The Social Sciences, the Humanities, Law and Theology

Conducting research into the social sciences, the humanities, law and theology brings one face to face with particular ethical considerations and requirements that arise within these fields, as well as the more general ethical considerations and requirements that apply to research into all subjects. At an overarching level, research in the arts and social sciences is subject to many of the same ethical obligations as other fields. These general ethical obligations apply, for example, to norms and standards governing the independence of research and the search for truth. In the following, we highlight the particular ethical problems that arise in research in the arts and social sciences.

The specific subjects and roles of the research

Research ethics in the social sciences, the humanities, law and theology are the values and standards the research subjects and their practitioners are able to render visible, respect or breach (Tranøy 1995: 50). The specific ethical obligations of research are linked in part to the role that the research within these fields can play in society. The insights and results produced by the research can often have major societal consequences. The researcher therefore has a special responsibility for the way in which research results are disseminated and to some degree for how they are interpreted by others. The research ethics in these specialisms must furthermore reflect the subjects specific to the social sciences and the humanities, where human choices, actions and relationships are frequently in focus. The research will thus be distinguished in one way or another by the researcher's view of society and perspective on human life. This makes particular demands on researchers' ability to reflect on how their own attitudes may colour their choice of topics, methods and interpretation of findings. Unlike, for example, the natural sciences, research into the social sciences and humanities often includes human individuals, and researchers only have access to their research subjects through communication (including interviews and document analyses). Thus, to discuss and analyse those being investigated, researchers must have access to respondents' language and culture. This makes special demands in terms of knowledge and respect for other cultures.

Risk of harm

Many of the general ethical obligations to which the researcher is subject are standards that regulate the relationship to other researchers and students and the striving of research for truth and freedom. These are internal obligations, because they are primarily aimed at people in the research environment. In addition, the researcher has ethical obligations to the world beyond that, to the people who are participating in the research and to other individuals and groups who are directly affected by the research. Responsibility for the individual extends also to individuals about whom the researcher gains information, or who are affected by the research in other indirect ways.

Historically, research ethics have been shaped to a great degree by challenges within the field of medicine and partly also challenges in the natural sciences and technology. This has to do with the fact that the physical and psychological harm that research within these areas is capable of inflicting on individuals is frequently so evident and so serious. Dealing with the aftermath of the medical experiments carried out by doctors on prisoners of war in concentration camps during the Second World War put the spotlight on the appalling harm that research scientists can do to their human subjects, and contributed to reducing the abuse of subjects in medical practice. But research within the social sciences can also have major and serious consequences, both for individuals and society. Examples of this are the Metropolitt project in Scandinavia and Stanley Milgram's socio-psychological obedience experiments in the USA in the 1960s. The Metropolit project aimed to follow a number of boys (born in 1953) in the capital cities of Scandinavia over a period of 20 years. The project ran into objections particularly on the grounds of a lack of informed consent on the part of the parents, uncertainty about the purpose of the project and its usefulness, and questions about how sensitive personal information was kept. Milgram's experiments aimed to study the boundaries for obedience and, more precisely, how far people were willing to go as regards inflicting pain on others, if they were asked to do so by a person in authority. The experiments yielded valuable knowledge, but the participants were ignorant of key aspects of the study, and many experienced negative psychological reactions when they realised what they had been involved in.

This latter example illustrates an important difference between the risk of doing harm in medicine and in the social sciences and the humanities respectively: while the risk of physical harm occurring in research into the social sciences, for example, is as a rule slight, the research can nevertheless cause psychological or emotional harm. This may occur, for example, if it explores sensitive topics which make people extremely uncomfortable or distressed or trigger trauma in the participants, and if insufficient preparations have been made or insufficient thought given to following up the participants afterwards. There may also be a risk of doing social harm if individuals and groups are presented in a way that causes stigmatisation or discrimination. The actual effects of research within these fields can be difficult to predict, because it can be difficult to foresee how participants will actually react to questions in a given interview situation, and because complex contexts are frequently involved, where the effects are part of political processes. This imposes requirements that must be considered throughout the entire research process.

Key requirements and considerations through the research process

An important ethical standard in research is linked to the need for the research to have a purpose and a value outside itself and the researcher's own circle. Arts and social sciences research may expose censurable conditions in society, contribute to proposals for corrective measures or problematise central societal values and standards. If the research is entirely trivial, or even harmful, it is not reasonable to ask people to take part. In certain fields, it can be difficult to demonstrate the utility value and utilitarian functions of the research, and more generally it can be problematic to agree on what is important and useful to research. The importance of free research dictates that the standard whereby the research should have a value should not be interpreted too narrowly as a short-term demand for documented utilitarian effects in all research projects.
When it is a question of conducting research on human subjects, it is often essential to obtain free and informed consent from the subjects concerned. That consent is freely given means that it is given without coercion or pressure. In the relationship between researcher and participant, there will frequently be an element of influence brought to bear, but participants must be given the opportunity to decline to take part without being unreasonably pressured to do so. The practice of paying informants can, for example, influence the participants to such a degree that doubts can be raised as to whether the consent was voluntary.

That consent is informed means that the participants must be informed about the purpose of the research, the methods to be used and the consequences of participating. Free and informed consent is intended to prevent a breach of the subject's personal integrity. This requirement weighs particularly heavily when the research involves a risk of strain and stress to the participants, and when it involves handling personal information. In some cases, the informants will present special challenges to the researcher in terms of the free and informed consent requirement. Typical examples include research involving people with developmental disabilities, substance abusers, ethnic groups or children participating as informants. It is, for example, essential that the information given by the researcher should be provided in a comprehensible form which takes account of the recipient's age and level of language comprehension. There may also be situations which make special demands on the researcher, for example research in prisons where the informants are inmates, as well as other institutional research. In all institutional research, the researcher has a special responsibility to inform the participants clearly and unambiguously of her independence and non-affiliation with the institution concerned. Participatory observation is another example of a situation which presents particular challenges for compliance with the requirement for free and informed consent. Conducting research on vulnerable groups is particularly controversial if the aim of the research does not benefit the group that is the subject of the research, or if there is doubt as to the scientific value of the research.

