Here at the Whisperer we try to make your life easier by reading books and doing reviews. We try to review books which would appeal to most researchers, but some of the books we get sent have more specific audiences in mind. “Ethics and Values in Social research” by Paul Ransome is clearly designed for those in the humanities and social sciences doing field based research. I decided it had just wide enough appeal for us to review, but if you are in the sciences you might want to stop reading now (I wont be offended).
I was lucky enough to find two students engaged exactly this kind of research to review the book for us. Sandra Lauer is a volunteer member of the NSW Rural Fire Service, and is studying rural fire brigades and the concept of “shared responsibility” for her PhD at ANU. Jennifer Upchurch is a member of the youth service organisation, Rotaract, and is doing an ethnographic study of Australian Rotaract Clubs for her PhD at ANU.
Missing from many introductory social research textbooks is the connection to this bigger picture; an acknowledgment of the ways in which social researchers are part of what we are researching and how this may affect the participants and activities within our research.
As social researchers located in a specific discipline, the history and traditions of the discipline offer us theoretical frameworks from which we design, develop and conduct our research. Occasionally, there is a tendency to get lost in the academic jargon and literature of these traditions and we risk becoming distanced from the social world we are trying to investigate. Conversely, for those engaging as “Complete Member Researchers” (Adler 1987:35), it is also easy to become so involved in the social world of the researched that disciplinary traditions become distanced from our experiences in the field.
This tension increases the need to be reflexive about the research process; what is our ontology (how we see the world) and epistemology (how we understand knowledge) and what are the relationships between them? The bigger picture here also involves understanding ethics and values in considering our relationship and ethical responsibilities to our participants.
In Paul Ransome’s book, Ethics and Values in Social Research, we were pleasantly surprised to find an honest and open examination of the links between ethics, ontology and epistemology and how these drive the ethical and moral practice of the researcher. This book gets researchers to think about the bigger picture by posing a series of ethical and methodological exercises to help strengthen reflexivity in their research practice.
Both of us are “Complete Member-Researchers” (Adler 1987) in that we are members of the populations they are studying. Because of this, we often talk together about how this impacts on our ethical responsibilities to our participants. Upon seeing this book advertised to review, we wondered, how might a book like this be used in helping research students to craft their ethics applications, methodology and methods chapters, and encourage reflexivity throughout the process?
The book starts with a rather traditional discussion of the definitions of ethics and values, and how these underpin the codes of professional and ethical practice, including a historical overview and practical examples. This section gives a good grounding in the practicalities of human ethics applications and ethical research design. Ransome then puts researchers under the microscope in examining how the process of becoming an “ethical researcher” is socially constructed, for example by ethics statements and the institutional-legal side of the human ethics application process. Ransome reminds us that these procedures are a safeguard to ensure that the moral conscience of the researcher is engaged in the design of research itself.
The following chapters deal with the underlying philosophical principles of knowledge (epistemology) and reality/being (ontology) and link this back to how different research traditions will differ with their methodologies. The book provides in-depth discussions about reflection and reflexivity, the challenges of critical research and the complexities of ideological/political/value standpoints for social researchers. It is here that the book excels, taking the reader on a journey that highlights how different methodological paradigms impact on research design and the choice of methods, and how these then integrate with ethical considerations and value judgments.
The later chapters discuss different types of participatory social research, e.g. action research, and how these denote different research motivations and thus different ethical responsibilities to participants. In examining the “best practice” of reflexive practice, and drawing on the methodological discussion in previous chapters, Ransome encourages the reader to imagine themselves within the context of the research community around them, not just in the field with their participants. In a conversational tone, the book’s focus moves repeatedly from the researched to the researcher and back again. At times this is a little dizzying and a lot to process, but it is a conversation into which the reader cannot help but be drawn, as they question their relationships with their participants.
The final chapter looks at policy making from the standpoint of the researcher. It considers the researcher’s position in the current environment where policy outcomes are only measurable in the context of other policies and their outcomes. Ransome does some intellectual “heavy-lifting”, discussing how this might impact on the intentions of the social researcher in how they seek to affect change through policy, and consequently how this re-defines the ethics of research design itself.
We highly recommend this book as a “methodological gymnasium” for social researchers at any stage of the research process. For beginners in higher research planning their project proposals and reviews, the book allows you to chart the links between all of those ‘ologies in your research design and pave the way for much more reflexive project. For people who are halfway through a thesis, this book has prompts for helping you think about how your research outputs are motivated by your values. And for people writing up, this book might help you decode how your findings reflect your relationships with your participants.
To sum up, Ethics and Values in Social Research reminds researchers that reflexivity acts as a means for us to ethically respect ourselves and others in the research process:
“embracing the idea of reflexivity, we must accept that from the very moment the research process begins in the imagination of the researcher, social research is, in a truly experiential sense, a learning process for the social researcher.” (Ransome 2013:168)
This book will help you along in that learning process, at whichever stage you may find yourself.
Adler, P. A. (1987). Membership roles in field research (Vol. 6). Sage.
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