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3.3 Ethics at Micro, Meso, and Macro Levels

Learning Objective

  1. Identify and distinguish between micro-, meso-, and macrolevel considerations with respect to the ethical conduct of social scientific research.

One useful way to think about the breadth of ethical questions that might arise out of any research project is to think about potential issues from the perspective of different analytical levels. In Chapter 2 "Linking Methods With Theory", you learned about the micro, meso, and macro levels of inquiry and how a researcher’s specific point of focus might vary depending on his or her level of inquiry. Here we’ll apply the micro-meso-macro framework to a discussion of research ethics. Within most research projects, there are specific questions that arise for researchers at each of these three levels.

At the micro levelTake into account individual-level questions of ethics such as the conduct of a specific researcher. At the micro level, researchers must consider their own conduct and the rights of individual research participants., researchers must consider their own conduct and the rights of individual research participants. For example, did Stanley Milgram behave ethically when he allowed research participants to think that they were administering electronic shocks to fellow participants? Did Laud Humphreys behave ethically when he deceived his research subjects about his own identity? Were the rights of individuals in these studies protected? While there may not be any easy answers, the questions posed here are the sort that you will want to ask yourself as a researcher when considering ethics at the micro level.

At the meso levelTake into account disciplinary or professional questions of ethics such as a profession’s ethical guidelines. At the meso level, researchers should think about the expectations of their given profession., researchers should think about the expectations of their given profession (in this case, sociology). As discussed in Section 3.2 "Specific Ethical Issues to Consider", the American Sociological Association (ASA) has a Code of Ethics that outlines our profession’s expectations when it comes to how we conduct our research. The ASA also has a strong history of supporting sociologists who conduct research in a way that follows the Code of Ethics but for which they experience some legal trouble. In 2009, for example, when Scott DeMuth was facing terrorism charges, the ASA’s Animals and Societies Section wrote a public statement in support of DeMuth.Council of the Animals and Society Section of the American Sociological Association: Support for Scott DeMuth. (2009). Retrieved from Sixteen years earlier, in 1993, the ASA wrote an amicus brief in support of Washington State University sociology graduate student Rik Scarce who, like DeMuth, was conducting a study of animal rights activism for his dissertation research.American Sociological Association. (1993). Case 99: A real case involving the protection of confidential data. Retrieved from Scarce spent 159 days in jail because he refused to share with authorities the nature of conversations he’d had with several of his research participants, animal rights activists suspected of vandalizing animal research facilities (Scarce v. United States, 1993).Scarce v. United States, 5 F.3d 397, 399–400 (9th Cir. 1993).

Finally, at the macro levelTake into account societal-level questions of ethics such as the public’s expectations of research. At the macro level, researchers should consider their duty to, and the expectations of, society., a researcher should consider her or his duty to, and the expectations of, society. Perhaps the most high-profile case involving macrolevel questions of research ethics comes from debates over whether to use data gathered by, or cite published studies based on data gathered from, the Nazis in the course of their unethical and horrendous experiments on humans during World War II (Moe, 1984).Moe, K. (1984). Should the Nazi research data be cited? The Hastings Center Report, 14, 5–7. Some argue that because the data were gathered in such an unquestionably unethical manner, they should never be used. Further, some who argue against using the Nazi data point out that not only were the experiments immoral but the methods used to collect data were also scientifically questionable. The data, say these people, are neither valid nor reliable and should therefore not be used in any current scientific investigation (Berger, 1990).Berger, P. L. (1990). Nazi science: The Dachau hypothermia experiments. New England Journal of Medicine, 322, 1435–1440.

On the other hand, some people argue that data themselves are neutral; that “information gathered is independent of the ethics of the methods and that the two are not linked together” (Pozos, 1992, p. 104).Pozos, R. S. (1992). Scientific inquiry and ethics: The Dachau data. In A. L. Caplan (Ed.), When medicine went mad: Bioethics and the Holocaust (p. 104). Totowa, NJ: Humana Press. Others point out that not using the data could inadvertently strengthen the claims of those who deny that the Holocaust ever happened. In his striking statement in support of publishing the data, medical ethics professor Velvl Greene says,

Instead of banning the Nazi data or assigning it to some archivist or custodial committee, I maintain that it be exhumed, printed, and disseminated to every medical school in the world along with the details of methodology and the names of the doctors who did it, whether or not they were indicted, acquitted, or hanged.…Let the students and the residents and the young doctors know that this was not ancient history or an episode from a horror movie where the actors get up after filming and prepare for another role. It was real. It happened yesterday. (Greene, 1992, pp. 169–170)Greene, V. W. (1992). Can scientists use information derived from the concentration camps? Ancient anwers to new questions. In A. L. Caplan (Ed.), When medicine went mad: Bioethics and the Holocaust (pp. 169–170). Totowa, NJ: Humana Press.

While debates about the use of data collected by the Nazis are typically centered on medical scientists’ use of them, there are conceivable circumstances under which these data might be used by social scientists. Perhaps, for example, a social scientist might wish to examine contemporary reactions to the experiments. Or perhaps the data could be used in a study of the sociology of science. What do you think? Should data gathered by the Nazis be used or cited today? What arguments can you make in support of your position, and how would you respond to those who disagree?

Table 3.1 "Key Ethics Questions at Three Different Levels of Inquiry" summarizes the key questions that researchers might ask themselves about the ethics of their research at each level of inquiry.

Table 3.1 Key Ethics Questions at Three Different Levels of Inquiry

Level of inquiry Focus Key ethics questions for researchers to ask themselves
Micro Individual Does my research impinge on the individual’s right to privacy?
Could my research offend subjects in any way?
Could my research cause emotional distress to any of my subjects?
Has my own conduct been ethical throughout the research process?
Meso Group Does my research follow the ethical guidelines of my profession and discipline?
Have I met my duty to those who funded my research?
Macro Society Does my research meet societal expectations of social research?
Have I met my social responsibilities as a researcher?

Key Takeaways

  • At the micro level, researchers should consider their own conduct and the rights of individual research participants.
  • At the meso level, researchers should consider the expectations of their profession and of any organizations that may have funded their research.
  • At the macro level, researchers should consider their duty to and the expectations of society with respect to social scientific research.


  1. The ASA website offers a case study of Rik Scarce’s experience with protecting his data. You can read the case, and some thought-provoking questions about it, here: What questions and concerns about conducting sociological research does Scarce’s experience raise for you?
  2. The PBS series NOVA has an informative website and exercise on public opinion of the use of the Nazi experiment data. Go through the exercise at