Sociology Ethics in an Applied Workplace

Sociology EthicsI’m currently editing our latest video for Sociology At Work. I’ll be discussing some of the key questions that emerged from The Australian Sociological Association (TASA) Postgraduate Workshop. I was invited to speak on a careers panel along with three other applied researchers. Students asked about issues like translating theory into practice, professional identity, and marketing a research business. I’ll speak to these issues in the video and I’ll add a few extras through our social media. This post relates to one of the students’ questions, which was about how to manage ethics when working outside academia.

Doing Ethics in an Applied Context

Within academia, you cannot conduct research without ethics approval from the university. Outside of academia, some research organisations will have some ethics protocols in place, but they may not be inclusive of sociological values. When I worked in a Government organisation, our ethics board was led by psychologists and scientists from other fields. Experiments involving humans needed ethics approvals, but interviews, surveys and open source data (website materials, social media exchanges, Census analyses and so on) didn’t always require ethics approval. This meant that as a qualitative sociologist, I would spend a lot of time thinking about and following the ethics procedures that I learned in academia, even though this was not required of me.

I always wrote up my ethics section (even if it was held in an unpublished annex) and I provided informed consent forms to research participants although I was not obliged to by my organisation. Why did I do this if it wasn’t required by my work? Because I see that ethical procedures are required of us by our professional training! This is why having a strong theoretical and methodological knowledge is critical in an applied context. In academia, ethics is built into the way you get your research done. When you don’t have this requirement, you fall back on your foundational sociology. As I noted, students wanted to know about how to use theory – well, this is one example where all those formal concepts and the large volume of literature you read as a student will come in handy.

Photo: USFWS Pacific Southwest Region via Flickr, CC.

Photo: USFWS Pacific Southwest Region via Flickr, CC.

In many other cases, applied sociologists will work in organisations that don’t have formal research ethics procedures, so you’ll be on your own. I’ve experienced this too as an independent contractor. Similarly in these roles, I followed ethics procedures I learned through my university work, and I spent time writing up these processes. This caused great frustration for some of my managers, who felt I was just “wasting time.” The job did not require it, but I needed to demonstrate to my managers and to any future auditors (should I need to) that I had not only considered ethics but that I had followed the most up-to-date professional guidelines.

Now as a consultant working for myself (running a business), ethics is part of how I conduct my everyday work. My ethics procedures are linked to my client contracts. Ethics are integral to how I carry out my research and all other activities, including my social media work. More on this later, but essentially, ethics is more than just doing what we think is right. Sociological ethics is about following the consensus of our discipline. This includes:

  • a code of professional integrity;
  • guidelines for how to carry out, use and communicate our findings;
  • protocols for how to manage relationships with research participants, clients, stakeholders and funding organisations; and
  • our rights and obligations to all living beings, resources and the communities involved in and impacted by our work.

Ethics is an ever-evolving process within the theoretical and empirical literature. In practice – whether it be in the field, and in new work environments where sociology is not established, ethics present new challenges. For me, reading and writing about ethics in sociological practice and in other fields is a good way for me to stay on top of changing ethical dynamics.

How to Get Ethics Support

Photo by ganesha.isis via Flick, CC

Photo by ganesha.isis via Flick, CC

Back to the Postgraduate Workshop. There were two key pieces of advice on how to manage applied ethics. First, use your professional association to its fullest. You’ll find that most sociological associations have a sliding pay scale. Membership fees depend on your annual income. There are rates for students as well as low income earners. Most sociology associations will have ethics guidelines on their websites (including TASA, the InternationalAmerican British Sociological Associations).

Most sociology associations will also have a research committee focused on sociologists outside academia. For us in TASA it’s the Applied Sociology Thematic Group, which I actually founded in 2007 (but is now run by others). Sociology at Work is also associated with the British Sociological Association’s Sociologists Outside Academia Group. These groups are a great way for talking about work issues with others who will come up against “real world” ethical dilemmas. I’ll come back to this with some examples, in one of our future Sociology at Work podcasts.

For practitioners another avenue for support is negotiating an Adjunct position with your nearest university. You could also try getting an Adjunct position with the university where you did your studies. This is an especially attractive option if you have good relationships with your former supervisors who can help you negotiate your Adjunct role. I’m an Adjunct Research Fellow with Swinburne University which is where I did my undergrad and postgraduate degrees and where I used to teach and work as a Research Assistant.

Being an Adjunct can give you access to a university library as well as their online resources. It’s also a great way of keeping in touch with the activities of other researchers, as you’ll get updates on internal workshops and other events. An Adjunct position usually means that you’ll have to produce a certain number of peer reviewed publications each year. Or you might be asked to be an external supervisor to postgraduate students. (I’ve done both.) An adjunct position is also a great way of keeping in touch with other sociologists with whom you can discuss professional issues, like ethics in the workplace.

Over to you

What are some other resources you can recommend for managing ethics at work? What are some ethical issues that you’ve come across that you would like to see us discuss on Sociology at Work? Write to us in the comments below!