Sources for Thinking About the

Ethics of Sociolinguistic Research


Prof. Peter L. Patrick

University of Essex

Dept of Language & Linguistics

Please send new info to patrickp at my email,


There are increasingly materials aimed at sociolinguistics students and practitioners to help us understand, think through, apply and change the application of ethical principles to our research planning, data collection, analysis, publication and archiving. This webpage was designed some time ago to make a contribution, mainly by organizing other peoples’ work on the topic. I’m afraid I have not tried to keep up with all current work and resources in this area.

o   Links to online codes of ethics, statements, etc. for linguists

o   Codes of practice and resources from other disciplines

o   Notes on the relevance of medical models

o   My own materials

o   A brief bibliography, and

o   Comments on the entries


Links to online Codes of Ethics, Statements, and Legislation

The Linguistic Society of America has a short statement cautioning about mechanical application of guidelines from other disciplines to linguistic Research with Human Subjects. Other resolutions and codes etc. of the LSA, including their general statement about ethics of linguistic research, are available here.

The American Anthropological Association has a number of more detailed statements, including Principles of Professional Responsibility and a Statement on Problems of Anthropological Research and Ethics, both available here. Their general page of ethics resources has many resources as well – many are applicable, as linguistics has always been considered one of the four primary fields of anthropology, and sociolinguistics has an even closer lineage.

The British Association for Applied Linguistics (BAAL) has a webpage of resources including their Good Practice Guide, and Good Practice Guide for Students, which covers a number of key areas, including research relationships and responsibilities to informants, as well as useful references to codes and guidelines drawn up by social science researchers in the British Isles.

In the UK, relevant legislation, esp. for issues of informed consent, includes the Data Protection Act (1998, c.29) and Human Rights Act (1998, c.42).


Codes of Practice and Resources from Other Disciplines

The American Psychological Association code of practice, which dates from (2002), and other ethics resources are available from here.

The American Sociological Association has one of the most detailed codes (adopted 1997), with wide and explicit coverage.

The National Communication Association, fittingly, has a clear and straightforward codes of ethics, which addresses many different areas of academic life explicitly, including not just publication but, for example, research, teaching, student/staff  and collegial relations, editing and other organisational activities (grant writing, reviewing, planning conferences etc.), and community service. See this page for both “Ethical Statements” and “Academic/Professional Statements”.

A number of independent centers organize materials on ethical practices. Among them are the Center for the Study of Ethics in the Professions (CSEP), which not only has many codes online but provides guidance to using them via case study. Others are The Online Ethics Center for Engineering & Science, at Case Western University, with an engineering focus but a good topics page and even a help-line, as well as some additional codes (e.g. of student organizations; and some in Spanish). A Canadian organization, the Centre for Applied Ethics at British Columbia University, is also good and long sponsored an excellent website on resources in applied ethics, which has now moved to

Historically influential documents such as the Nuremberg Code (1949), the Belmont Report (1979) – both US Govt. documents – and the Helsinki Declaration (1964, rev. 2002) of the World Medical Association are also relevant. These and other links are hosted by the US National Institutes of Health on their Ethical Guidelines page. A useful general reflection on ethical principles can also be found at their site.


Notes on the Relevance of Medical Models

Many of these classic documents were developed to apply to medical experimental ethics. These are of course relevant for linguists working in clinical spheres, who will have no choice but to satisfy the requirements of medical oversight bodies, and should certainly do so. They may also be relevant, however, for understanding where many of the professional associations’ assumptions and norms derive from.

In the UK, the National Health Service (NHS) oversees research in its branches. Nationally, standards by which research proposals are evaluated, and permission granted or withheld, are established and maintained by the National Research Ethics Service (NRES), though they are administered within local jurisdictions by LRECs (Local Research Ethics Committees). A useful overview page is at COREC’s website. PhD students working with me and collecting data within the NHS have found that these processes are very lengthy and detailed, as is appropriate, but also that they apply strong expectations derived from medical experimental research – concerning such things as sampling, statistical analysis, informed consent, etc. – to qualitative linguistic research, with little leeway granted for different research traditions. Since linguists may have to choose between making out a case for different research traditions (in addition to providing all the required documentation), and adapting their methods and practices to fit medical expectations, it is best to be very familiar with the requirements and mindset, as early as possible! In an earlier draft proposal concerning “Ethical Governance and Regulation of Student Projects”, the NHS declared its belief that student projects, “whether they occur at undergraduate or graduate level, are not designed to generate new knowledge”. Clearly, (even student) linguists working within the NHS have different assumptions, training and beliefs about their research.

In the USA, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) has a Human Research Protections Program (formerly the Office of Human Subjects Research) which provides guidance, including their research guidelines (formerly the “Gray Booklet

”) and the relevant federal laws (Title 45 CFR Part 46).


My Own Materials

I have developed some materials on permissions/consent forms (referred to as “releases” in my course materials):

o      a generic form is here in Word format, so you can adapt it, including some comments as to how and why I use it

o      and a “Data Request Form”, useful in formalizing arrangements when exchanging data between two researchers (including students whose research I am supervising).

I’m currently Ethics Coordinator for student research in my Dept.; our materials are here. University of Essex rules and materials are here.


