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

Hella von Unger, Hansjörg Dilger, Michael Schönhuth


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.



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


Copyright (c) 2016 Hella von Unger, Hansjörg Dilger, Michael Schönhuth

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