The Blog of Cafe Dissensus Magazine – we DISSENT

Why Informed Consent is Problematic in Social and Behavioural Research


By Nidhi Sinha


Tailored to avoid physical or psychological abuses that had plagued the history of human experimentation, guidelines for ethical research, these days, heavily emphasize on voluntary participation. In that context, it is highly required of a researcher to gain informed agreement of potential human participants before their involvement in any research (American Sociological Association, 1999; British Sociological Association, 2002). Informed consent basically entails two primary activities: i) a voluntary agreement, and ii) a basic comprehension of the nature of the research and participant’s role. In a mathematical outline, informed consent (IC) could be explained as:

IC= (Autonomous + intentional) action + comprehension – coercion-manipulation – (psychological + mental illness)

Therefore, the participants involved in the research is expected to have a sound comprehension of research motives beforehand and there should be no external controlling influences that could in any way impact their voluntary decision. Different ways have been employed to attain informed consent from the participants that range from recording, signing the form, returning the survey or using audio-video tape. Making an informed consent provides participants a room for substantial understanding of the research, and an environment wherein they can have an active exchange of information for clarification of doubts, if any. Anthropologists have often argued that consent should be more of continuous and dynamic nature instead of being limited to the initial phase of research (El Dorado Task Force, 2002).

Is IC a threat to good social science?

Even though the intention behind obtaining informed consent mostly circles around the freedom of action of the participants, following this “good” intention could actually pave a road to hell for some social scientists. In several circumstances, researchers have to be certain in the context of receiving consent from all the relevant people (concerned authorities in case of minors), for all the relevant matters (what to share: names, photographs, visuals, etc.) and at all the relevant time (when the data will be produced or used), that all can be really physically and psychologically consuming. The practicability and feasibility of informed consent, therefore, have been questioned by various social scientists, mostly who subscribe to anthropology and psychology.

To begin with, there are multiple technicalities associated with written consents. This means that ability to understand the written consent requires a high level of literacy and linguistic ability, especially when research is of medical and technical nature. It becomes more challenging when researchers and participants don’t have shared languages and cultures. One can argue for translation but even translating could result into various reliability and validity issues.

Particular difficulties arise when dealing with minors, youth or subordinates. Young people might view some researchers as some government authority, and they may be under the impression that their refusal to the participation might land them into serious consequences. Moreover, when institutional consents are involved, it’s highly difficult for the subordinates to show their disinterest. Another issue might arise as the ethical guidelines require parental consent when involving minors. Gaining consent from parents or someone superior in age and maturity of the children could be an added struggle. Some researchers, nonetheless, have questioned the mere need of parental consent if children themselves have consented to their participation (David et al., 2001). Likewise, children also view requests coming from authorities as requirements. To add to that, there are multiple instances where students have volunteered in research for course credits. Therefore, there exists certain vagueness between voluntary participation and participation to avoid worse consequences or approach pleasant outcomes.

While obtaining informed consent is significant to a higher degree, it could indeed become problematic sometimes, in situations where the research in question calls for controlling influences. Many times, social research demands a certain level of deception, manipulation or to say the least, silence. For instance, when interviewing drug dealers or sex workers, one might fear asking for informed consent as the likelihood of them giving the written consent is very low and researchers might lose significant data. On the similar vein, when research is highly relied on publicly available information or require observations, it’s not simply possible to ask for consent. Therefore, demanding informed consent in these situations have led to significant gaps in research and poor existing literature. For instance, research on homeless adolescents is rare due to ethical issues associated with IC (Levine, 1995).

In some disciplines of social researches, majorly in anthropology, psychology and sociology, there is a preferential emphasis on interactive approach for gaining information from a particular person, tribe or community. Asking for the consent, therefore, through signing documents etc.  in-between or before the research interaction could make the whole process mechanical. This in return could possibly jeopardize or modify true actions that researchers want to record/observe. Moreover, when dealing with sensitive population such as drug abusers, poachers, sex traffickers, etc., a specific mention of IC through signed documents might elicit a negative or no response.

Some of the major experiments in psychology have successfully used covert research methods to yield valuable research findings. Bulmer (2008) has argued that covert researches have produced some of the good social science research and is very much justifiable. Asking for informed consent could destroy the very essence of the covert research and might expose the hidden agenda behind the research (e.g. measuring the behaviour which can be influenced if told in advance).


Given the gruesome history of experimentations on humans (e.g. Milgram’s, 1974 and Zimbardo’s experiments in the 1970s), codes of research ethics have made it very strict to acquire informed consent and voluntary participation. Nevertheless, social science deals with certain social issues and areas that sometimes involve justified incorporation of manipulation either through deception by lying, withholding information, or misleading exaggeration to provide an “on-the-record presentations” of reality (Israel and Hay, 2006). Some institutions heavily underscore the rationale of informed consent, while some look for the midway suggesting that the concept of informed consent should be slightly tweaked and ignored if the risks associated with participation is minimal and the productiveness value of the research is too high to be wasted. In short, different jurisdictions and institutions view this controversy from different positions, which make no clear consensus on whether or to what extent informed consent should be employed. However, a consideration for research hypothesis must be taken into account while discussing the use of IC in any social or behavioural research.


American Anthropological Association. (2002). Final report of the American Anthropological Association El Dorado task force. Washington, DC: American Anthropological Association. Available at

British Sociological Association. (2002). Statement of Ethical Practice for the British Sociological Association

Baumrind, D. (1964). Some thoughts on ethics of research. After reading Milgram’s “Behavioral study of obedience.” American Psychologist, 19, 421–423.

Bulmer, M. (2008). The Ethics of Social Research, in Gilbert, N. (Ed.) Researching Social Life, (Third Edition), London, Sage, 145- 161.

David, M., Edwards, R, & Aldred, P. (2001). Children and school-based research: ‘informed consent’ or ‘educated consent’? British Educational Research Journal, 27(3), 347-365

Israel, M., & Hay, I. (2006). Research Ethics for Social Scientists. London: SAGE publications. pp. 60-77. DOI:

Levine, R. J. (1995). Research in emergency situations. The role of deferred consent. JAMA: The Journal of the American Medical Association273(16), 1300-1302. doi:10.1001/jama.273.16.1300

Nidhi Sinha is a research scholar in psychology at IIT Hyderabad, and is currently working in the field of social cognition. Before joining IITH, she worked as a CBT psychologist at NIMHANS, Bangalore. She also published articles in various national and international journals as well as online magazines. She can be reached at


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