Social Research Ethics

By Prof Lakshmi Lingam, Dr Sunita Bandewar   |   Tata Institute of Social Sciences , Health, Ethics and Law Institute for Training Research and Advocacy (HEaL Institute)
Learners enrolled: 610

This course will be useful for students who are pursuing social sciences research at Masters, MPhil and PhD levels. Faculty from academic institutions and individuals working in research organisations and think tanks will also find this course very useful. The course covers several theoretical and methodological issues in research which intrinsically are about good scientific research which uphold high  ethical standards.

Introduction to the Course

Various fields of science adhere to the rigours of scientific method like reliability, validity and replicability governing research. Unlike research in pure sciences, which attempts to carry out research in a laboratory setting, in social sciences, research is based largely within the context of society, communities and everyday lives of people.

Crucial to social science practice is the relationship between the researcher and the researched. Since human beings are embedded within a system of social hierarchies, these too manifest within social science research. Central to research ethics is the recognition of asymmetrical/imbalanced relationship amongst the key players in research - researchers, research institutes, sponsors/funders, research participants and communities, for example. 

Awareness of ethical considerations become very important, and must be navigated to ensure that research respects the dignity, privacy and rights of the individuals being researched. 

This course will attempt to build the awareness and understanding of participants who enrol for this course to:

1. Appreciate the salience of research ethics in upholding scientific integrity of research enterprise and

2. Identify and apply the methods of ethical reasoning to social science research. 

Course Status : Ongoing
Course Type : Elective
Duration : 16 weeks
Start Date : 16 Jul 2021
End Date : 31 Oct 2021
Exam Date : 27 Nov 2021 IST
Enrollment Ends : 31 Aug 2021
Category :
  • Humanities and Social Sciences
Credit Points : 4
Level : Postgraduate

Course layout

Weekly course outline 

Week 1: Introductory Concepts & Principles 

Amongst others, this course engages with two key domains which are: research; and research ethics.  During this opening week, course participants will be engaged with select key questions as a way of laying down foundations to the course. These key questions include: What is Social Sciences Research? What is the relevance and significance of social sciences research? What is the idea of Ethics? In what ways does it manifest in our everyday and in research? What is the relevance of Ethics within social sciences research? Do course participants view it as a mandatory requirement or process embedded in carrying out robust rigorous research? 

Week 2: Introduction to types & stages of Research 

During this week, course participants will be taken through an understanding of different types of research, stages of research and decisions pertaining to type of research methodology to be used for a given research. This week’s content will provide the background for sessions that come up during Week 10 and 11. 

Week 3: Justice, Equity and Fairness governing Research

In this third week of the course, participants will learn and appreciate equity frameworks in the context of carrying out research to build knowledge of relevance in a manner that addresses broader justice questions.  Participants will learn that this is an overarching framework to be considered right at the outset while designing research making specific research work robustly informed by justice and equity at conceptual and operational levels. 

Week 4: History of Bio-ethics & controversies

During this week, course participants will appreciate the current social science research ethics discourse in the historical context of bioethics discourse. The faculty will briefly discuss various controversies that took place over the past few decades in social science research in disciplines such as psychology, and anthropology. Participants will also get an opportunity to get insights into controversies in medical sciences and public health research. These controversies have contributed to enriching bioethics discourse and have also shaped it by further sharpening research ethics obligations towards research participants and participating communities. 

Week 5: Theoretical Approaches to Bio-ethics

During this week, participants will learn about the theoretical underpinning of research ethics discourse. They will learn that multiplicity of approaches exist to understand and help address ethical issues and dilemmas in social sciences research. Course participants will also learn about the most used framework of research ethics benchmarks.  

Week 6: Social Relevance and Scientific Validity

During this week, participants will learn about two of the foundational principles of research ethics, that is, social relevance and scientific validity of the proposed research. Participants will appreciate importance of ensuring that research meets these two principles. They will learn to assess and ensure social relevance of the proposed research and methods of safe guarding scientific validity of research. They will learn that these are also important considerations during ethics review undertaken by ethics review boards. They will get insights into research scenarios wherein these two principles may conflict with each other requiring further thinking. 

Week 7: Informed consent

During this week, participants will learn the most referred key concept in research ethics discourse, that is, seeking informed consent from research participants; and an allied concept of seeking authorisation of various gate keepers in varied research contexts and settings. They will learn the concept of gate keepers which could be institutes or individuals.  They will learn both theoretical and practical aspects of these concepts. They will learn to translate these key concepts into practice; and appreciate challenges involved, specificities relating to research contexts and settings; and various possibilities to address them by reasoning out employing ethics principles drawing upon what they would have learnt in the course by then.

