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  • Print publication year: 2013
  • Online publication date: August 2013

14 - Research ethics


Science sans conscience n’est que ruine de l’ame.

François Rabelais, Pantagruel (1532)

Outline of the chapter

This chapter introduces the salient issues relating to research ethics in sociolinguistics. It addresses obligations on the part of the researcher towards research participants and discusses the question of legitimacy of data, the importance of anonymity and under what circumstances informed consent should be sought. The dilemma that arises out of the legitimate quest for knowledge and the equally legitimate concerns to protect privacy and personality rights is also expounded.

Key terms: Legitimate data, anonymity, informed consent, moral responsibility


I once shared an office at a research institute in Tokyo with a postdoctoral fellow who was interested in giving directions, that is, in the speech event of giving and receiving directions and following the directions received. This is an everyday situation we have all experienced many times; but how to get any quantitative data from which more general patterns can be derived than chance observations reveal? My colleague had a practical solution. He paid a taxi driver a small amount of money to allow him to place a tape recorder in his car. Since taxi customers often give directions, he was able in the course of a couple of weeks to gather a fine corpus of the data he needed. I was astonished when he happily told me about his ingenious ploy, although, I have to admit, until that time I had never given much thought to the matter of the ethics of fieldwork myself. At the time, in the 1980s, few people had; in biomedical and health research, yes, but not in the social sciences. My American colleague was surely no exception.

Further reading
Allen, Charlotte. 1997. Spies like us: when sociologists deceive their subjects. Lingua Franca 7: 31–9.
Dwyer, Arienne. 2006. Ethics and practicalities of cooperative fieldwork and analysis. In Gippert, Jost, Himmelmann, Nikolaus P., Mosel, Ulrike (eds.), Essentials of Language Documentation. Berlin and New York: Mouton de Gruyter, 31–66.
Ess, Charles and Association of Internet Researchers. 2002. Ethical decision-making and Internet research.
Holton, Gary. 2005. Ethical practices in language documentation and archiving languages.