Can Sociologists Hurt People?

Researching humans is what social scientists do, but what happens when they want to conduct research that would harm the people in their study? In 1993 a team of researchers in Baltimore Maryland wanted to find out which method of lead paint removal was most effective. Their study allowed predominately African American families with small children to live in homes they knew were contaminated with lead. In this piece Nathan Palmer discusses three key aspects of ethical research and how if followed they protect human subjects.

Researchers in Baltimore, who wanted to find the best method for removing lead paint from old houses, watched as children suffered from lead poisoning for years. These are the charges brought by two parents who are now suing the research team. The parents argue that while they knew that their home had lead paint in it, the researchers gave them a “false sense of security” from test results that only showed low levels of contamination. The research conducted from 1993 to 1999 enrolled 108 low income African American families many of whom were already living in the contaminated homes.

The first two judges to hear this case dismissed it, but later a judge upheld the case arguing that it was very similar to a modern day Tuskegee Experiment. During this experiment African American men in Alabama who suffered from syphilis were monitored by the U.S. Public Health Service from 1932-1972. The men were not told they had syphilis, but rather only that they had “bad blood”. Worse yet, when penicillin became the widely available cure for syphilis, the researchers decided it was more scientifically valuable to document how the men would die from the disease than to give them treatment. While this is beyond tragic in it’s own right, these men also unknowingly passed the disease to their wives and partners and many of their children were born with congenital syphilis.

“What it going on here? Can researchers really do stuff like this?” are the first two questions many of my students have. And the answer is, no.

Because of incidents like the Tuskegee experiments, federal research ethics and regulations have been established. Before a researcher can carry out a study on human subjects they must, if they receive federal funding, have their methods reviewed by an independent panel to verify their safety. These panels, often called an Institutional Review Board (IRB)[1], are guided by the three pillars of ethical research: 1. Do No Harm, 2. Informed Consent, 3. Voluntary Participation.

1. Do No Harm

The mantra really says it all; any ethical research can not physically or psychologically harm the research subject beyond a reasonable level. The last part, about determining the reasonable level, is left to the IRB to determine. Researchers today are not allowed to stand by as their subjects suffer the effects of a curable disease (as happened in the Tuskegee experiment) nor are they allowed to psychologically damage their subjects (say by having them think they electrocuted a stranger)

2. Informed Consent

This is really a twofer. You can’t lie to or deceive your participants and they must agree to participate. Often times this is accomplished by giving subjects an informed consent form which is basically a letter to the potential subject telling them what will happen to them, what risks they will be exposed to, and who they can contact if they have complaints or questions. There are exceptions to informed consent (e.g. you don’t need it if you conduct research in a public place), but most of the time researchers must acquire informed consent before they can do their thing.

3. Voluntary Participation

Simply put, researchers can not force their subjects to participate. While this may sound straight forward, it does bring up a host of issues. For instance, can I give you $5 for completing the survey? Probably, because that’s not so large of an amount that a reasonable person would feel forced to participate. However, imagine I was to offer you $100,000 for a ten minute survey. Would you really be giving a fair opportunity to decline participation or is that ridiculous pile of cash a form of coercion? This also gets tricky when professors want to give their students extra credit. A prof couldn’t give a student an A grade simply for participating; that’s coercive.


Which of the three key aspects of ethical research did the Baltimore case violate? Well first and foremost they did harm, or at the very least allowed people to be harmed. Parents reported their children, after moving into the homes, developed learning disabilities and cognitive impairments. Second, if the researchers deceived the families by showing them reports that falsely claimed the homes were less contaminated than they actually were, then the families were not fully informed nor were they able to voluntarily give their consent to participate.

You may be thinking, as the researchers have argued, how else could this research have been done? However, if there is no ethical way to conduct a research study, that does not justify conducting unethical research. There are many things researchers would love to explore, but cannot because there is no ethical way to conduct the study. That’s just how it goes in the social sciences.

Dig Deeper:

  1. Imagine that you want to find out how people react to finding out they’ve lost their jobs. Would it be ethical to go to their employer and have them pretend to fire them for an hour? If not, which of the three aspects of research ethics would this research violate and why?
  2. Thinking about the lead paint research done in Baltimore. How could these researchers have conducted their study ethically and without endangering children? You can read all about the Baltimore study by clicking here.
  3. Does your campus have a Institutional Review Board? Search your school’s webpage and describe how a researcher goes about filing a research request.
  4. A researcher is interested in who uses their hands more when talking, men or women? So she goes to a public park and counts the number of times men and women touch one other during conversation. She never asks for their consent nor does she even make it known that she is conducting research at all. Is this ethical? Why or why not? If you argue it’s not, be sure to discuss which of the three aspects of ethical research she violated.

  1. To be more specific after the passing of the Research Act of 1974 IRB’s were required for any research on human subjects that receives federal monies either directly or indirectly. Meaning that your university, college, or school almost certainly has one and any research you intended to publish or present would have to be reviewed.  ↩