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Chapter 2: Research Process and Research Methods

2.4 Ethical Issues in Sociological Research

Think Like a Sociologist

Robbers Cave Research

In the 1950s, a social psychologist by the name of Muzafer Sherif led a field experiment involving a group of twelve-year-old boys. Sherif was interested in how new groups are formed and how they structure themselves when they are presented with common goals. He was also interested in how conflict arises between groups when they compete for scarce resources.

Professor Sherif chose 22 boys for his experiment. In order to limit the number of variables that might affect their relations, the boys he recruited were all 12 years old, Protestant, white, middle class, and their family structure included two married parents. He separated the boys into two groups, the Eagles and the Rattlers, through random selection, and then took them for a camping trip to Robbers Cave State Park in Oklahoma. Each group was placed in a different part of the park.

In the first phase of the experiment, neither the Rattlers nor the Eagles knew of each other’s existence. Each group was left to bond through activities that involved goals. After about a week of activities, the boys had developed very strong relationships with the members of their respective groups. In fact, they even made flags for their camps and wore clothing identifying them as Eagles or Rattlers.

The following week, the boys were informed that there were, in fact, two groups of boys camping at the park. The groups were made to compete over medals and prizes. Of course, the losers got nothing. Within a few days, such animosity built up between the groups that they began vandalizing each other’s camps. At one point it got so bad that the counselors had to physically separate them.

The last phase of the experiment involved creating activities with common goals for both the Rattlers and the Eagles. For instance, both groups came together to try to fix the shared water supply to their camps. Sherif and his colleagues found that introducing activities with common goals (as opposed to the competitive ones discussed above) caused hostilities to subside between the groups (McLeod, 2020).

Obviously, Sherif’s experiment was much more complicated than what is presented above. However, even a simple description of what occurred can suggest to us that there may have been some ethical issues that presented concerns.

Without a doubt, Sherif’s experiment provided us with valuable knowledge about human relations, but do the ends justify the means in cases like these?

After reading the information below, consider the following question:  what ethical standards related to doing research on human subjects may have been cause for concern in Sherif’s experiment?


Research involving human subjects must follow certain ethical standards to make sure the subjects are not harmed. Such harm can be quite severe in medical research unless certain precautions are taken. For example, in 1932 the U.S. Public Health Service began studying several hundred poor, illiterate African American men in Tuskegee, Alabama. The men had syphilis, for which no cure then existed, and were studied to determine its effects. After scientists found a decade later that penicillin could cure this disease, the government scientists decided not to give penicillin to the Tuskegee men because doing so would end their research. As a result, several of the men died from their disease, and some of their wives and children came down with it. The study did not end until the early 1970s, when the press finally disclosed the experiment. Several observers likened it to experiments conducted by Nazi scientists. If the subjects had been white and middle class, they said, the government would have ended the study once it learned that penicillin could cure syphilis (Jones, 1981).

Photo of six African American men walking next to one another down the street.

In a study that began in 1932 of syphilis among African American men in Tuskegee, Alabama, government physicians decided not to give penicillin to the men after it was found that this drug would cure syphilis. Wikimedia Commons – public domain

Fortunately, sociological research does not have this potential for causing death or serious illness, but it still can cause other kinds of harm and thus must follow ethical standards. The federal government has an extensive set of standards for research on human subjects, and the major sociology professional society, the American Sociological Association, has a code of ethics for sociological research.

One of the most important ethical guidelines in sociological and other human-subject research concerns privacy and confidentiality. When they do research, sociologists should protect the privacy and confidentiality of their subjects. When a survey is used, the data must be coded (prepared for computer analysis) anonymously, and in no way should it be possible for any answers to be connected with the respondent who gave them. In field research, anonymity must also be maintained, and aliases (fake names) should normally be used when the researcher reports what she or he has been observing.

Some sociologists consider the privacy and confidentiality of subjects so important that they have risked imprisonment when they have refused to violate confidentiality. In one example, a graduate student named Mario Brajuha had been doing participant observation as a restaurant waiter on Long Island, New York, when the restaurant burned down. When the police suspected arson, they asked Brajuha to turn over his field notes. When Brajuha refused, he was threatened with imprisonment. Meanwhile, two suspects in the case also demanded his field notes for their legal defense, but again Brajuha refused. The controversy ended 2 years later when the suspects died, and the prosecutor’s office abandoned its effort to obtain the notes (Brajuha & Hallowell, 1986).

In another case, a graduate student named Rik Scarce refused to turn over his field notes on radical environmentalists after one of the groups he was studying vandalized a university laboratory. Scarce was jailed for contempt of court when he refused to tell a grand jury what he had learned about the group and spent several months behind bars (Monaghan, 1993).

A third example aroused much discussion among sociologists when it came to light. Laud Humphreys studied male homosexual sex that took place in public bathrooms. He did so by acting as the lookout in several encounters where two men had sex; the men did not know Humphreys was a researcher. He also wrote down their license plates and obtained their addresses and a year later disguised himself and interviewed the men at their homes. Many sociologists and other observers later criticized Humphreys for acting so secretly and for violating his subjects’ privacy. Humphreys responded that he protected the men’s names and that their behavior was not private, as it was conducted in a public setting (Humphreys, 1975).

Another ethical issue concerns consent. Before a researcher can begin obtaining data, the subjects of the research must normally sign an informed consent form. This form summarizes the aims of the study and the possible risks of being a subject. If researchers want to study minors (under age 18), they normally must obtain a signature from a parent or legal guardian. Informed consent is a requirement for most “real” research these days, but ethical issues arise over the meaning of “consent.” For consent to have any real meaning, potential research subjects must have the right to refuse to take part in a research project without any penalties whatsoever. Otherwise, they may feel pressured to participate in the project without really wanting to do so. This result would violate what “consent” is supposed to mean in the research process. Sometimes subjects are promised a small reward (often between $5 and $20) for taking part in a research project, but they are still utterly free to refuse to do so, and this small inducement is not considered to be undue pressure to participate.

