AMU Ethical Standards on Facebook Experiment Discussion

In 2012, Facebook conducted an experiment on 700,000 Facebook users without these users knowing about the research. Facebook divided these users into two groups and displayed more negative content in the news feed of one group and more positive content in the news feed of the other group. Facebook found that those users who had more negative content in their news feed were more likely to make more negative posts themselves. The opposite was found with the other group as more positive posts were made by individuals who experienced more positive content. You can read more about the above study here.

Considering what you have learned about ethics in research this week and throughout the course, what ethical issues are raised by this Facebook study? What consent issues were present in this Facebook study? Could there have been any issues with regards to vulnerable populations in this study? How would you feel if you found out that you were unknowingly part of this Facebook study? Finally, considering the hypothesis of the study that more negative content would lead to more negative posts and vice versa, could Facebook have addressed this hypothesis without manipulating the news feed content of these 700,000 Facebook users? 



In its most basic sense, naturalism refers to the belief that correct methods can offer an accurate representation of nature. This applies to many areas of human endeavor. Some of the world’s most renowned painters, for example, made their mark on history by producing works of art that are so realistic, they rival modern-day photographs. Further, the invention of photography in the mid-19th century firmly established naturalism as the primary way human beings would record history and their own personal memories. Given our modern context, it is easy to say that visual representations of our everyday world can be replicated with almost perfect accuracy. But this leaves a glaring question about the way that naturalism applies to the study of the social world– the world of our interactions, hopes, dreams, and feelings about ourselves and others. This is where the qualitative methodology is so important in sociology: naturalism in sociology is founded upon the idea that proper, thoughtful, and detailed involvement in the social world will enable a sociologist to offer an account of social phenomena in a way that is a direct and accurate representation of real lived social experiences.


In explaining human social interaction through a naturalist framework, Ethnomethodology“>Ethnomethodologyis a useful and popular methodological tool in sociology. Established as a concept by sociologist Harold Garfinkel in his 1967 Studies in Ethnomethodology, ethnomethodology focuses upon the way that an understanding of a social event is a result of a collective effort (“co-creation”) between people. In other words, this approach asserts that the interpretation of an event is a product of the way that individuals bring those interpretations together and create a collective understanding. Ethnomethodology explains how human culture is constantly negotiated, and constructed over time. From a naturalistic viewpoint, the only thing essential about human social experiences is the fact that they are a result of collective understanding. This is one of the reasons that Garfinkel introduced the idea of “social breaching experiments” in his work. Many of you have probably done such experiments in introductory sociology when you were assigned to consciously go out into society, break the rules, and report your findings. Riding in an elevator, and facing the back (rather than staring at the elevator doors) is a common example, and very revealing about human nature. By breaking the established, but unwritten rules of a social situation, Garfinkel asserted that we could actually understand the nature of those rules. Breaching experiments are a way of disrupting the predictability of our social lives–something we take for granted on a daily basis– and therefore, revealing more about the way that these rules operate. Breaching experiments are now plastered all over social media in what is now referred to as “flash mobbing.” Feel free to check out this site“>check out this site, which gives some excellent examples of breaching experiment ideas.

Grounded Theory

Grounded theory is arguably the most important research paradigm in qualitative sociology. As a data collection approach, grounded theory is based on the idea that strong participant observation is needed in order to truly understand social phenomena. Grounded theorists argue strongly for deep and protracted involvement in a “strategic site” of study before any scientific reporting is done. Grounded theory is also one of the most inductive approaches in sociology, paying special emphasis to the way that data inform theory, rather than the other way around. Stated differently, a deductive approach in which a theoretical hypothesis drives research runs counter to the logic of grounded theory. Grounded theory is based on the idea that long-term, open and thoughtful data collection will lead to the development of new and generalizable theoretical models. Indeed, grounded theorists may really be onto something! One key example is the theory of “Awareness Contexts“>Awareness Contexts ” that was developed by Barney Glaser and Anselm Strauss in the 1960s. In this seminal work on the study of death and dying“>seminal work on the study of death and dying, the authors made important discoveries regarding the way that terminally ill patients and their loved ones experience the dying process. This discovery led to a whole host of policy changes in hospitals and reshaped the ways that many caregivers understand the dying process in modern society. In order to make this discovery, the researchers repeatedly revisited interview transcripts from dozens of terminally ill patients and their loved ones, until specific themes in the data began to repeat themselves. One of the themes concerned the way that a loved one perceived the experiences of other caregivers in the dying process, often wondering “how much information” other loved ones had about the condition of the terminally ill person. As these and other themes began to repeat themselves, Glaser and Straus realized that they had reached a “saturation point“>saturation point” with the data, and could now begin the development of original, and groundbreaking theory!


This topic alone constitutes enough material for the entire course. Regardless of its breadth, it is very important to cover some of the basic concerns surrounding ethics in social research. The primary concern is that no harm must be done to participants in social research and that anonymity and confidentiality are preserved. In order to protect these principles, most universities, think tanks, and private research firms utilize an Institutional Review Board“>Institutional Review Board to review their research projects, and determine whether or not they need to be altered to further protect human subjects. Although social science research is different from, say, medical research, and, by definition, is far less invasive, great emotional harm can be done to social science research participants if strict standards of ethics are not followed. Click here“>here for the federal government’s standards for institutional review board policy. Also, as our first discussion for the week will ask you to address the Belmont Report, feel free to click here“>here for a summary of that report to get you started! 

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