Writing your proposal

How is harm defined?

In terms of risk of harm, you have to think about:

  • probability: how likely is harm to occur?
  • severity: how serious might the harm be?

Neither the probability nor the severity of harm is easy to estimate.  Harm in social science research includes quite subjective evaluations like distress, embarrassment, and anxiety, which are clearly difficult to either predict or to control for. If researchers are to explain risks, and how probable and severe these might be, they need to listen to people’s views about what worries them.

You will not be able to predict all the possible risks in your research. A simple question may cause upset for some participants for reasons that you could not know about. Other typical harms caused by social research include inconvenience, time lost, intrusion, and boredom or discomfort.  These may seem slight to you, but may be serious to the person concerned. People can feel wronged by research if, for example, they feel that have been treated as objects, deceived or humiliated, or that their values have been disregarded. Research ethics is intended to prevent such problems.