Ethical issues in Social Research Projects


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This short paper discusses ethical issues as embedded in a TV reality show format that provides the [ill-designed] imagined setting for a social psychology-informed research project looking at group dynamics and performance under stress. The core principles of informed consent, briefing and debriefing, backup, coercion and incentives are applied to the experiment.

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Ethical issues in Social Research Projects

  1. 1. This short paper discusses ethical issues as embedded in a TV reality show format that provides the [ill-designed] imagined setting for a social psychology-informed research project looking at group dynamics and performance under stress. The core principles of informed consent, briefing and debriefing, backup, coercion and incentives are applied to the experiment. Endemol, the production company behind Big Brother, argue that participants engage in the project, which is categorised as ‘reality, entertainment’, in a ‘fully informed’ manner. In fact, they provide the following information on their website “Twelve people, who've never met before, are suddenly catapulted into the Big Brother house where they must share every minute of the next 100 days. In their fenced-off compound they're denied any contact with their loved ones, and the outside world. No phones, newspapers, radios or televisions. They're all alone... except for the millions watching and judging their every move. Cameras and microphones are placed all over the house. Everything the housemates do is recorded and broadcast on television and the internet. They can't eat, sleep or chill out without the nation clocking their every move. Yet somehow, the residents are desperate to stay in the Big Brother house. All the pain and embarrassment is worth the prospect of landing the title of Big Brother winner. All the stress of knowing that at any moment your housemates could be trying to kick you out! On a regular basis, the housemates must nominate two or more of their fellow participants for eviction, but the viewers ultimately decide who has to leave. The last participant to leave the house wins the programme, and the huge cash prize that comes with it.” (Endemol, 2009) Taking into account that any potential participant who applies for the show can gain free and easy access to recorded data of previous shows which was launched in 2001, for instance via Wikipedia and Youtube, the degree of transparency as to what participants can expect and should prepare for, is considerably larger than many academic/scientific research projects. A large number of research results are still not being published in Open Access Britta Bohlinger 1/5
  2. 2. journals and many research findings are still hard to access if the participant is not familiar with academic publishing procedures or does not have access to [university] libraries. However, the same observational format applied to research settings – that might be a project based on qualitative research methods that makes use of triangulation combining participant observation, ethnographic immersion of the researcher and in-depth interviews in focus groups - would fail to obtain ethical approval for a whole range of reasons. Unethical would be to offer ‘a huge cash prize’, this would be an element of manipulating participants rather than offering a small compensation for their time and effort (c.f. Potter, 2006: 215), their behaviour and answers would be likely to be geared towards the reward, impacting negatively on the validity of the research. It is unclear how exactly Endemol make sure ‘fully informed consent’ is given. Researchers need to ensure participants are aware of possible risks and they need to obtain a possibility to clarify their concerns. Posting a statement on one’s website as single ‘means to an end’ would be ethically unacceptable and not sufficient. Petra Boynton (2005: 76) suggests to provide a Participant Information Sheet which should contain a section each on ‘why is this study important?’, ‘what will the study involve’, ‘what if I change my mind about being involved’ and ‘what do I do now’ (i.e. further questions/contact). In a research project designed like the Reality TV format, the length and intensity of the observation and intrusion are key concerns. Contestants’ privacy rights are not being respected; in fact they are violated in multiple ways. The marketing objectives of the producers require them to facilitate as many conflict situations as possible which are likely to present a key source of distress. The BSP’s (British Psychological Society) Code of Ethics and Conduct mentions respect as a first ethical principle in connection with avoidance ‘of practices that are unfair and prejudiced’ (2006: 10). Britta Bohlinger 2/5
  3. 3. The principle of confidentiality in this context, though, might be seen as controversial. The guidelines advise clearly to ‘[m]ake audio, video or photographic recordings of clients only with the explicit permission of clients who are considered legally competent, or their duly authorised representatives.’ (ibid.: 12) – yet, publicity as a major reward can be seen as a key motivation that drove participants to apply in the first place. In different circumstances, though, waiving of one’s right for anonymity and confidentiality should not be taken for granted. On her website, Boyton (2008) debates the fact that several psychologists who had participated in Big Brother shows as participants mislead contestants who should have been fully debriefed and provided with a valid reason why they had been manipulated. She argues that ‘for psychologists getting involved with Big Brother there’s the added problem […] you seemingly endorse something that happens on a television programme that you shouldn’t be doing in a laboratory experiment’ (ibid.). These questions have been subject to the BPS’s guidelines which advise to ‘[w]ithhold information from clients only in exceptional circumstances when necessary to preserve the integrity of research’ (2006: 13) and are, hence not just dubious research practice and unethical but also problematic for the wider profession which suffers consequently from some degree of disrepute. It would be vital to prepare an appropriate exit strategy and arrange counselling offers if required for those participants who have suffered harm due to manipulation, verbal abuse, and passive aggression or bullying and other kind of distress. However, researchers are obliged to avoid harm (c.f. 3rd principle of responsibility, BPS, 2006: 17) and ensure that participants can terminate/decide to leave the research project at any time. Yet, the Big Brother project offers prison-like claustrophobic conditions and even though Britta Bohlinger 3/5
  4. 4. participants can in principle leave the house, they need to follow strict rules and regimes prior to their exit. Moreover, the inclusion of particularly vulnerable participants can be seen as unethical. Often, those who recover from cancer, eating disorders and personality disorder are grouped together as ‘housemates’ with those who display heavily conflict-seeking behaviour, and those who cause potential distress to others by bullying attitudes. In the wider sense, the power imbalance is further increased by the role of ‘Big Brother’ him/herself, the eyes that see everything but remain invisible themselves. Big Brother’s voice has authority, and makes ‘surprise’ decisions – which, in a research project would be seen as unethical as it is highly obtrusive (s.f. Bryman, 2008: 115) and leaves participants with no choice. Britta Bohlinger 4/5
  5. 5. References Boynton, P. M. (2005) The Research Companion: A Practical Guide for the Social and Health Sciences. Hove: Psychology Press Boynton, P. M. (2008) Big Brother 9 – and yet more bullying [Blog] Available [10 May 2009] British Sociological Association (BSA) (2002) Statement of Ethical Practice for the British Sociological Association Available [17 Feb 2008] Bryman, A. (3rd ed.) (2008) Social Research Methods. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Endemol (2009) Non-scripted programmes-Big Brother [Homepage] Available [9 May 2009] Ess, C (2002) Ethical decision-making and Internet research: Recommendations from the Association of Internet Researchers (AoIR) ethics working committee. Available http:/ [17 Feb 2008] Hine, C. (2000) Virtual Ethnography. London: Sage. Le Voi, M., Sapsford, R., Potter, S., Green, A., Redman, P. and Yates S. (2008) DT840 Course and Study Guide. Milton Keynes: The Open University. Potter, S (2nd ed.) (2006) Doing Postgraduate Research. London: Sage. Robson, C. (2nd ed.) (2002) Real World Research. Oxford: Blackwell. Seale, C. (ed.) (2004) Social Research Methods - A Reader. London: Routledge. Taylor, S. (2002) Ethnographic Research. London: Sage Publications. Britta Bohlinger 5/5