A perennial favorite: the Institutional Review Board and the practice of ethnographic research. I am a member of the Institutional Review Board at my University, ostensibly representing the social and behavioral sciences. Recently the board has undergone a change of leadership and staffing, which means new people and a new round of education about how anthropologists conduct ethnographic research as well as how non-anthropologists do so. For those who don’t know, Institutional Review Boards are a result of the 1974 the National Research Act (Pub. L. 93-348) , which commissioned a report on the use of Human Subjects in Research (known as the Belmont Report) and upon which a code of federal regulations 45 CFR 46 is based, mandating that all research institutions receiving any federal support must oversee research using human subjects. If it isn’t research, or they ain’t human, the IRB is not concerned–otherwise, they must make every effort to 1) know about it and 2) approve it. So far so good.
There are however, a couple of sticking points with respect to ethnnographic research that I have run into repeatedly. One is the requirement of confidentiality. The other is the requirement of written informed consent (and here). (There is also the problem of whether or not there are any reliable standards when it comes to “psychological harm” that subjects might suffer at the hands of unscrupulous researchers–but that is a bugaboo for another post). Now, given the anguish Anthropology has put itself through with respect to colonialism, with respect to complicity in the dispossesion of native people’s land, and most recently with respect Napoleon Chagnon and Patrick Tierney’s Darkness in El Dorado, one would probably be safe in asserting that we are alone among the disciplines who have made the ethical treatment of humans not just a priorty, but virtually impossible to ignore throughout one’s graduate and professional life. We may not have standards of harm that are easily applied across all cases–but we damn well have discussed, in excruciating detail, nearly every possible kind of injustice man can visit on man.
My new IRB overlords, whom I welcome of course, do not see it this way. As far as they are concerned, anthropology appears to occupy a backwater, in which the lack of standardization, the reliance on individual judgment, and the practice of meticulously examining the finest grain of every encounter we have for its justice or injustice are nothing so much as solid evidence that we are in violation of what are clear and reasonable regulations about how scientific research should be conducted.
Take for example, the requirement of written consent. August authorities such as the Anthropological Association of America and the former head (Project Muse required) of the National Science Foundation Anthropology Section have made clear that written documentation may not be appropriate in all cases–the easy cases are those where your informants are non-literate (duh?) or where you are dealing with individuals who have, for instance, a long history of land expropriation due to the unscrupulous signing of documents by ancestors. In these cases they recommend that some other method of obtaining the vaunted “informed consent” of research participants be pursued. But there are a host of less easy cases: those situations where your informants are naturally or historically suspicious of government and its apparatus for instance, or where the presentation of a form would convert a personable and arduously cultivated relationship into a purely formal one. Should the IRB require the presentation of such forms in all cases–even to the extent of rendering some forms of long-practiced ethnographic research impossible? My new IRB Overlords appear to think so.
Or take for instance, the issue of confidentiality. According to the IRB, the only ethical practice is to ensure confidentiality of information, as a default practice, and if necessary, against the wishes of informants. Sure, if the informant is a public figure and the information is public, and the informant wishes to have it made public, then in that case, there seems to be no problem with allowing the researcher to treat the information as public. But if, for instance, an individual of no particular standing, in negotiating whether to participate in your research project, demands that his words be made public and be identified with his real name–do we have the right, or the obligation, to deny him this request? It seems to me that applying this ethical standard across all cases, regardless of the express wishes of individual informants is as suspect as revealing their confidential information. It is, as we should well know, the moral ideal of anglo-american privacy elevated to the status of universal norm. My new IRB overlords call BS on that.
So what I want to know is: experience anyone? I need examples of research in which either the use of oral/non-written documentation of informed consent, or the practice of allowing people the option to be identified has been approved (recently) by IRBs, or articles and documents that describe, or defend such practices. Ultimately, I would like to pen recommendations for use in every such changing of the guard… because otherwise, institution after institution is set to make the practice of ethnographic research as we know it both increasingly formalized and possibly, increasingly impossible.