A Brief Bibliography

(NB: I have not updated this actively in recent years)

Cameron, D., E. Fraser, P. Harvey, M.B. Rampton & K. Richardson. 1992. Ethics, advocacy and empowerment: Issues of method in researching language. Language and Communication 13(2): 81-94. [Abridged in Coupland & Jaworski, eds. 1997, Sociolinguistics: A reader, 145-62]

Garner, Mark, Raschka, Christine & Sercombe, Peter G. 2006. Sociolinguistic minorities, research, and social relationships. Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development 2006, 27(1), 61-78.

Heller, Monica, et al. 1999. Sociolinguistics and public debate. Journal of Sociolinguistics 3(2):260-88.

Jackson, Bruce. 1987. Fieldwork. Pp. 259-79 [or actually, much of the book!]. University of Illinois.

Labov, William. 1982. Objectivity and commitment in linguistic science: The case of the Black English trial in Ann Arbor. Language in Society 44: 165-201.

Larmouth, Donald W. 1992. The legal and ethical status of surreptitious recording in dialect research: Do human subjects guidelines apply? Pub. of the American Dialect Society 76:1-14

Morgan, Marcyliena. 1994. The African-American speech community: Reality and socio-linguists. In Morgan, ed., The social construction of identity in creole situations: 121-48.

Murphy, E & R Dingwall. 2001. The ethics of ethnography. In P Atkinson, A Coffey, S Delamont, J Lofland & L Lofland, eds., Handbook of ethnography. London: Sage, 339-351.

Murray, Thomas E., and Carmin Ross-Murray. 1992. On the legality and ethics of surreptitious recording. Publication of the American Dialect Society 76: 15-75.

Murray, Thomas E., and Carmin Ross-Murray. 1996. Under cover of law: More on the legality of surreptitious recording. Publication of the American Dialect Society 79: 1-82.

Rickford, John R. 1997. Unequal partnership: Sociolinguistics and the African-American speech community. Language in Society 26:161-97.

Sercombe, Peter G., Garner, Mark & Raschka, Christine, eds. 2006. Sociolinguistic research – Who wins? Research on, with or for speakers of minority languages. Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development (Special Issue) 2006, 27(1), 1-3.

Shuy, Roger W. 1986. Ethical issues in analyzing FBI surreptitious tapes. International Journal of the Sociology of Language 62:119-128.

Shuy, Roger W. 1993. Risk, deception, confidentiality and informed consent. Review of PADS 76, Legal and ethical issues in surreptitious recording. American Speech 68:103-106.

Wald, Benji. 1995. The problem of scholarly predisposition: G Bailey, N Maynor & P Cukor-Avila eds., The emergence of Black English: Text and commentary. Review article. Language in Society 24(2): 245-57.

Wolfram, Walt. 1998. Scrutinizing linguistic gratuity: Issues from the field. Journal of Sociolinguistics 2(2):271-279.


Comments on the Entries

Writings by Larmouth and Murray & Ross-Murray deal fairly comprehensively with legal issues surrounding informed consent for audio recording in the US in the late 1980s and early 1990s, including extensive case citations. Legal issues predominate in the discussion (though some authors are linguists) so they're of limited value outside N. America, but they're discussed in the context of ethical approaches too, and a situation-ethics analysis is recommended by the authors.

Shuy 1986 is based on the author's extensive experience in testifying in legal cases involving wiretap data, a field in which he is the leading figure. Shuy 1993 is a severe criticism of Larmouth 1992 and Murray & Ross-Murray 1992, based on this experience. It is responded to at length in Murray & Ross-Murray 1996 (this also includes a discussion and legal sources for Canadian law and video recording), who focus instead on everyday data collection issues.

Cameron et al. 1992 is an extended critique of method that makes many useful points, though its basis is a critique of positivist research method in social science - certainly not everyone will accept their philosophical arguments, which underpin their main conclusions. They concentrate on Labov 1982 as a case study of the Advocacy framework, of which it is an excellent example; it reviews a famous case of minority and vernacular language education issues which were litigated in the 1970s, and in which sociolinguists played a major role.

(Further and more recent perspectives on these issues in this community can be derived from Morgan 1994 and Rickford 1997; see also Heller et al. 1999.)

Wolfram 1998 focuses on the particular issue of what a linguist is obligated to give back to the community she studies (cf. also Labov 1982's "principle of the debt incurred," ancestor of the "gratuity" principle via Cameron et al.), and raises problems in implementing this in practice, and questions about motive involved even in such apparently "empowering" approaches.

Many dissertations discuss fieldwork and its ethical problems; these rarely make it into the published version, as either the writers or their mentors/editors are socialized into thinking this stuff is not as important as "the data" or "the theory".

Obviously, sociolinguists stand to learn much from other, older, and sometimes better-organized disciplines on these matters. In particular it's worth checking out anthropological debates and ethnographies; codes of practice drawn up by social-science researchers (see above), grant agencies, and government departments that sponsor or regulate research; and fieldwork dissertations' chapters on methodology, which sometimes go into such issues at greater length than is common in journal articles or monographs.


Peter L. Patrick's homepage

Peter L Patrick’s course in Sociolinguistic Methods I

Peter L Patrick's page of Links and Resources

Last updated 02 October 2013