I recently got an email on one of the lists I was on from a graduate student seeking advice about getting her dissertation project through her university’s IRB board. She wrote
I’m finding the process of trying to squeeze my round pegged ethnographic methods into the unwieldy square holes of the IRB form both frustrating and demoralizing … Partly because it can’t account for uncertainty, for instance by wanting a script of interview questions and to know already how many subjects I’ll have – both things I can’t know ahead of time. But then, its also the problem of the nature of participant observation itself. … where do we (and the IRB) draw the line between “observations” that require consent and those that don’t? It seems clear cut for people I might formally interview with a tape recorder in hand. But what about the people we interact with who may or may not “formally” become part of the research, the gray areas of interaction that might have a huge impact on our thinking – the people we meet in the street, at the local store, the friends of friends who drop by, the secretary or colleague or mother of the official “informant” who we hear about but never meet in person…?
I wrote back to her and tried to offer some advice (and she consented to let me reproduce her email here), mostly to emphasize that one of the problems she might be having with the IRB was that they wanted her to be doing something in the field that was demonstrably different from just living there:
…do you _really_ not have _any_ clue about what sorts of questions you want to ask people while you are there? Do you _really_ not have _any_ sense of how many people you will have to talk to before you get a sense that you know what is going on? I bet you do — even if only have a rough idea right now, you can at least tell the IRB that you will iterate over your research, refining your questions and the people you talk to through different stages of research as you figure out what you’re about… The same stands for everyday interactions — are you planning on pulling a notebook out at the dinner table with a host family? Or with total strangers? If you stratify your lifeworld out in even this very rough way you’ll not only have a better sense of what you’ll do in the field, you’ll be able to turn your confusion and anxiety into righteous indignation when the IRB keeps bugging you about venipuncture forms!
This student had a problem that a lot of cultural anthropologists have: a real lack of training in field methods.
There are lots of reasons anthropologists are notoriously lax in learning field methods. We value fieldwork as a transformative experience which makes the anthropologist not just more informed, but wiser — and this means we may sometimes find pile sorts and sampling procedures stifling. We do work in a staggering variety of places and in lots of ways, and this makes field-wide consensus about what to do in the field difficult. But what resources are there for students who want to learn more about methods?
The obvious book here is the ‘bible’ — “Research Methods in Anthropology: Qualitative and Quantitative Approaches”:http://www.altamirapress.com/Catalog/SingleBook.shtml?command=Search&db=^DB/CATALOG.db&eqSKUdata=0759108684 which is part of the massive H. Russell Bernard empire in anthropological methods. But, to be honest, I’ve never really cottoned to the book. First, at US$100 it is ridiculously expensive and, to be honest, the smorgasboard “and now 5 pages on Lickert scales” approach is just too scattered for me. Plus, the sections on technology have still never recovered from DOS.
I can’t claim to have waded through the welter of books on qualitative research, but I do have to say that I sort of like the Lofland’s “Analyzing Social Settings”:http://academic.cengage.com/cengage/instructor.do?totalresults.do?page=null&keyfor=allsite&keyitem=all&keytype=null&resultfor=higheredu&resulttype=instructor&keyword_all=lofland&pagefrom=search&disciplinenumber=3&product_isbn=9780534528614&contextelement=http://academic.cengage.com/cengage which is unapologetic about the idea that you can do ethnographic fieldwork which is rigorous and qualitative.
One other meta-resource: I’m not sure who these people are, but “This collection of well-chosen and high quality links on methods”:http://gsociology.icaap.org/methods/ is superb. Lickert scales FTW!