Ethics

Additional Information

TEACHING ETHICS THROUGHOUT THE CURRICULUM

1. Socialization into the Community of Sociologists: The Role of Ethics and Its Basic Tools

The ASA Code of Ethics is a guide to the conduct of activity of sociologists in the many activities they pursue in their work as researchers, teachers, practitioners and contributor to communities through service activities.  

The intent of this volume is to sensitize and educate members of the profession to the standard of conduct expected in sociology. All too often, we expect those in the process of becoming sociology to learn about ethics through an "osmosis" model, that is, where the model of mentorship in graduate school provides sufficient exposure to the norms of practice in teaching, research, service and practice. However, research across the professions, much of it done by sociologists, suggests that this is an inadequate model for training. Along with other professions such a medicine and law, we have come to understand that high quality training requires explicit discussion of ethical modes of behavior. While research ethics are traditionally part of a research methods course in graduate training pro-grams, the amount of time devoted to even this set of issues is inadequate. Even more importantly, there are few other regular opportunities to introduce or discuss the wide range of purviews in which ethical issues pertain.  

The need for such exposure and discussion does not end with training but is an on-going, life-long issue. The dynamic processes of "doing" sociology are complex, and even with the best of training, sociologists are likely to encounter situations which call into question the proper routes or action. In part, this results from the multiple layers of organizational membership that sociologists encounter as they do their work. As professors, for example, sociologists are expected to hold to the code of ethics in sociology, in their University of College, in their other professional association member-ships (e.g., the American Association of University Professors) and to the legal norms of the society in which they live. These different sets of norms may have much in common but they may also hold points of contention.  

This raises two points familiar to sociologists. First, while the Code is written explicitly as a guide for individual behavior, we understand that the context in which sociologists work matters and may set up contradictory expectations. Work and professional cultures may clash. Organizational guidelines, not surprisingly, are set to protect the organization, not the integrity of the research, teaching, service, and practice of sociology. The culture of work, for example, makes work "doable" but sometimes demands that individuals ignore unethical behavior. The Code of Ethics provides a vehicle to re-introduce ethical issues into the workplace. Tensions, latent functions, and inherent contradictions are all notions familiar to and developed by sociologists. While developed as concepts across a wide range of substantive arenas of society, we cannot expect them to disappear within our own boundaries. Second, these principles and norms are not static but dynamic and contingent, and the role of sociologists is to question guidelines, to encourage debate and discussion and to continually contribute to shaping the profession of sociology. The history of the establishment and development of a Code of Ethics, described in the next section, indicates that this need to rethink professional standards in sociological work has been a lively and sometimes contentious debate.

Some basic distinctions.  Individuals hold explicit or implicit notions of moral behavior. Many of these may coincide with the expectations that the profession of sociology holds for its members. Nevertheless, it is critical to make a distinction between individual morality and collective responsi-bility. Sociologists are obligated in their work to consider and ascribe to the standards of conduct that the community of sociologists has set. As with legal standards, this does not mean that sociologists, acting in good conscience, may stand in opposition to set standards. It does mean, however, that they are obligated to be familiar with and take reasoned action to change professional norms when they are in disagreement. Evidence suggests that scholarly groups have lower rates of misconduct, in part, because of built in systems of checks and balances (e.g., the peer review system). Despite the timing and original rationale for developing codes of ethics (see sociological research on the rise of modern professions), the power and privilege accorded to professions historically and in contemporary society require a collective commitment to high standards of conduct.

Even with this charge, there is a distinction between "best practices" and ethical mandates. Reasonable people may, and often do, take different approaches to their work. The Code of Ethics develops operational standards, fairly general and behavioral. How they translate into specific practices can result in gray area. When a standard of practice reaches a threshold of significance to the profession, it is included. However, there are many practices and procedures that have nothing to do with ethics. For example, acceptable methods of teaching, "best" analytic techniques or theoretical approaches represent areas of debate and discussion within sociology but only at the extremes of poor practice (e.g., incompetent teaching, misleading analyses, forcing the adoption of a "brand" of sociology) do they run up against ethical standards of behavior. In other words, the characteristic pluralism in sociology regarding theory and method as well as the autonomy of sociologists is not threatened by this Code. Within the range of ethical behavior, that is, the agreed upon limits set by the community of sociologists, the purpose of the Code is to help ensure the diversity and academic freedom of sociologists.