Unintended consequences of human research ethics committees: Au revoir workplace studies?
To protect the welfare and rights of participants in research and to facilitate research that will be of benefit, as well as protect them against litigation, universities and research-funding agencies in Australia adopted the 'National Statement on Ethical Conduct in Research Involving Humans' (NHMRC 1999). In many other countries there are similar statements. However, the ways in which such statements are often implemented by Human Research Ethics Committees (HRECs) are in conflict with an important stream of industrial sociological research. This stream seeks to deconstruct workplaces and de-layer management rhetoric to understand the realities and complexities of the social relations of production. There is a pluralist basis for much industrial sociology that challenges the unitarist view of the workplace as essentially harmonious. While views of workplaces as being conflictual and exploitative have to be tempered with an understanding of the accommodative and co-operative nature of workplace relations, there is nevertheless a general recognition of acts of resistance, as well as those of co-operation. The way in which the National Statement is typically implemented in Australia means that many HRECs require written, informed consent, which in the first instance will usually be that of management. An unintended consequence is a research focus on consensus, which is at best one-sided and at worst seriously misleading. It is unlikely that managerial consent will be granted unless there is a 'good news story' guaranteed. This article explores the ways in which HRECs may influence workplace research. The publication of the revised National Statement provides a valuable opportunity not to be missed by HRECs to implement more effective and efficient practices which would not have the unintended consequences of the earlier version. This would deserve the support of researchers in industrial sociology and other branches of the social sciences.
Monash Bioethics Review