Theme 4: research ethics and research practice

The current focus in social science research on ethical research practices and ethical compliance has meant that research ethics was a central element of our module from early on. In particular, an internal debate within the Law School as to whether third-year students should be allowed to conduct empirical research for their research project, in the absence of training on research methods for law students, propelled research ethics up the agenda.

We have experimented with a number of different formulations for the delivery of teaching on research ethics and research practice. We believe that the current formulation, which treats this as a thematic area taught at the end of the module through three linked seminars, works particularly well as it enables us to cover both substantive areas of research (policing one year, judging another) and theoretical perspectives (feminist research methodologies) alongside ethics.

The first of three seminars in this theme considered research ethics within the context of a specific research area. As far as resources go, here we are in a position of plenty. There are a considerable number of books on research

Box 2: practical exercise

The aim of this seminar is for you to research the ways in which different groups of professionals and non-professionals reacted to an instance in which expert knowledge has been critical in legal decision-making. You may remember the headlines when Professor Roy Meadows was struck off the medical register by the General Medical Council (GMC) after being found guilty of serious professional misconduct. The GMC decided he gave 'erroneous' and 'misleading' evidence at the trial of solicitor Sally Clark, who was wrongly jailed for the murder of her two sons who died in 'cot deaths'.

Working in groups before attending the seminar, using library and internet resources, examine the different reactions to what some might see as a 'crisis' in expertise and answer the following questions:

  • 1 Discuss the reaction of the medical profession.
  • 2 What about the reaction within legal forums? What do judges have to say about the role of medical experts? Was the reaction to Meadows being struck off different in the legal journals from the medical journals? If so, why? Do you think these differences are explained by the differing interests of the professions?
  • 3 Wynne (1989) argues (at p. 27) that 'the particularities of each institutional setting are a key part of the constitution of authoritative knowledge in that setting'. Discuss this in relation to the case of Roy Meadows.
  • 4 What about the parents - how are they portrayed in this drama? Is there a recognition that they too might be 'experts', or have 'expertise'? Did Sally Clark's position as a solicitor make her a different sort of subject?
  • 5 Under the Woolf reforms, opposing parties were encouraged to appoint a single expert witness. Do you think this is a good idea? What might be some of the problems?
  • 6 Does Foucault's essay help in thinking about the role expertise plays in legal settings?

And in conclusion, think about the role of the socio-legal researcher. How do these readings on experts and expertise make you think about the role of the researcher? How do they affect your sense of whether you yourself would wish to develop further the research skills you are learning in this course? ethics aimed at students. For our purpose, Israel and Hay (2006) Research Ethics for Social Scientists strikes a good balance between ethical discussion and practical examples that can engage the students. We also require students to read the Socio-Legal Studies Association, 'Statement of Principles of Ethical Research Practice' (January 2009).

By the end of the seminar we wanted students to understand ethical compliance as something much broader and more important than researchers merely protecting themselves against either claims of unethical behaviour or the risk of withdrawal of funding from institutions that do not have ethical review procedures in place. In the seminar, students explored positive reasons for social scientists to be concerned that research is ethical. By this point in the module most students have come to see the potential for empirical research to produce some longer-term good, and so are happy to subscribe to the view that researchers have an obligation to ensure that the research process should not harm those who are being 'researched'. However, the intention has been to take students further than this, setting out arguments against an inalienable right to carry out research; that the best research requires that we gain the trust of people or communities we are researching, and that research is designed ethically in order to gain this trust. Finally, we should be concerned about ethical practice because we want others to trust our results - unethical practices could put research findings in doubt.

The seminar then explored the difficult ethical issues that arise when applying ethical principles to research participants in positions of power, particularly when research may cast a critical light upon their activities. Through examining research into policing or judging, the students discuss how far considerations of trust and informed consent outweigh the public interest in the conduct and publication of critical research into the powerful. Through readings that focus on two issues commonly faced by socio-legal researchers - ensuring that research participants are knowing and willing participants, and ensuring the confidentiality of participants - the seminar intended to develop critical thinking about the role research ethics can, should and does play in shaping research into the law and powerful legal actors.

The second seminar in this trio explored research methods through the lens of feminist research methodologies. The feminist perspective follows on from research ethics particularly well because feminist research frequently throws up particularly difficult ethical dilemmas, and because many feminist researchers see ethics as a central element of their work.

This seminar asked what makes a piece of research 'feminist', and what it means to attach this label to a piece of research. Seminar readings and discussion focused on the choice of research methods for feminist research, and some notable ethical dilemmas raised in the context of feminist research. These issues were explored in relation to socio-legal research being carried out by a socio-legal research student in the Law School (see Box 3). This has had the added advantage of enabling students to see how a socio-legal approach is translated into the research arena at PhD level.

Box 3: Seminar 9: researching from/in a feminist perspective

Tanya Palmer's research explores the distinction(s) between sex and sexual violation in order to suggest legal models that may better represent this distinction, particularly where sexual violation occurs within the context of abusive relationships. It does so through analysis of criminal laws on sexual offending, theoretical literature on the issue and empirical research, including interviews and focus groups with police officers, survivors, support workers and lay persons.

The format of the final seminar, which considered issues that arise in formulating a research proposal, was developed in response to students articulating fears about the second piece of coursework in which they are asked to write a research proposal (see below). Developing themes, perspectives and methods from throughout the module, the seminar was intended to help students in considering the components of constructing a research proposal. As preparation for the seminar, students are set some reading (borrowed from our colleagues in sociology) on doing qualitative research, devising a research question, and an article by a law and society scholar which explains clearly the empirical issues in conducting an administrative justice research project. Alongside this reading, they are asked to consider an outline of a research problem (taken from a research bid submitted by one of the academic team). They are told that they will be asked to work in groups in the seminar to design a research proposal to address this research problem and given a set of questions which they should consider - these are the same as those set out in the second coursework question (see Box 5 below). In this way, students begin the process of thinking about how they might design their own research proposal.

We have also followed this with a presentation by a socio-legal academic on a successful research bid, a copy of which has been made available to students in advance. This again allows students to begin exploring the problems and issues that arise in putting together a 'real life' research proposal.

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