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Case 56. Student Research on a Sensitive Topic


Professor Jack Kehoe regularly teaches undergraduate research methods and has developed a course in which he hopes to expose students to as many phases of the survey research process as possible. Every year he has students work in groups to design a questionnaire to explore student attitudes toward something controversial, administer the questionnaire to a sample of fellow students, use SPSS-PC to analyze the pooled data, and write up their findings using ASR as a model. He always chooses the topic himself to ensure that the research will be high in interest and that the respondents will have a variety of strongly held opinions on the topic.  Last year he chose attitudes toward the O.J. Simpson verdict; this year the topic is abortion. He thinks that this is an ideal topic because Missionaries to the Pre-Born have spent the past summer camped out at an abortion clinic close to the university.

About a month after the course begins a student comes to the Chair to report that she is very un-comfortable asking people about their attitudes toward abortion. In fact, she claims that she fears for her own safety as a result of doing so. The Chair asks the student why she hasn't talked to Professor Kehoe about her concerns. She says that Professor Kehoe speaks so cavalierly about abortion and his pro-choice position that she is concerned that he will not hear her concerns or will consider her a troublemaker for raising them. The Chair tells her that she feels that there are really no risks to administering a questionnaire on the topic of abortion to college students, but is sensitive to her discomfort and agrees to speak to Professor Kehoe without revealing her name.

For his part, Professor Kehoe argues that the course is a massive undertaking on his part for which the Chair should be grateful, that the student should understand that he's teaching him/her to do what sociologists do and that includes studying sensitive topics, and that students aren't being asked to reveal their opinions on the topic to informants or anyone else. Moreover, most of the data have already been gathered and it is not practical to launch a difference study at this point. Finally, the research has been approved by the IRB and, from his point of view, the Chair is interfering with his academic freedom by intimating that his choice of research focus for the course was insensitive.


  1. Does the sensitive nature of the topic of this assignment raise ethical issues? If so, what are they?
  2. Does the principle of academic freedom and IRB clearance override any ethical concerns?
  3. Does the Chair have ethical obligations to do more than she has?

     Reflect on the above questions and form your own answers before clicking the discussion key to review the commentary provided with this case.