Ethics are self-regulatory guidelines for making decisions and defining professions. By establishing ethical codes, professional organizations maintain the integrity of the profession, define the expected conduct of members, and protect the welfare of subjects and clients. Moreover, ethical codes give professionals direction when confronting ethical dilemmas or confusing situations. A case in point is a scientist's decision whether to intentionally deceive subjects or inform them about the true risks or goals of a controversial but much-needed experiment. Many organizations, such as the American Sociological Association, establish ethical principles and guidelines. The vast majority of today's social scientists abide by their respective organizations' ethical principles.
The American Sociological Association's (ASA's) Code of Ethics sets forth the principles and ethical standards that underlie sociologists' professional responsibilities and conduct. These principles and standards should be used as guidelines when examining everyday professional activities. They constitute normative statements for sociologists and provide guidance on issues that sociologists may encounter in their professional work. The ASA’s code of ethics contains five general principles and explanations:
1. Professional competence: Sociologists strive to maintain the highest levels of competence in their work; they recognize the limitations of their expertise; and they undertake only those tasks for which they are qualified by education, training, or experience. They recognize the need for ongoing education in order to remain professionally competent; and they utilize the appropriate scientific, professional, technical, and administrative resources needed to ensure competence in their professional activities. They consult with other professionals when necessary for the benefit of their students, research participants, and clients.
2. Integrity: Sociologists are honest, fair, and respectful of others in their professional activities—in research, teaching, practice, and service. Sociologists do not knowingly act in ways that jeopardize either their own or others' professional welfare. Sociologists conduct their affairs in ways that inspire trust and confidence; they do not knowingly make statements that are false, misleading, or deceptive.
3. Professional and scientific responsibility: Sociologists adhere to the highest scientific and professional standards and accept responsibility for their work. Sociologists understand that they form a community and show respect for other sociologists even when they disagree on theoretical, methodological, or personal approaches to professional activities. Sociologists value the public trust in sociology and are concerned about their ethical behavior and that of other sociologists that might compromise that trust. While endeavoring always to be collegial, sociologists must never let the desire to be collegial outweigh their shared responsibility for ethical behavior. When appropriate, they consult with colleagues in order to prevent or avoid unethical conduct.
4. Respect for people’s rights, dignity, and diversity: Sociologists respect the rights, dignity, and worth of all people. They strive to eliminate bias in their professional activities, and they do not tolerate any forms of discrimination based on age; gender; race; ethnicity; national origin; religion; sexual orientation; disability; health conditions; or marital, domestic, or parental status. They are sensitive to cultural, individual, and role differences in serving, teaching, and studying groups of people with distinctive characteristics. In all of their work-related activities, sociologists acknowledge the rights of others to hold values, attitudes, and opinions that differ from their own.
5. Social responsibility: Sociologists are aware of their professional and scientific responsibility to the communities and societies in which they live and work. They apply and make public their knowledge in order to contribute to the public good. When undertaking research, they strive to advance the science of sociology and to serve the public good.
CliffsNotes.com. (2011). Ethics in Sociological Research. http://www.cliffsnotes.com/study_guide/topicArticleId-26957,articleId-26845.html
American Sociological Association. (2011). http://www.asanet.org/about/ethics.cfm