The requirement for confidentiality is about the researcher's obligation to treat with due care all personal information she receives, so that third parties do not gain access to it. This obligation includes a duty of secrecy, but also a more general requirement for the safekeeping and destruction of lists of names of informants, for example. Normally, the research material must be anonymised. The researcher's duty of secrecy implies that she has an obligation to keep her sources secret and confidential, that is to say the identity of the informants or the information the informants give (see Public Administration Act, section 13). This is based on the need to ensure personal data protection. The requirements for confidentiality and duty of secrecy may come into conflict with another important consideration, namely the need for verifiability. Researchers also have a duty of notification, i.e. a duty to notify the authorities about unlawful acts that have either taken place or are planned (see General Civil Penal Code, section 39). Moreover, beyond this legal obligation the researcher may get into a situation where she feels an obligation to notify, for example if she uncovers evidence of child or elder neglect.

There has been a development in research ethics in the social sciences and the humanities as regards the question of who is covered by personal data protection. The Guidelines for Research Ethics in the Social Sciences, the Humanities, Law and Theology include protection of deceased individuals who are the subject of research, for example in biographies. Ethical considerations and requirements also apply to research conducted on human remains. In the case of research on artefacts and cultural monuments, one should be particularly attentive to the need for preservation, and take due care where objects and cultural monuments have uncertain or disputed origins.

These considerations and requirements are aimed at protecting those individuals who take part in the research and provide data – as well as others affected by the research – from unreasonable pressure to participate, or from distress and harm during the course of the research process. The principle of protecting the individual from harm also applies after the research itself is concluded, and when the research findings are disseminated and used. The researcher does not have full control over how the research results are interpreted and used. Nevertheless, the researcher has a responsibility, and should evaluate the possible unintended effects of the research, and seek to correct any misunderstandings.

Conflicts between standards and balancing of interests

Many of the requirements mentioned above can be explained as arising from both ethical and methodological considerations: It is unethical to inflict harm on other people, and at the same time it can be difficult to recruit participants to research projects if the project will inflict harm on them. In other situations, ethical and methodological considerations can be difficult to reconcile: for example, the informed consent requirement can in some situations lead to the selection of informants being skewed and for bias to arise if there are people in the group who do not have the mental capacity or conceptual skills to enable them to understand the research. Compliance with the informed consent requirement can therefore exclude some groups from research, thus having undesired ethical implications.

The overarching balancing of interests will often be between the societal value of the research, on the one hand, and the interests of the individual on the other. A project can have great societal value, for example by bringing society new and important knowledge, but at the same time cause great distress to the individual participant. Many ethical standards tend to be viewed as prima facie norms, which is to say that one is bound by them if there are no other interests that weigh heavier. In other words: they do not apply to an absolute degree and without exception. On the contrary, the validity of these standards must be evaluated on a case by case basis by balancing the key ethical considerations that the matter in question raises. When respect for human dignity and integrity is at risk, the duty to truth must perhaps play a subordinate role. Where other types of harm are concerned, such as a group's reputation in society, there appears to be greater scope for a balancing of interests, where the value of the project, and its possible use or benefit to the participants, is assessed in relation to the possible harm it may do. Should a balancing of interests be required, the researcher should be familiar with the key ethical standards for research, and at the same time be sufficiently knowledgeable about the aspects of the question at issue to be able to exercise good judgement.

Approval for research projects in the social sciences and the humanities
Individual researchers and research institutions can request the National Committee for Research Ethics in the Social Sciences and the Humanities (NESH) to evaluate the ethical aspects of a particular research project in order to better accommodate ethical considerations. Individual researchers and research institutions in Norway are not obliged to seek prior ethical approval for research projects in the social sciences and the humanities. Responsibility for compliance with the guidelines is therefore very much left to the individual researcher and institution. This is not the case with medical and health research projects, which require the approval of a regional ethics committee. One exception to this rule occurs when the areas of responsibility of NESH and the National Committee for Medical and Health Research Ethics (NEM) overlap. Another important exception from the main rule that projects within NESH's specialist fields are exempt from the reporting obligation, is in the case of research that involves processing sensitive personal information. Research projects that require the safekeeping and use of personal information, i.e. information that can be linked directly or indirectly to individuals, have a reporting obligation under the Personal Data Act of 1 January 2001. Such projects will as a rule have a reporting obligation to the Norwegian Social Science Data Service (NSD), which is the data protection official for research projects and student projects. Some projects will also be subject to the obligation to seek and obtain a licence from the Norwegian Data Protection Authority.

Projects which aim to use health information without obtaining prior consent must have permission from a regional committee for medical and health research ethics (dispensation from duty of secrecy).

This article has been translated from Norwegian by Lesley Cawley, Akasie språktjenester AS.


The National Committee for Research Ethics in the Social Sciences and the Humanities (NESH) (2006): Guidelines for research ethics in the social sciences, law and the humanities. Oslo: The Norwegian National Research Ethics Committees

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Føllesdal, Andreas et al. (ed.) (1995): Seks innlegg om forskningsetikk i samfunnsvitenskap og humaniora. Oslo: The Norwegian National Committee for Research Ethics in the Social Sciences and the Humanities

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