All posts by Rena

I'm Professor of Anthropology at Princeton University. I've blogged here about the disconnection between ethnographic field ethics and ethics regulation compliance, and advocated hither and ton for humanistic social studies in regulatory ethics contexts. Otherwise, I've done fieldwork in Highland Papua New Guinea (sociality, gender, exchange, historicity) and on knowledge cultures in the US academy (anthropology, historiography, sociology, experimental psychology).

Educate your IRB (a boilerplate experiment)

Educate your IRB (a boilerplate experiment)

1. Virtual versus real ethics: creating alternatives to cynicism and disengagement

Very few anthropologists confuse IRB reviews with the “real” ethical work involved in a field project. Anthropologists of all theoretical stripes understand that participant observation-based fieldwork involves the long-term cultivation of social relationships as both the medium and the substantive content of the work. What is more, we know that this cultivation of social relationships must proceed in important respects on ones informants’ terms—not on the researcher’s terms (as is the case in interview-based and experimental social science). Because participant observers aren’t in control of the research process, the ethical challenges that they face in their projects cannot be known in advance and preplanned except in the most general—therefore ultimately vague and inaccurate—ways.

Because participant observation is a necessarily non-methodical method in the preceding paragraph’s sense, IRBs’ mandated insistence on prospective reviews of research designs set anthropologists up to fudge, circumlocute, and fake their descriptions of project “design”, “subject selection”, “informed consent”, and the rest.

That is, so long as structures of ethical accountability are only imaginable in the form of managerial auditing (using unitary compliance criteria external to the historically elaborated disciplinary standards of good practice), practitioners will be forced to simulate consilience with the regulatory ideal so as to appear compliant, cooperative, and transparent—therefore ethical—to their local IRBs.
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Constructive, creative coping (a complement to IRB critique)

       Following up my previous post, I’d like to open another kind of discussion.  Concerning IRBs, we have a wealth of information about the problems researchers of all sorts face (and more on the way in the form, for example, of ethnographic research on IRB process); there have also recently been a number of important critical interventions in the form, for example, of conferences and professional association position papers, with more to come (in the wake, for example, of the recent NY Times article).   

       Complementing all that, for the immediate short term we also need to build up a stock of creative coping strategies.  I suspect that it would be useful to share what we’ve come up with rather than keeping our innovations local. 

       I am most definitely not suggesting that we devote our attention solely to coping: the November American Ethnologist Forum as a whole — and Katz’s contribution in particular — ought to make that clear.  I’m suggesting that institutional isolation makes everyone weak, whereas cross-institutional sharing of productive interventions enables both students and practitioners of field research, oral history interviewing, and other marginalized research styles to continue doing ethical, critical research even as other efforts are under way to protect and expand those possibilities. 

       Some examples of the creative coping were offered in the November American Ethnologist Forum in Dan Bradburd’s article (on an individual level) and Rick Shweder’s (on an institutional level).  Please write in with your local achievements: whether individual, departmental, or college/university-wide.  In my next post, I’ll describe a local experiment  in what — following my last post — I think of as cross-disciplinary “translation”.     

Consent and the Ethics of the ‘Reseach Relation’

1. Consent and preserving the rights of research participants:

About Chris Kelty’s (03/15/07 this site) suggestive comparisons between copyright and informed consent, and particularly the notion that both “actually diminish rights of subjects regarding the control of information, rather than protecting them”: remember that, even though the IRB system is federal (with a central Office of Human Research Protections apparently coordinating the application of regulations), IRBs are local and control their own procedures. As far as I know, IRB researchers agree that local IRB practice “varies”. The point here is that there is no standard IRB consent form.

My institution’s IRB takes a minimalist approach. Our “Standard Adult Consent” form (which, like many other universities’ IRB materials, is available online) is two pages long, the second page devoted simply to contact information. The main page has a place in which the researcher needs to insert a straightforward (non-jargon) description of the project. Apart from this researcher-generated text, the consent form asserts that the signer affirms only that s/he has been informed about what s/he will do as a research participant. The form includes the mandated language (http://www.hhs.gov/ohrp/humansubjects/assurance/consentckls.htm) that participation is voluntary and that consent can be withdrawn and participation discontinued at any time without penalty. But it adds that “By signing this agreement, I do not waive any legal rights or release Princeton University, its agents, or you from liability for negligence”.

This minimalist approach lives up to regulatory requirements and also affirms a best-case interpretation of what the regulations aimed for: it is clearly aimed to avoid creating an institutional shelter.

In contrast, for example—just to use Chris’s institution—the Rice “Consent to Participate” form simply provides the required assurances about the voluntary nature of participation and rights to withdraw without penalties.

It might be interesting to compare other university forms: so folks, what rights does your local IRB consent form protect or not protect?

2. Disciplinary diversity in the ‘researcher relation’ and its ethics:

I agree completely with Tom Strong’s (03/17/07 this site) sense of the contradiction between naming or authorship (associated with IPR claims and their related local values, like the Papua New Guinean ones he mentions) and confidentiality (associated with both ethnographic ethics and IRB emphases). IRBs presume one kind of researcher/researched relation derived from medical research, in which confidentiality makes sense since participants are vulnerable “subjects”. They are brought into lab settings within which–for the resulting data to be usable–information cannot be shared but must be carefully controlled by the reseacher.

But IRBs these days regulate a very wide variety of fields whose methodologies involve diverse research relations. Fields whose reseach relations tend to be collaborative–involving, for example, the sharing of information and other colleague-like assumptions about intellectual and social agency–are closer to the model that Papua New Guineans—and lmichael’ (03/17/07 this site) Amazonian field communities—prefer. They’re quite different from the medical model of the research relation.

