Chapter 2: Ethics in Research

2.5 A Final Word about the Protection of Research Participants

As mentioned earlier, the informed consent process includes the requirement that researchers outline how they will protect the identities of human participants. This aspect of the process, however, is one of the most commonly misunderstood aspects of research. In protecting human participants’ identities, researchers typically promise to maintain either the anonymity or the confidentiality of their research participants. Anonymity is the more stringent of the two. When a researcher promises anonymity to participants, not even the researcher is able to link participants’ data with their identities. Anonymity may be impossible for some sociological researchers to promise because several of the modes of data collection that sociologists employ, such as participant observation and face-to-face interviewing, require that researchers know the identities of their research participants. In these cases, a researcher should be able to at least promise confidentiality to participants. Offering confidentiality means that some identifying information on one’s participants is known and may be kept, but only the researcher can link participants with their data, and he or she promises not to do so publicly. Protecting research participants’ identities is not always a simple prospect, especially for those conducting research on stigmatized groups or illegal behaviors.