Discussion and Results Chapter: Ethics in Research an Error in Human

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Ethics in Research

An error in human inquiry

Eyewitness testimony is frequently presented in criminal court cases, but it can be extremely unreliable. This unreliability is compounded when witnesses must identify persons of groups other than their own or when their experience is clouded because of exterior circumstances such as a lack of visibility or a heated, pressured moment. This was noteworthy in one 1984 case in which a Caucasian woman was raped and identified an African-American man out of a lineup of photographs within four or five minutes. "Police asked Thompson-Cannino to help draw a composite of her rapist. Later, she was shown a photo array with six photos. She initially chose two pictures from the array, one of which depicted [Ronald] Cotton," an African-American male (Garrett 2011). Cotton was later found to be innocent as a result of DNA evidence ten years later and the true rapist was later found, also using DNA.

It is not always possible to substantiate someone's innocence scientifically. However, in retrospect, criminologists find many faults with how Thompson-Cannino was questioned. "We do know that even unintended cues by well-meaning officers can play a dramatic role during these fraught identification procedures," and instead of a double-blind lineup, in which the examining officer does not know who the suspect is in the 'mug shots,' the officer questioning Thompson-Cannino was well aware that Cotton had been arrested and engaged in prompting the uncertain victim to make her incorrect selection (Garrett 2011). It is important to minimize all extraneous stimuli when victims are making identification and be aware of the fact that even though they may have experienced a horrific crime, memory is still imperfect. Fortunately, DNA is not subject to the same biases.


Garrett, B. (2011). Getting it wrong. Slate. Retrieved:


Ethical challenges in criminal justice research

Many of the discussions regarding the role of ethics in criminal justice research revolve around the question of the permanent psychological trauma to which participants might be subjected, as in the case of the infamous Stanford Prison experiment. However, there are also more basic issues about the subject's right to consent to be used in research and the question of how much privacy research subjects should be accorded. While one category of criminal justice research involves experimental, constructed research, as was the case in the Stanford example, field research is also important. Such was the case with Laud Humphreys' Tearoom Sex Study. And it is in field research that privacy and consent issues become particularly important.

During the early 1960s when Humphreys was writing his dissertation in psychology, gay sex between males was illegal in many areas of the country. The majority of arrests were of men "who commit impersonal sexual acts with one another in public restrooms" and Humphreys "recognized that the public and the law-enforcement authorities hold highly simplistic stereotyped beliefs" about gay men (Sieber 1977). As part of his research, he decided to observe the actions of these men 'in the field' as a participant observer. He pretended to be the participant in the activities who 'kept watch' for the police. With some of the men he observed, "he was able to gain the confidence…disclose his role as scientist, and persuade them to tell him about the rest of their lives and about their motives" while with others, "Humphreys secretly followed some of the other men he observed and recorded the license numbers of their cars. A year later and carefully disguised, Humphreys appeared at their homes claiming to be a health-service interviewer and interviewed them about their marital status, race, job, and so on" without ever disclosing how he had obtained their information (Sieber 1977).

When Humphreys published his dissertation, a furor ensued, not simply because of his findings but also because of his controversial methodology. Humphreys defended his actions, noting that it was essential to obtain a balanced portrait of the persons he observed, since the persons of whom he was able to gain the confidence of were a relatively small and select number. Anonymously tracking some of the men, he argued, was necessary to ensure the research was balanced and comprehensive.

At the time, there were no institutional review boards and only Humphreys' Ph.D. committee had to approve the ethics of the research. Other members of the sociology department were so offended that they tried to get Humphreys' Ph.D. degree rescinded, arguing that "Humphreys' research had unethically invaded the privacy and threatened the social standing of the subjects" (Sieber 1977). This reflects the tremendous social stigma gay men were subjected to at the time, given that to be accused of engaging gay sex was considered to be so potentially threatening.

However, Humphreys' research was illuminating and helped contextualize the emerging debate within society and the psychological community about the normalcy of homosexuality. Of the subjects, 54% were married and 38% did not identify as homosexual or bisexual but saw impersonal 'tearoom' sex as a way of relieving marital tension. "Most of the 38% were Catholic or their wives were, and since the birth of their last child conjugal relations had been rare. Their alternative source of sex had to be quick, inexpensive, and impersonal" in contrast to an affair with a woman (Sieber 1977). Another 24% of the married subjects identified as bisexual. This challenged the common, erroneous stereotype at the time held by many law enforcement officials that men who engaged in public sex in restrooms were beyond the pale of normal society or were 'perverts.' In retrospect, it would seem more ethical if Humphreys had confined his interviews solely to willing participants (which he had) even though this might have made his findings less comprehensive.


Sieber, J. (1977). Laud Humphreys and the Tearoom Sex Study. Retrieved:


Discussion responses

University Violence and Title IX of the Civil Rights Act

I too have often been troubled by the discrepancy between the requirements present in a court of law that are necessary for proving harassment and sexual discrimination vs. non-legal entities such as university disciplinary committees. However, in the case of a clear-cut accusation of rape, usually the case would eventually proceed through the criminal justice system outside of the university. The problem usually arises when there is a tension between the community standards of the university and the law: universities often have more stringent (some would say 'politically correct,' although that is debatable) requirements regarding acceptable speech and behavior. What a student says may not be illegal but may be against the policies outlined by the university of how he or she should conduct him or herself on university grounds. Especially in the case of private institutions, universities can place additional restrictions upon persons who agree to become members of the community. Although we may not agree with all of those restrictions, the university is still within its rights.

The Zimmerman case

I think the Zimmerman case illustrates the vastly different perceptions of how human beings perceive 'threats' and the extent to which it can be difficult to compare the subjective perceptions of different people as to what constitutes a threat. Based upon his cultural assumptions, Zimmerman was likely to perceive any young, African-American man as a 'threat;' while based upon Martin's worldview, a white man following him was likely to seen to present a danger. From what I have read about the case, I think it is clear that Zimmerman was following Martin and subconsciously or consciously seeking out to prove himself a 'hero' in an imagined conflict and Martin merely sought to defend himself. The case also highlights the problems of neighborhood watches staffed with people who are insufficiently self-conscious about their racial perceptions, in contrast to the police who at least receive some training in this area.

Interrogating minors

The issue of how to deal with minors within the juvenile justice system will always be a challenging one. While the law must be black and white about a fixed 'cutoff' as to what constitutes a juvenile, achieving maturity is not an either/or situation. Becoming an adult is a 'process,' and juveniles gradually acquire adult capabilities as they age. One fifteen-year-old may be considerably more mature than another fifteen-year-old. However, I do think that to be considered an adult, there must be a higher standard than merely being able to differentiate from right and wrong. A teen may understand morality but not be able to fully appreciate the long-term consequences of his actions or understand such legal concepts as the right against self-incrimination and the right to an attorney unless someone explains these ideas to him in more detail than is given in a reading of his Miranda Rights. The police have a vested self-interest not in protecting the accused person's rights but in obtaining evidence. In our society, there are many age restrictions which reflect the fact that the juvenile brain is still a 'work in progress,' therefore there must be different standards regarding the interrogation of minors.

Ethical challenges

I think you make a very… [END OF PREVIEW]

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