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Accounting for ethos or programmes for conduct? The brave new world of research ethics committees

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Abstract

This paper examines the operation of power and its consequences arising from the growth of new ethical bureaucracies in universities. We use the UK as a case study to illustrate more general points about the globalised nature and impact of such bureaucratisation. Our focus is on the social sciences as this is where, we argue, the impact is likely to be most marked. The paper is organised in five sections. The first introduces our concerns. Section 2 traces the genealogy of these new regimes of control in the UK. We then problematise the new ethical bureaucracies, making an analysis in terms of the shift in the locus of power away from researchers to becoming centralised in bureaucratic structures. In section 4 we explore some of the ways in which researchers might respond to the changing regimes of ethical control. Finally, we offer considerations of the ways in which ethical governance of research might be differently conducted so as to avoid the adverse consequences of new regimes of control on research practice. Our aim is to provoke debate and thereby contribute to a platform from which to reassert ways to ensure that research is ethical and that do not interfere with the production and consumption of critical social science.

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