Presidential Session Summary Ethics in Consumer Research

N. Craig Smith, Georgetown University
[ to cite ]:
N. Craig Smith (1998) ,"Presidential Session Summary Ethics in Consumer Research", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 25, eds. Joseph W. Alba & J. Wesley Hutchinson, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 68.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 25, 1998      Page 68



N. Craig Smith, Georgetown University

The purpose of this session, organized at the request of ACR President John Lynch, was to show how ethical issues can arise in consumer research and to identify steps that may be taken to reduce their likelihood. Leading researchers from three methodological perspectives (survey, ethnographic, and experimental) were invited to share their insights.

John G. Lynch (Duke University) introduced the session and helped clarify the roles and responsibilities of ACR and its individual members in the realization of ethical research conduct. He referred to ACR’s statement of values (see ACR News, March 1997), which includes the affirmation of ethical research conduct as a basic moral value. Lynch explained that ACR’s multidisciplinary composition reduced the scope for an all-embracing code of conduct governing consumer researchers, because ethical issues often turn on the paradigms of different areas. It is for this reason that the session includes contributions from different methodological perspectives.

N. Craig Smith (Georgetown University) introduced the topic of "Ethics in Consumer Research." As a way of framing the topic, Smith spoke first about marketing ethics. From this basis, he identified pointers for consumer researchers. First, the importance of ethical sensitivity. Second, the researcher should consider who is affected by his/her actions (especially research subjects) and how they might be affected (How would you feel in their place? How might others judge your action? What is your intention? Will your position be as valid in the future? Under what conditions would you allow exceptions to your position?). Third, the researcher might seek guidance from ethical maxims (e.g., the Golden Rule), codes of conduct (of his/her university or root discipline), the experience of others, and the general ethical theories of moral philosophy, as well as drawing on his/her own values.

Seymour Sudman (University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign) spoke on "Survey Research and Ethics." Sudman identified ethical issues in survey research and provided guidance on good practice, drawing on the code of conduct of the American Association for Public Opinion Research (AAPOR). Among the issues discussed were pressure on respondents to participate in research, when deception of respondents might be permissible, the role of informed consent,and data confidentiality. (This presentation is covered in more detail in an accompanying paper in these Proceedings.)

Eric J. Arnould (University of South Florida) spoke on "Ethical Issues in Consumer-Oriented Ethnographic Research." Arnould started his presentation by describing an ethical dilemma he faced while doing research in Chad under the auspices of CARE. He had to decide whether to disclose impropriety by a CARE employee. Arnould explained how the "prime directive" of the American Anthropological Association provided guidance. The AAA code states that anthropologists’ paramount responsibility is to those they study. The vignette was used to show how the nature of ethnographic research demands such an exacting standard. He noted, for example, that ethnography and participant observation require existentialist engagement, may exploit emotional involvement, and expose life worlds and life projects. Arnould concluded by stating that informed consent may not be possible in ethnographic research and that ethnographers should expect to encounter difficult dilemmas. (This presentation is covered in more detail in an accompanying paper in these Proceedings.)

Chris T. Allen (University of Cincinnati) spoke on "Ethical Dilemmas in Laboratory ResearchCor Your Student Subjects Could Be Somebody’s Daughters (or Sons)." Allen started his presentation by documenting evidence of the widespread use of deception in social psychology research and noting that consumer researchers increasingly depend on student subject pools. He then asked, "How do we view this wonderful resource? Do our actions build or erode trust?" Allen described the experience of his own daughter in a student subject pool and suggested the contract between the researcher and his daughter was broken, because of the demands placed on her time and the limited attention given to debriefing and to enriching her learning. He suggested that consumer researchers must overcome their lack of a debriefing tradition and, more broadly, need to not lose sight of the humanity of student subjects. In conclusion, he said: "Please remember, your student subjects really are somebody’s daughters or sons."

Following the presentations, there was an extensive discussion of the practical and ethical issues in debriefing subjects in experiments.