Ethical Issues in Policy Research

Essay by snjalil1College, UndergraduateA, November 2008

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An important trend in sociological research is the increase in the number and size of projects that qualify as policy-oriented. By this we mean research focused on a specific problem and funded by a government agency, the results of which are to be combined with other knowledge to formulate or implement legislation. Two of the major factors contributing to this trend are the increased demand for sociological data (as in the Coleman study cited in text Chapter 2) and the attractiveness to sociologists of being involved in making policy. The glamour of policy research has been a powerful incentive for sociologists to identify areas for research, write proposals, and spend a great deal of time and effort in the name of policy analysis.

An example of the size some research projects can reach is the research into the effects of guaranteed incomes on the work effort of the poor, the stability of their families, changes in consumption patterns, and so on.

More than $60 million was spent in conducting this research (Watts, 1971).

As policy research in all sciences has become more common, concern about the conduct of such research has grown. Alarming revelations about questionable conduct in biomedical research has precipitated congressional concern for stricter regulation. Some examples include research on organ and tissue transplantation, the thalidomide scandal in Germany, and research in New York where live cancer cells were injected into patients without their knowledge or consent (Barber, 1973).

Two celebrated cases in sociological research created a debate that continues today. A research effort named Project Camelot, which was ostensibly a study of social change in developing nations, was revealed to be in fact a government-sponsored project for counterinsurgency (Horowitz, 1967; Bernard, 1966; Edmonson, et. al., 1966; Goode, 1966; Johnson, 1967; Van Den Berghe, 1967). An uproar of...