Week 8: Privacy and confidentiality

In this week, course participants will learn about yet other two of the key concepts, namely, privacy and confidentiality to be maintained relating to research participants, participating communities and information collected from them which are central to research ethics discourse and practice. They will learn both theoretical and practical aspects of these concepts. They will learn to translate these key concepts into practice; and appreciate challenges involved, specificities relating to research contexts and settings; and various possibilities to address them by reasoning out employing ethics principles drawing upon what they would have learnt in the course by then.

Week 9: Risk benefit analysis

During this week, research participants will learn about risk-benefit analysis in relation to research participants, and when necessary study communities. They will learn both theoretical and practical aspects of these concepts; appreciate challenges involved, specificities relating to research contexts and settings; and ways to address them.  

Week 10: Ethics of positivist and non-positivist approaches in
social science research in health

This session aims to identify the potential ethical challenges in positivist and non-positivist approaches to research in social sciences. It also describes the relativist and universalist approaches to resolving such ethical dilemmas and provides examples of possible solutions.

Week 11: Ethical challenges specific to research methods: quantitative and qualitative methods

This session aims to describe the ethical challenges specific to quantitative and qualitative research methods. It also provides examples of such challenges within quantitative and qualitative research.


Week 12: Translating Ethics concepts in different research settings

Building on the learnings so far in the course, in this week, course participants will learn to appreciate distinct study settings and the concept of situational vulnerabilities. These have implications translating research ethics principles in a manner that takes into account field setting specificities.

Week 13: Research Ethics Governance 

During this week, course participants will learn about ethics review boards, their functioning, and responsibilities of ethics review board members as the key research ethics governance structure and processes. They will learn that engagement with this important body which if functions well carries immense potential to enhance overall quality of research both in terms of scientific validity and research ethics rigour. They will also learn briefly specific obligations in collaborative research initiatives.

Week 14: Publication Ethics 

In this week, course participants will learn about the concepts of publication ethics and research integrity; their importance; and reasons for such practices. They will learn about the concept of authorship and responsibilities that are implied; ghost and guest authorship. Participants will learn about key concepts, such as plagiarism, data manipulation practices which breach integrity of scientific knowledge. The course participants will also learn about the concept of conflict of interest and its relationship with scientific integrity; and ways to address and manage conflict of interest. 

Week 15: Concluding session 

During this closing week, course participants will have an opportunity to review some of the key concepts they learnt during the fifteen weeks and their translation in to research practice. 

Books and references


  1. Mertens, D. M., & Ginsberg, P. E. (2009). The handbook     of social research ethics Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, Inc. doi: 10.4135/9781483348971
  2. CEHAT-NCESSRH Ethics Guidelines for Social Science Research in Health (2000).
  3. Campbell Richard T. Risk and Harm Issues in Social Science Research. Position Paper Prepared for Human Subjects Policy Conference, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, USA. April 2003.
  4. Emanuel EJ, Wendler D, Killen J, Grady C. What makes clinical research in developing countries ethical: The benchmarks of ethical research. J Infect Dis. 2004;189: 930–7.
  5. Ethical Guidelines for Social Science Research in Health, NCESSRH, CEHAT, Mumbai, 2000.
  6. Harper I (2007). Translating ethics: Researching public health and medical practices in Nepal. Soc Sci & Med, 65: 2235-2247.
  7. Israel, M., & Hay, I. (2006).Research ethics for social scientists London, : SAGE Publications, Ltd doi: 10.4135/9781849209779. 
  8. Khanloua N and Peter E. Participatory action research: considerations for ethical review. Social Science & Medicine, 60 (2005) 2333–2340.
  9. Liamputtong Pranee. Researching the Vulnerable. Sage Publications. 2007.
  10. Louis KS, Holdsworth, JM., Anderson MS, and Campbell E (2008). Everyday ethics in research: Translating authorship guidelines into practice in bench sciences. The journal of higher education, 79(1): 88-112.
  11. McRae A.D., Weijer C., et al. Who is the research subject in cluster randomized trials in health research? Trials 2011, 12:183 http://www.trialsjournal.com/content/12/1/183.
  12. Mertens, D. M., & Ginsberg, P. E. (2009). The handbook of social research ethics. Thousand Oaks.
  13. Mukta S Kuyare, Santosh R Taur, Urmila M Thatte. Establishing institutional ethics committees: challenges and solutions–a review of the literature. IJME, 2014, 11(3). DOI: https://doi.org/10.20529/IJME.2014.047.
  14. Parker Michael. Ethnography/ethics. Social Science & Medicine 65 (2007) 2248–2259.
  15. Schopper D., Dawson A., Upshur R., Ahmad A5,6 Jesani A., Ravinetto R., Segelid M., Sheel S., Singh J. Innovations in research ethics governance in humanitarian settings. BMC Medical Ethics. 2015, 16:10. DOI 10.1186/s12910-015-0002-3.
  16. Singer E. Risk, Benefit, and Informed Consent in Survey Research. Survey Research, 2004, 35(2-3): 1-5.
  17. Smith E., Matthew Hunt M., Master Z. Authorship ethics in global health research partnerships between researchers from low or middle income countries and high income countries. BMC Medical Ethics 2014, 15:42 http://www.biomedcentral.com/1472-6939/15/42. 

