5.3 Ethics at micro, meso, and macro levels

Learning Objectives

  • Identify and distinguish between micro-, meso-, and macro-level 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 1, you learned about the micro-, meso-, and macro-levels of inquiry and how a researcher’s specific point of focus might vary depending on her level of inquiry. Here we’ll apply this ecological 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-level, 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? These are the type of questions you will want to ask yourself as a researcher when considering ethics at the micro-level.

At the meso-level, researchers should think about their duty to the community. How will the results of your study impact your target population? Ideally, your results will benefit your target population by identifying important areas for social workers to intervene. However, it is possible that your study may perpetuate negative stereotypes about your target population or damage its reputation. Indigenous people, in particular, have highlighted how social science has historically furthered their marginalization (Smith, 2013). [1] In addition to your target population, you must also consider your responsibilities to the profession of social work. By engaging in social work research, you are standing on the reputation that the profession has worked to build for over a century. Attending to research ethics helps fulfill your responsibilities to the profession, in addition to your target population.

Finally, at the macro-level, a researcher should consider their duty to society and the expectations that society has of them as a social worker. The most troubling and high-profile example of an ethical debate at the macro-level questions whether it is ethical to utilize or cite information obtained by the Nazi’s horrendous human experiments during WWII (Moe, 1984). [2] 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). [3]

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). [4] 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 (1992) 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 (p. 169–170). [5]

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 5.1 summarizes the key questions that researchers might ask themselves about the ethics of their research at each level of inquiry.


Table 5.1 Key ethics questions at three different levels of inquiry
Level of inquiry Focus Key ethics questions for researchers to ask themselves
Micro-level 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-level Group Does my research follow the ethical guidelines of my profession and discipline?
Could my research negatively impact a community?
Have I met my duty to those who funded my research?
Macro-level Society Does my research meet the 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, any organizations that may have funded their research, and the communities affected by their research.
  • At the macro-level, researchers should consider their duty to and the expectations of society with respect to social scientific research.


  1. Smith, L. T. (2013). Decolonizing methodologies: Research and indigenous peoples (2nd edition). London: Zed Books, Ltd.
  2. Moe, K. (1984). Should the Nazi research data be cited? The Hastings Center Report, 14, 5–7.
  3. Berger, P. L. (1990). Nazi science: The Dachau hypothermia experiments. New England Journal of Medicine, 322, 1435–1440.
  4. 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.
  5. Greene, V. W. (1992). Can scientists use information derived from the concentration camps? Ancient answers to new questions. In A. L. Caplan (Ed.), When medicine went mad: Bioethics and the Holocaust (p. 169–170). Totowa, NJ: Humana Press.


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