Journal of Academic Ethics

, Volume 8, Issue 4, pp 301–314 | Cite as

The Importance of Ethical Appraisal in Social Science Research: Reviewing a Faculty of Humanities’ Research Ethics Committee

  • Katinka De WetEmail author


Research Ethics Committees (RECs) or Institutional Review Boards (IRBs) are rapidly becoming indispensable mechanisms in the overall workings of university institutions. In fact, the ethical dimension is an important aspect of research governance processes present in institutions of higher learning. However, it is often deemed that research in the social sciences do not require ethical appraisal or clearance, because of the alleged absence of harm in conducting such research. This is an erroneous and dangerous assumption given that research in social sciences poses various and complex dilemmas related to ethics. The article aims to gauge the importance of ethical appraisal at a particular institution of higher learning’s Faculty of Humanities. This is done by scrutinising its defunct REC, and the views that Heads of Departments of the Faculty have of ethics in research and the need for ethical appraisal by this REC. Finally, some suggestions are made to proceed to review and restructure the current REC with the ultimate objective to make it functional again. It was found that the development and discussion around ethics in research and ethical appraisal are part of a much needed thrust to sensitise the entire Faculty and the institution on the widespread beneficial repercussions of ethical awareness in research and beyond.


Research ethics committee Faculty of humanities Social science Ethical appraisal 



I would like to thank the conveners of the post-graduate Diploma in International Research Ethics at the Bioethics Centre, University of Cape Town for the opportunity to complete this course and their feedback on this piece of research that served as my practicum. I am also grateful for the FOGARTY scholarship that allowed me to complete this course. I would also like to thank Professor Christo Heunis for his comments on the text.


  1. Benatar, S. R. (2002). Reflections and recommendations on research ethics in developing countries. Social Science and Medicine, 54, 1131–1141.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Burgess, M. (2007). Proposing modesty for informed consent. Social Science and Medicine, 65, 2284–2295.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Caplan, A. (2001). Research ban at Hopkins a sign of ethical crisis., accessed 14 August 2009.
  4. Gunsalus, C. K., Bruner, E. M., Burbules, N. C., et al. (2006). Mission Creep in the IRB World. Science, 312, 1441.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Hedgecoe, A. (2008). Research Ethics Review and the Sociological Research Relationship. Sociology, 42(5), 873–886.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Hyder, A. A., Dawson, L., Abdulgafoor, B. M., & Lavery, J. V. (2009). Moving from research ethics review to research ethics systems in low-income and middle-income countries. The Lancet, 373, 862–865.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Jacobson, N., Gewurtz, R., & Haydon, E. (2007). Ethical Review of Interpretive Research: Problems and Solutions. IRB: Ethics & Human Research, 29(5), 1–8.Google Scholar
  8. Jansen, J. (2009). Knowledge in the Blood. Confronting Race and the Apartheid Past. California/Cape Town: Stanford University Press/ UCT Press.Google Scholar
  9. Kim, S., Ubel, P., & De Vries, R. (2009). Pruning the regulatory tree. Nature, 457, 534–535.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Lederman, R. (2007). Comparative ‘Research’; A Modest Proposal concerning the Object of Ethics Regulation. PoLAR (Political and Legal Anthropology Review), 30(2), 305–327.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Marshall, P., & Koenig, B. (2004). Accounting for culture in a globalized bioethics. Journal of Law, Medicine and Ethics, 32, 252–266.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. McNeill, P., & Pfeffer, N. (2001). Learning from Unethical Research. In L. Doyal & S. Tobias (Eds.), Informed Consent in Medical Research (pp. 29–36). London: BMJ Books.Google Scholar
  13. Murphy, E., & Dingwall, R. (2007). Informed Consent, anticipatory regulation and ethnographic practice. Social Science and Medicine, 65, 2223–2234.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Rabinow, P. (Ed.). (1994). Michel Foucault. Ethics. Essential Works of Foucault 1954–1984, Volume I. London: Penguin Books.Google Scholar
  15. Spiegel, A. (2005). From exposé to care: Preliminary thoughts about shifting the ethical concerns of South African social anthropology. Anthropology Southern Africa, 28(3&4), 133–141.Google Scholar
  16. Wright, L. S. (2006). A Research Prospectus for the Humanities. In Shifting boundaries of knowledge: A view on Social Sciences, Law and Humanities in South Africa (pp. 65–78), Pietermaritzburg: UKZN Press.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2010

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Centre for Health Systems Research and DevelopmentUniversity of the Free StateBloemfonteinSouth Africa

Personalised recommendations