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Case 99. A Real Case Involving the Protection of Confidential Data


In 1991, Rik Scarce was a graduate student at Washington State University with longtime interests in radical social movements. Wanting to develop the area of animal rights activism as part of his graduate work, Scarce submits a proposal to this effect to his department. Scarce is planning a vacation and asks a former research participant to house-sit. While Scarce is on vacation, animal research facilities on campus are vandalized and animals are stolen or “liberated.” After the house-sitter appears on television to support animal rights activists, he is suspected by authorities of being involved in the break-in.

Scarce learns of the break-in on his return home when he sees a newspaper story about the incident. He discusses the story with the house-sitter and other individuals the house-sitter has invited to his home. Authorities suspect the other individuals of involvement in the break-in as well and want Scarce to reveal the nature of his conversations with them. After months of refusing to testify before a grand jury, Scarce agrees to answer questions relating to what he considers non-confidential (e.g., non-research) information. However, citing the then existing ASA Code of Ethics (1989), he refuses to answer other questions that pertain to his research. Scarce is jailed for more than four months under a contempt order.


  1. What is the main ethical issue underlying Scarce's refusal to testify?
  2. Are sociologists bound by the Code of Ethics to violate the law if it is necessary to protect the confidentiality of research information?
  3. Are there ways to prevent the situation in which Scarce became involved?
  4. What are the boundaries between research and participation?

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