34. Confidentiality of Information Obtained
during the Course of a Sociologist's Work
Dr. Sophie Lieber is overseeing a large survey-based study. Subjects
are accessed via random- digit dialing and then interviewed by one of
several interviewers supervised by Lieber. Informants are assured that
the interviews are anonymous and confidential. One afternoon Lieber
receives a call from an interviewer who is distraught. The interviewer
explains that while he was interviewing a male "head-of-household," the
informant asked him to hold because he had "to deal with his
kid." The interviewer then heard what seemed to be screaming, and
slapping and crashing sounds in the background. The noise was followed
by silence which was only interrupted when the informant returned to
the phone and said: "That should keep him quiet for a while; what else
do you want to know?"
1. What obligation does Professor Lieber have to take
action having heard what the interviewer has to say?
2. What are the possible actions that Professor
Lieber might consider?
3. What implications, if any, do her actions have for
Reflect on the above questions and form your
own answers before clicking the Discussion
key to review the commentary provided with this case.
Does what she heard on the phone constitute child abuse? It is
difficult to tell from what was actually recorded. The ethical issue
here does not focus so much on what happened in the past but whether
there is future danger for the child. The dilemma that Dr. Lieber faces
is whether the child is at risk despite what happened during the
conversation. Both definitions and legal responsibilities to report
child abuse and elder abuse vary from state to state. Dr. Lieber would
certainly want to consult university legal counsel about any legal
obligation and/or liability in this situation. In addition, Professor
Lieber needs to be sure that her interviewers and all other personnel
on the project are well trained and well informed on these kinds of
issues. She has the responsibility to assure that all interviewers
understand the nature of problems like this, they are obligated to
inform her of any such problems, and that they must maintain the
confidentiality agreements even under such circumstances and work
through the project supervisors to handle problem situations.