School of Social and Political Science

Ethical Scandals and Foundational Myths: A search for ethical principles in political science

28 April 2021
11:30 - 12:30




On 28 April, we welcome Rebecca Tapscott (Visiting Scholar, PIR, Edinburgh) to SKAPE as part of our annual seminar series.

What makes political science research unethical? This question is challenging in part because political research is often about power and its distribution. With no universally accepted notion of how power should be distributed, it becomes difficult to assess how to weigh potential harms and benefits. And yet, ensuring that the benefits of research outweigh likely harms is a key tenet of assessing whether research is ethical. This approach is drawn from biomedical ethics, and is founded on an account of the Tuskegee Syphilis Study, which enrolled 600 African-American men without their knowledge to study the progression of untreated syphilis, and denied them medical care even after penicillin became a widely available and inexpensive treatment. Revealed by the media in 1972, this 40-year study is often cited as the catalyst for the formation of now internationally recognised ethical principles: respect for persons, beneficence, and justice. Some governments and institutions have extended these same principles to social sciences research. However, many have noted that the epistemology of biomedical research assumes particular relationships between researcher, subject, and knowledge production that do not translate smoothly to studies of politics and society. While some have suggested that political science in particular, and the social sciences in general, might do well to produce their own ethical code, there is no scandal analogous to Tuskegee in the social sciences from which principles might be derived. Instead, numerous ethically-dubious studies dot the trajectory of ethical discussions in political science.

By examining the offending characteristics of several of these studies, this paper aims to pinpoint how political scientists draw lines in the sand between ethically acceptable and objectionable practice, and reflects on what this tells us about ethical principles in political science.

The seminar will take place online via Zoom (for link details, please email the Co-Directors - if you are already a member/associate member of SKAPE, then you will receive a Zoom link two days before the start of the event).

Key speakers

  • Rebecca Tapscott (PIR, Edinburgh)