Ethics Reviews in the Social and Cultural Sciences? A Sociological and Anthropological Contribution to the Debate


  • Hella von Unger Ludwigs-Maximilians-Universität München
  • Hansjörg Dilger Freie Universität Berlin
  • Michael Schönhuth Universität Trier



ethics review boards, ethnography, social and cultural anthropology, research ethics, informed consent, sociology


In the German social and cultural sciences attention to research ethics is growing, with empirical researchers increasingly seeking advice and addressing ethical issues in their research practice. In addition, there is an infrastructural debate in this country about whether the use of ethics review boards for research projects should be widened. Researchers who apply for international funding or seek to publish internationally increasingly are expected to gain ethical approval for their empirical projects. Ethics reviews are common in the social and cultural sciences in the Anglophone world. But qualitative researchers severely criticize basic aspects of them—primarily the bureaucratization and regulation that such reviews entail and especially the fact that their institutionalized principles and procedures are incompatible with qualitative research. Designed for quantitative, clinical, or medical research, these characteristics may undermine the freedom, quality, and the diversity of methods and methodologies in social and cultural science research. Against this backdrop, what opportunities and challenges do the current developments in Germany present? The Munich symposium entitled "Research Ethics in Ethnographic Field Work" gave an occasion to formulate anthropological and sociological perspectives on this question.

We argue for a proactive institutional response, including that of providing ethics review boards to sociologists and anthropologists in Germany as long as such structures remain optional and allow for the methodological diversity and unique features of ethnographic field work. When it comes to fostering ethical conduct, however, we note that qualitative researchers find it far more relevant to promote ethical reflexivity in teaching and research practice than to introduce ethics review boards.



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Author Biographies

Hella von Unger, Ludwigs-Maximilians-Universität München

Hella VON UNGER, Professorin für Soziologie mit dem Schwerpunkt qualitative Methoden der empirischen Sozialforschung an der Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München (LMU). Mitglied des Vorstands der Sektion Qualitative Methoden der Deutschen Gesellschaft für Soziologie (DGS) (2016-2018) und Mitglied der Arbeitsgruppe "Forschungsethik" des Rat für Sozial- und Wirtschaftsdaten (RatSWD) (2015-2017).

Hansjörg Dilger, Freie Universität Berlin

Hansjörg DILGER,Professor für Sozial- und Kulturanthropologie mit den Schwerpunkten Medizin- und Religionsethnologie an der Freien Universität Berlin. Seit 2015 Vorsitzender des Fachverbands Ethologie, der Deutschen Gesellschaft für Völkerkunde (DGV), und von 2004 bis 2010 Sprecher der Arbeitsgruppe Medical Anthropology in der DGV. Co-Moderator des Blogs Medizinethnologie: Körper, Gesundheit und Heilung in einer vernetzten Welt.

Michael Schönhuth, Universität Trier

Michael SCHÖNHUTH, Professor für Ethnologie mit den Schwerpunkten Kultur und Entwicklung, partizipative Methoden, Wirkungs- und Netzwerkforschung an der Universität Trier. Er ist Gründungs- und Vorstandsmitglied der AG Entwicklungsethnologie, berät seit vielen Jahren Kultur-, Entwicklungs- und Regierungsinstitutionen sowie das International Network for Social Network Analysis (INSNA) im Bereich der Forschungsethik.



How to Cite

von Unger, H., Dilger, H., & Schönhuth, M. (2016). Ethics Reviews in the Social and Cultural Sciences? A Sociological and Anthropological Contribution to the Debate. Forum Qualitative Sozialforschung Forum: Qualitative Social Research, 17(3).



FQS Debate: Qualitative Research and Ethics