Informed consent is a basic ethical tenet of scientific research on human populations. It is also the cornerstone of government regulations dealing with all research involving human populations. With rare exceptions, sociologists simply do not involve a human being as a participant in research without his/her informed consent or the informed consent of the participant’s legally authorized representative. Sociologists recognize the possibility of undue influence or subtle pressures on research participants that may derive from researchers’ position, expertise, or authority.
Because of the wide range of methodologies employed and the equally wide range of topics pursued by sociological researchers, making sure that the research participants are both informed and have given their consent is a complex matter. The scope of informed consent and the process by which informed consent is obtained are both critical ethical issues, about which sociologists must be informed. Government regulations are especially vigilant about these issues. In academic settings, when the research involves students or subordinates, special attention must be paid to the possibility of sometimes subtle forms of coercion that can come into play. In addition, research involving special populations such as children or the mentally incapacitated calls for particular attention to make sure that no harm comes to the participants. Finally, in those instances where deception is required by the nature of the research, sociologists must be aware of their responsibilities to the research participants, both during and after the research is completed.