Assess Socially Sensitive Research in Psychology (Edexcel Psychology A-level| Advanced Information)

Socially sensitive research is described by Sieber and Stanley (1988) as studies that have potential social consequences for the participants, or the group of people represented by the research. Sieber and Stanley identified 4 key factors that may raise ethical implications in socially sensitive research; the research question (could the question be challenging a specific group or culture?), the methodology used (is the researcher catering to the confidentiality and anonymity of the people involved), institutional context (who is funding their research and how is the data going to be used?) and, the interpretation of data (how is the data going to be interpreted in the wider society and could it be used to inform policy).


Cyril Burt is an example of socially sensitive research, proving Sieber and Stanley's 4 points. Burt used studies of identical twins to support his theory that intelligence is largely genetic. His views greatly influence the Hadow Report (1926) which led to the implementation of the 11+ exam, which affected numerous generation of children when it was found out that Burt falsified his research data. Issues of socially sensitive research can also be seen throughout the various aspects of psychology.


One of the most influential studies conducted in the field of social psychology can be viewed as socially sensitive, that study is Milgram. Milgram (1963) set out to disprove that excuse of ‘just following orders’ used by Nazi criminals during the Nuremberg trials. However, his research found otherwise, and might suggest that in fact we are more prone to following orders from what we perceive as source of authority, which is what makes this socially sensitive as it may act as an excuse for criminals. Additionally, Milgram’s study only included men which could also lead to it being regarded socially sensitive research as it may lead to the stigmatisation of men in society as following blind obedience. On the other hand, Milgram’s research has benefited society allowing us to understand that visible sources of authority such as uniforms may prevent people from breaking the law.


Bartlett's (1932) reconstructive memory model in cognitive psychology can also be considered as socially sensitive research. This is due to the fact that Bartlett’s theory suggests our memory is made up of schemas and our memory is reconstructive so our memory may changed based on our schemas. This has applications to eye-witness testimony where people in the past may of have been wrongly convicted of crimes, they didn’t do due to a reconstructed memory (Ryan Ferguson). However, this has also benefited society by improving the legal system as people can no longer only be convicted based on eye-witness testimony.


Banduras research 1961, 1963, 1965 showed that if children watched aggression – lived, filmed or even cartoons, it increases the risk of them displaying aggression. This is socially sensitive research because it has implications for parenting practice because parents may feel, or be accused of being, irresponsible for allowing their children to see aggressive behaviour, thus making it a socially sensitive issue. However, it is important to note that Banduras research is important because it helps us understand how moving forward, we can reduce aggression such as the introduction of film certificates.


In Biological Psychology, Raine et al. (1997) research implies that murders and by extension perhaps other violent criminals are unable to control their aggressive urges as their brains are wired differently. This is socially sensitive because it has serious implications for how society responds to aggressive criminal behaviour and deals with issues of crime and punishment. Furthermore, research into the role of hormones in humane behaviour suggests that males are prenatally exposed to higher levels of testosterone which stimulates cell growth in the hypothalamus and the amygdala, which sets high levels of testosterone in adult hood. This is socially sensitive because it alienates men as these aggressive individuals that are pre-determined to be aggressive and are the reasons why may males are committing criminals offences.


Most of clinical psychology in itself is socially sensitive. Diagnosis of clinical disorders is socially sensitive as it heavily relies on the importance of validity and reliability – a wrong diagnosis can significantly affect an individuals life. Additionally, Rosenhan (1973) can also be considered socially sensitive as it demonstrated that the system could not tell the sane from insane, having a lot of patients and families doubt the diagnosis received at that time. However, Rosenhan’s research has led to the development of a more accurate diagnosis system and improved clinical psychology overall.


As can be seen psychology is in part socially sensitive and could bring about negative stereotypes or negative uses such as the use of aversion therapy to try treat homosexuality. Hence it is important that research is weighted in terms of the benefit it bring to psychological knowledge and the potential harm it may bring to society.

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