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Organizing Your Social Sciences Research Assignments

This guide describes how to successfully complete specific assignments commonly assigned in social sciences and behavioral sciences courses.


Informed consent is the process through which a researcher obtains, as well as maintains, the permission of a person or a person's authorized representative to participate in a research study. Informed consent is achieved when participants [a.k.a., "human subjects"] in your study receive full disclosure of the research plan and its intent, understands all of the information that is disclosed to them, voluntarily consents to participate in the study and is competent to do so, and understands that they may withdraw from the study at any time.

"Informed Consent." Office for the Protection of Research Subjects, University of Southern California.

Obtaining Informed Consent

One of the most important ethical rules governing qualitative research applied to conducting field studies is that individuals must voluntarily give their informed consent before participating in a study. However, the conditions under which you may be required to obtain permission from those being observed varies. For example, observations taking place in open, public spaces, such as in a park or at the beach, usually does not require informed consent because there is no expectation that you cannot be observed. However, there is likely an expectation of obtaining consent in a bounded observational space, such as, a classroom, a homeless shelter, or a hospital emergency room.

In most cases, you will need to obtain informed consent from those you are studying. According to the U.S. Office for Human Research Protections, the Code of Federal Regulations requires that specific information be provided to research subjects before they participate in a study. Rules related to conducting qualitative research in the social sciences [rather than in the medical sciences] at USC are governed by the University Park Institutional Review Board [IRB]. If you are asked to write a field report involving methods of observation, be sure you speak with your professor about the preferred process for obtaining consent, if needed, and that you understand the required procedures for obtaining informed consent.

Guidelines for writing an informed consent to be signed by each participant generally includes the following:

  1. A statement that the study involves research, an explanation of the purposes of the research, the expected duration of the subject's participation, and a description of the research procedures that will followed.
  2. A description of any reasonably and foreseeable risks or discomforts to the subject [e.g., if an embarrassing incident occurs during an observation, you may be obligated to document it].
  3. A description of any benefits to the subject which may reasonably be expected from the research. This would include any incentives [financial or otherwise] used to encourage people to participate or the benefits may be stated generally within the context of contributing to a finite but growing literature about your research problem and prompting other researchers to conduct similar studies.
  4. A disclosure of appropriate alternative procedures, if any, that might be advantageous to the subject.
  5. A statement describing the extent to which confidentiality of records identifying the subject will be maintained [e.g., pseudonyms will be used]
  6. A description of the level of risk to the subject. For most observational studies, the level of participatory risk would be minimal. A risk is considered "minimal" when the probability and magnitude of harm or discomfort anticipated in the proposed research are not greater, in and of themselves, than those ordinarily encountered in daily life.
  7. An explanation of whom to contact for answers to pertinent questions about the research and research subjects' rights [i.e., if a person under observation believes you are not conducting the study in the way each of you agreed to, who can they contact? In most cases, this would be your professor].
  8. A statement that participation is voluntary, refusal to participate will involve no penalty, and the subject may discontinue participation at any time without penalty. This would also include a statement that you reserve the right to remove a participant from the study if you so choose.

NOTE: The informed consent forms that you and your research subjects must sign have to be written in plain language. In addition, the form should not contain any exculpatory language. That is, subjects should not be asked to waive [or appear to waive] any of their legal rights, nor should they be asked to release the investigator or the university from liability for negligence.

"Informed Consent." Office for the Protection of Research Subjects, University of Southern California; Beauchamp, Tom L. “Informed Consent: Its History, Meaning, and Present Challenges.” Cambridge Quarterly of Healthcare Ethics 20 (October 2011): 515-523; Bhutta, Zulfiqar A. "Beyond Informed Consent.” Bulletin of the World Health Organization 82 (October 2004): 771-777; Gray, Bradford H. "Complexities of Informed Consent" ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 437 (May 1978): 37-48; Miller, Tina, editor. Ethics in Qualitative Research. 2nd edition. London: SAGE, 2012; Sin, Chih Hoong. “Seeking Informed Consent: Reflections on Research Practice.” Sociology 39 (April 2005): 277-294; Wax, Murrey L. "Informed Consent in Applied Research: A Commentary." Human Organization 54 (Fall 1995): 330-339.