When are Researchers Accomplices to a Crime? Navigating Moral Boundaries

On the run cover

By: Celia B. Fisher, Ph.D.

In her book, On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City, sociologist Alice Goffman describes driving her passenger, “Mike,” a young man participating in her 6-year field study, looking to revenge the death of another young neighborhood man (Re: “Heralded Book on Crime Disputed” New York Times, C1, June 6, 2015). Irrespective of the legal implications of Dr. Goffman’s complicity in what might have been a felony, her honest portrayal of her own feelings of revenge and sorrow illuminates the ethical quandaries faced by researchers who immerse themselves in the lives of individuals living in crime-ridden neighborhoods. 

In interviews conducted with street drug users in New York City (Fisher, 2011), I found that when asked about similar scenarios (e.g. hiding drugs to help individuals avoid arrest) many were uncomfortable when scientists blur professional and personal boundaries, held researchers to a higher standard of moral responsibility even when they had a trusting relationship with community participants, that they should “know better” then to be involved in a crime, and that researchers had an obligation to “set an example…not the other way around.”

Celia B. Fisher, Ph.D., is Director of the Fordham University Center for Ethics Education, and served as Chair of the American Psychological Association’s (APA) Ethics Code Task Force responsible for the last comprehensive revision of the APA Ethical Principles of Psychologists and Code of Conduct and is the author of Decoding the Ethics Code: A Practical Guide for Psychologists now in its 3rd edition.

For more information on Dr. Fisher’s research, please read:

Fisher, C. B. (2011). Addiction Research Ethics and the Belmont Principles: Do Drug Users have a Different Moral Voice? Substance Use & Misuse, 46, 728 – 741.

One comment

  1. I’m glad you weighed in. Goffman’s book has been discussed quite a bit in my sociology circles; I’m happy to add your research and insights to the conversation!

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