-Making and Internet Research, as well as the Norwegian National Committee for Research Ethics in the Social Sciences and the Humanities, which published Research Ethics Guidelines for Internet Research. An interesting draft has been issued by ICC/ESOMAR (Guideline for online research). Individual suggestions for a body of rules are presented for example in Ethical Guidelines for Research Online by Amy Bruckman at the Georgia Institute of Technology. The American Association for the Advancement of Science has issued a workshop report including recommendations with the title "Ethical and Legal Aspects of Human Subjects Research on the Internet: a Report of a Workshop". See also the IT Commission's work with God etik på nätet (good ethics on the Net).

Last updated: 2020-04-12

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