This paper reports findings from an interview-based critical qualitative study on how social science researchers in China make decisions regarding research ethics in empirical studies involving human subjects. Compared with western countries such as the United States, China lacks state-wide policies or the wide establishment of local ethical review boards (IRBs) to protect the rights of research participants. Against this background, I interviewed twenty purposively selected Chinese researchers to reconstruct their culturally grounded understandings of “research ethics” and how they put their understandings into practice. The interviews revolved around three ethical dilemma scenarios that I constructed based on existing controversial social studies in China. The analysis of the data indicates that researchers’ underlying philosophic beliefs about value neutrality, objectivity, and bias play an important role in researchers’ ethical decision-making process. Researchers seek to establish a wide range of relationships with their participants from guanxi to the contractual relationship framed by an informed consent sheet.
The paper advocates for more meaningful and effective conversations on the ethical conduct of research in China. Amid the deregulation tendency of research ethics in the western countries, the paper contends that institutionalizing research regulations following the American model may not necessarily be the one-for-all strategy to address this issue.