Photo of a prison interior.

The requirement of informed consent becomes an ethical issue when prisoners are studied, because prisoners may feel pressured to participate in the study. Kim Daram – prison – CC BY-NC 2.0

Informed consent becomes a particular problem when a researcher wants to include certain populations in a study. Perhaps the clearest example of such a problem is when a study involves prisoners. When prisoners are asked to be interviewed or to fill out a questionnaire, they certainly can refuse to do so, but they may feel pressured to participate. They realize that if they do participate, they may be more likely to be seen as a “model” prisoner, which helps them win “good time” that reduces their sentence or helps them win a release decision from a parole board. Conversely, if they refuse to participate, they not only lose these advantages but also may be seen as a bit of a troublemaker and earn extra scrutiny from prison guards. Scholarly societies continue to debate the ethical issues involved in studies of prisoners and other vulnerable populations (e.g., offenders in juvenile institutions, patients in psychiatric facilities), and there are no easy answers to the ethical questions arising in such studies.

As all these examples of ethical issues demonstrate, it is not always easy to decide whether a particular research project is ethically justifiable. Partly for this reason, colleges and universities have committees, usually referred to as an Institutional Review Board (IRB) that review proposed human-subject research to ensure that federal guidelines are followed.


Using Your Sociological Imagination

Photo of a police officer who has pulled over a driver.

Sociologist Frances Heussenstamm conducted an experiment to explore the correlation between traffic stops and race-based bumper stickers. This issue of racial profiling remains a hot-button topic today. Kindel Media – Pexels

In 1971, Frances Heussenstamm, a sociology professor at California State University at Los Angeles, had a theory about police prejudice. To test her theory, she conducted an experiment. She chose fifteen students from three ethnic backgrounds: Black, White, and Hispanic. She chose students who routinely drove to and from campus along Los Angeles freeway routes, and who had perfect driving records for longer than a year. Those were her independent variables—students, good driving records, same commute route.

Next, she placed a Black Panther bumper sticker on each car. That sticker, a representation of a social value, was the independent variable. In the 1970s, the Black Panthers were a revolutionary group actively fighting racism.

Heussenstamm asked the students to follow their normal driving patterns. She wanted to see whether seeming support of the Black Panthers would change how these good drivers were treated by the police patrolling the highways. The dependent variable would be the number of traffic stops/citations.

The first arrest, for an incorrect lane change, was made two hours after the experiment began. One participant was pulled over three times in three days. As a result, he quit the study. After seventeen days, the fifteen drivers had collected a total of thirty-three traffic citations. The experiment was halted. The funding to pay traffic fines had run out, and so had the enthusiasm of the participants (Heussenstamm 1971; Griffiths, et. al., 2015).

What are some of the ethical concerns associated with this research study conducted by Heussenstamm?

Why would informed consent be important to students who participated in this study?


Section 2.4 References

Brajuha, M., and L. Hallowell. (1986). Legal intrusion and the politics of fieldwork: The impact of the Brajuha case. Urban Life, 14, 454–478.

Heussenstamm, Frances K. (1971). Bumper Stickers and Cops. Trans-action: Social Science and Modern Society 4:32–33.

Humphreys, L. (1975). Teamroom trade: Impersonal sex in public places. Chicago, IL: Aldine.

Jones, J. H. (1981). Bad blood: The Tuskegee syphilis experiment. New York, NY: Free Press.

Mcleod, S. (1970, January 1, Updated 2020). Robbers cave experiment. Simply Psychology. Retrieved from https://www.simplypsychology.org/robbers-cave.html.

Monaghan, P. (1993). Sociologist is jailed for refusing to testify about research subject. Chronicle of Higher Education, 39, 10.

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Barr, Scott, Sarah Hoiland, Shailaja Menon, Cathay Matresse, Florencia Silverira and Rebecca Vonderhaar.  (n.d.) Introduction to sociology. Introduction to Sociology | Simple Book Production. Lumen Learning.  License: CC BY 4.0. License Terms:  Access for free at https://courses.lumenlearning.com/wm-introductiontosociology/.

Conerly, Tonja, Kathleen Holmes, Asha Lal Tamang, Jennifer Hensley, Jennifer L. Trost, Pamela Alcasey, Kate McGonigal, Heather Griffiths, Nathan Keirns, Eric Strayer, Tommy Sadler, Susan Cody-Rydzewski, Gail Scaramuzzo, Sally Vyain, Jeff Bry and Faye Jones. (2021).  Introduction to Sociology 3E. OpenStax. Houston, TX.  License: CC BY 4.0.  License Terms:  Access for free at https://openstax.org/books/introduction-sociology-3e/pages/1-introduction.

Griffiths, Heather, Nathan Keirns, Eric Stayer, Susan Cody-Rydzewski, Gail Scaramuzzo, Tommy Sadler, Sally Vyain, Jeff Bry and Faye Jones.  (2015).  Introduction to Sociology 2E. OpenStax. Houston, TX.  License: CC BY 4.0.  License Terms:  Access for free at https://openstax.org/books/introduction-sociology-2e/pages/1-introduction-to-sociology.

Saylor Foundation.  (2015). Social Problems: Continuity and Change. License:  CC BY-NC-SA 3.0.  License Terms:  Access for free at https://saylordotorg.github.io/text_social-problems-continuity-and-change/.


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