Instructor bio

Prof Lakshmi Lingam

Tata Institute of Social Sciences
Dr. Lakshmi Lingam is a Professor at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences with the School of Media and Cultural Studies. She is a gender expert, trainer, teacher, researcher and academic administrator. Dr. Lakshmi has been on the Faculty of the TISS for the past 32 years. During the period 2011-16, Prof. Lingam was the Deputy Director at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), in Hyderabad. Dr. Lakshmi’s research interests range from exploring the social and gender-specific implications of macro economic policies; urban poverty and women’s livelihoods; studying women’s movements and other social movements; understanding women’s health and reproductive rights; and exploring issues of culture, women’s identity and agency. She has undertaken several research projects and published extensively on gender, health, development; structural adjustment & urban poverty; micro credit & women empowerment and public policies. Dr. Lakshmi was a Fulbright Fellow twice, an Indo-Shastri Fellow and Visiting Fellow with the University of Michigan, USA and Keele University, UK. Lakshmi Lingam is on the Curriculum Advisory Boards of several Women Studies Departments in Indian Universities as well as Technical and Ethical Advisory Board member of NGOs. Dr Lakshmi Lingam’s publications are available on https://tiss.academia.edu/LakshmiLingam and

Dr Sunita Bandewar

Health, Ethics and Law Institute for Training Research and Advocacy (HEaL Institute)
Dr Sunita leads a newly established entity, 'Health, Ethics and Law Institute for Training Research and Advocacy' (HEaL Institute). It is a programmatic platform of the Forum for Medical Ethics Society (FMES), a 28 years old organisationwhich is also publisher of the Indian Journal of Medical Ethics (IJME). She serves on the Managing Committee of FMES and holds the office of General Secretary of FMES. She serves on the core editorial group of IJME.  At HEaL Institute, amongst others, she conceptualizes, develops and conducts short duration intensive training programs in various sub-fields of bioethics in collaboration with universities, academic institutions, and non-government organizations. 
She was awarded an International Fellowship by the International Fogarty Centre, NIH, USA, to pursue a Masters in Health Sciences (Bioethics), at the Joint Centre for Bioethics, University of Toronto, Canada, in 2003-04. Her engagement with health as a field of enquiry over these past 30 years is primarily via empirical research and advocacy in the areas of women and health, global health, and bioethics. She was a senior research fellow in bioethics and global health at the University of Toronto on the initiative titled 'Ethical, Social, Cultural Program in Global Health', Canada, for five years. Through this programme, she had extensive opportunities to work in the African continent, engage with the newer ethical challenges in global health context, and contribute to the scholarship in these areas via collaborative work with global partners. 

She has published a number of papers in peer-reviewed journals. She serves on the International Ethics Review Board, Médecins Sans Frontières, Geneva. She worked in collaboration with colleagues at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai.   She is one of the founding trustees of Vidhayak Trust, Pune. 

She also works independently as a senior research professional, a consultant and a trainer in the areas of bioethics, global health, research methodology, program evaluation and policy analysis; and teaches in masters and certificate programs in different universities and colleges in India in these areas. 

Course certificate

Students/ Participants who successfully complete the course requirements will receive a grade sheet and a Certificate from the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (deemed University) and the UGC SWAYAM. The credits can be used as part of the CBCS courses at various Indian Universities. 

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