Sociology was the first social science stop in the Risk and Uncertainty Road Show. What came through in the discussion was the concern sociologists had for the implications of what they were doing. There was the major push in the discipline to be responsible to the population being researched. The sociologists were acutely aware of the potential for harm from how they dealt with risk and uncertainty as academics researching at risk populations. The engagement of academic sociologists in “real world” research sets up tradeoffs and conflicts. One of the first tradeoffs is the pursuit of “Truth” can be in tension with the concern for what is of value to the population being investigated. For example, while academics may be interested in causality, the community may be more interested in solutions or effects of the problems being investigated.
The sociologists identified the risk of getting the story wrong, of not fully understanding the social dynamics they were trying to uncover. At the same time, they were concerned with the risk of their findings being intentionally or unintentionally misinterpreted and that such a misinterpretation could be used to harm a community. They were also mindful that incorrect and/or inappropriate conclusions or implications would be drawn from their research.
Sociologists were concerned about the risk of asking the wrong questions. This could take the form of asking questions that the community being investigated didn’t think were important or that the questions asked might be heavily biased or potentially harmful to respondents.
Sociologists may face risk in conducting their research. This may involve risk of physical danger from working with a violent population, risk of going to jail for not sharing data generated and risk of harm to one’s career from studying controversial topics, marginalized populations or generating controversial conclusions.
Sociologists noted that uncertainty arose from bias. They were particularly mindful of the bias students perceived in course instruction and observed that it was easier to sort out bias in research than in teaching. The sociologists recognized bias in the questions they pose and the inherent uncertainty in what they do. In response to the latter they are careful not to speak beyond their data.
Sociologists confront uncertainty that stems from the gap between “Truth” and what they observe. As such, sociologists face uncertainty of measurement. For example, since they are well aware of how problematic self reporting by respondents is they use multiple measurements.
Two critical thresholds were highlighted. The first was ideally to do no harm in conducting research and at a minimum to try and make sure benefits outweigh harm. The second was the subjective boundary between ethical and unethical research behavior.