Research Ethics and the ‘Iron Cage’ of Bureaucratic Rationality

Addiction Research & Theory, Vol. 19, No. 5, 2011

4 Pages Posted: 31 Aug 2011

Date Written: July 8, 2011


This article (editorial) argues that research ethic committees constitute and expansion of bureaucracy that is restricting the individual creativity and autonomy of researchers. This is particularly true once the deliberations more away from the direct risks associated with the research, such as the risk in clinical trials and informed consent in relation to danger of direct harm, where the potential threats grow exponentially. In the social sciences this has led to process of ethical ‘net widening’ and ‘mesh thinning’ that has been blamed on publicity from scandals involving medical research (such as the storage of body organs without consent). The subsequent tightening of medical research is part of the story but there are other important strands to the mesh: the move to a rights based culture (particularly relating to victims); the increased use of litigation against public bodies; and acceptance of trauma as a legitimate condition. This all suggests that the problems of the bureaucratic iron cage are more deep rooted in our culture than suggested by the medical v. social dichotomy. The article suggests that adopting a simple division between active and passive participants would help shed some of the baggage collected by the various REC. The article defends the need for researchers to take risks to ensure that the version of reality they produce is as free from the narratives that form around institutional based subjects as possible. It also argues that the perceptions of risk related to people living in poorer areas add to the stigmatisation of neighbourhoods. Reversing this corrosive process requires more trust both in the professionalism of researchers and their ability to make informed decisions in the interest of their safety and the future good health of their research subjects: and trust in the people that we research who more often reciprocate with hospitality and by opening up their lives to our scrutiny.

Keywords: research ethics, research ethics committee, risk, ethnographic research, bureaucracy

JEL Classification: I31, D63, I12

Suggested Citation

Wilson, Andrew, Research Ethics and the ‘Iron Cage’ of Bureaucratic Rationality (July 8, 2011). Addiction Research & Theory, Vol. 19, No. 5, 2011, Available at SSRN:

Andrew Wilson (Contact Author)

Nottingham Trent University ( email )

United Kingdom
44 (0)115 848 6804 (Phone)

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