Ethical Scholars and Unethical Committees
Ethics and Fieldwork in the Study of Religion
Keywords:codes of practice, ethics committees, Jehovah’s Witnesses, new religious movements, research ethics
In most education institutions, research involving human subjects requires to be scrutinized by an ethics committee. After outlining the history of research ethics and codes of practice, the author draws on his own experience of research on Jehovah’s Witnesses, examining issues of consent, disclosure, respect for informants, and confidentiality. It is argued that institutional ethics committees tend to apply a biomedical model of research, which is inappropriate in the study of religion. Several problems in the operation of research committees are identified, such as their typical adversarial stance, the frequent lack of appropriate qualifications among members, and their failure to recognize the ways in which research in religion is conducted. Ethical considerations are not limited to fieldwork, and the author argues the need to recognize the wider aspects of research, and to note the ways in which other organizations address ethical issues. Such organizations include religious communities themselves, business companies, and a few universities who have developed a concern for their wider social responsibility. Although there remains a place for ethics committees, they can themselves operate in an unethical manner, and need to take a more humane and realistic account of research methods in the study of religion.
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