Is the Use of Deception in Social Science Research on Human Participants Justified?

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Title: Is the Use of deception in social science research on human participants justified? By Noel Matea, University of Waikato, New Zealand, 2011.


The ethical issue in human subjects’ research continues to receive greater attention within the research ethics literature and the wider academia. A particular ethical issue that continues to draw controversy is the use of deception in social science research involving human subjects. The question of whether deception can be ethically justified is always at the forefront of the deception debate. While some argue that the use of deception, whether intentional or not, carries a considerable potential risk and harm for research subjects, others however, stresses that some measure of deception is sometimes necessary and may be the only effective means to obtain essential knowledge (Elms, 1982).

This essay will briefly discuss and critique a number of literature that contribute to the debate on the issue of deception in social science research. To bring my discussion into perspective I will first attempt a definition on the word deception. This will frame the context of my discussion. The essay will then highlight some of the arguments surrounding the issue of contention. I will conclude with a brief summary and a thought on whether deception is always wrong in social science research.

To begin with, deception in research involves a variety of practices where the researcher intentionally provides limited information to research subjects on the true purpose of research. Reynolds (1979) defined deception as research where the researcher conceals the real purpose of the study and the true nature of what is to be expected by research participants. Baumrind (1985) enlarges on Reynolds (1979) definition and classified deception in two categories: intentional and non-intentional where the former carries the meaning of “withholding of information in order to obtain participation, concealment in natural settings, and manipulation in held experimentation and deceptive instructions in laboratory research”. Bulmer (1982) used the term covert and specifically focuses on the methodology and defines covert research as a research method using participant observation, where the researcher misrepresent his/her identity and the true purpose of his/her research in a particular research environment. By deceiving his/her research subjects the researcher can observe and record activities of his/her subjects.

Generally, the definition above identifies different kinds of deception in research. That is, researcher may misrepresent himself/herself; sometimes he may deceive people about the true aspect of the research; or sometimes may conceal information on who funds the research. But whatever the type there is, the fact is that the method of deceiving raises ethical issues as far as the conduct of social science research is concern. There are two areas of interest that will be discussed in this essay; first, I will highlight the argument surrounding deception as being incompatible with informed consent; second, the argument as to whether deception poses potential harm than benefit.

Informed consent

The use of deceptive methods in social science research is incompatible with informed consent. Informed consent is the approval given by potential research participants to the researcher in agreement to take part in the research having full knowledge of the purpose and the consequences of the research. One of the aspects of the principle of informed consent is that potential participants should be given an opportunity to be informed of the purpose of the research and make their own decision whether or not to participate in the research (Homan, 1991). In light to this aspect, one argument against deception is that its use violates the principle of informed consent. For instance, conducting research on people without their consent and general knowledge on the purpose of the...
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