Oral History ethics are perhaps the most elaborate in treating “narrators” as the authors of their narratives: going way beyond even recent anthropological practice. The OH convention is for narrators to hold copyright to their own words and to specify who (if anyone) may have access to the transcripts and recordings.

In this consent discussion, John McCreery (03/18/07 this site) invokes “the spirit of free choice”—and the journalist’s allowing on- or off-record commentary. This position appears consistent with the Belmont principle of “respect” (foundational to the regulations that IRBs enforce). Is it? Why does such a stance tend not to make sense to your average IRB?

My answer is that we’re dealing with incommensurable perspectives on the research relation. John’s (or Tom’s or Michael’s or my, etc.) interlocutors are construed (and construe themselves) as autonomous agents, whereas—following the medical model and its frightening worst cases—IRBs are responsible for “human subjects”: persons construed as “vulnerable” and in need of protection. What is more, bureaucratic rationality demands a disinterested consistency. From that central(izing) vantage, our divergent ethical positions don’t sound principled (they are not heard as issuing from different ethical stances) but simply self-interested (unenlightened, irrational).

Very like audit culture (using Marilyn Strathern’s sense of this term), bureaucratic ethics culture defines the dominant language of best practices. It demands that diverse disciplinary research relations be translated, so to speak, into one ethics language. The burden of translation is, as things presently stand, entirely ours.

As Michael Brown’s story suggests, that doesn’t necessarily mean a surrender of our principles…

[UPDATE: Added links for comments, and gave LMichael credit for a comment previously attributed to Michael Brown. – Ed.]

Responses to comments (continued!)

In my earlier post (“Responses to comments…”), part of my responses somehow disappeared. Here’s the missing bit (and sorry for my post-incompetence!):

#3 on inconsistencies and a sneaky plan to heighten the contradictions: John McCreery raises an excellent question. It would be nice if consistency ruled: all researchers should face the same constraints, but they don’t. The irony here is that consistency is one of the core values of bureaucratic ethics management. Consistency is a recurrent refrain on many local IRBs (“…well, if we allow you guys to do away with written informed consent, then we’d have to allow everyone to…”) and it is a key theme at the national level as well.

Ironies aside, as I understand it, there’s an important, fatal flaw in your deliciously sneaky consistency argument: market researchers don’t depend on federal funds to do their work.

Strictly speaking, IRB oversight is only required for institutions (like most universities and colleges) that accept federal research funds. The federal human subject protections regulations (45 Code of Federal Regulations, Pt. 46) were nicknamed “the Common Rule” in 1991 when 17 federal agencies (like NIH) that fund human subjects research all signed on. Rick Shweder’s contribution to our November 2006 American Ethnologist Forum explains that universities and other institutions that accept federal research funds cannot get those funds unless they sign an “assurance” with the relevant funding agencies, or a general Federal Wide Assurance (FWA): documents that obligate them to have one or more local IRBs to review their employees’ research proposals.

Now, as Shweder’s article also explains, university and college IRBs only need to promise to review federally funded research. However, it seems that most of our institutions have gone beyond this minimum requirement and have checked a box on the FWA form that obligates them to review all research, not just federally funded research! (Folks all over the place are looking in to this situation at their institutions: I recommend that you make friends with someone in your institution’s counsel’s office and look in to it too!) In any case, over the past five or six years of IRB “hypervigilance” (the situation that prompted the AE Forum) boards have been jittery and have tended to review all research regardless of how it is funded, regardless of whether their FWA obligates them to do so or not.

Responding to John’s question about the existence of guidelines parallel to those on which IRBs are founded: I can think of one that, while still being at least partially academic, is interesting nonetheless. Check out the National Academy of Sciences “On Being a Scientist” booklet (available online at http://bob.nap.edu/readingroom/books/obas/ ), which concerns science research ethics very generally. This is another example of the inconsistencies mentioned above: unlike the IRB oversight of research with human participants, these general (mostly non-human participant research) guidelines are completely voluntary even tho the research is very likely to be federally funded!

#4 on the roots of the IRB problems in disciplinary ‘cultures of research’: Another terrific question! My responses to other folks’ questions contain bits and pieces of an answer to this one (as does my AE Forum paper). But a fuller response would be the paper I mention in my comment on #5 (below). My contribution to the Cornell conference was a paper entitled “Comparative ‘Research’: A Modest Proposal Concerning the Regulatory Object” (which I’ll be ready to make available in a few weeks). In my view, the problems go way, way beyond the IRB context and derive exactly from the “cultures of research” of which IRB members and the rest of us are part. My own long-term research has been all about disciplinarity and interdisciplinarity—that is, engagements like those cross-disciplinary discussions concerning methodology you mention. As I explained in my AE paper, IRB discourse is just one of my “fieldsites” (which include other places in which disciplinary practitioners bump up against one another, as well as fractious intra-disciplinary moments of ethical crisis). But it’s a fieldsite in which everyone is implicated and consequently of great interest. My AE paper unpacks the Common Rule “definition of research” a bit; and it also begins to address exactly the issues you identify concerning how ethnographic fieldwork is understood by folks from other disciplines (and vice versa). Check it out.

#5 on the relationship between IRB and intellectual property issues: If Michael Brown is still out there, what do you think about the relationship between IRB surveillance and the management of intellectual property contradictions?

Different institutional mechanisms are at play with respect to intellectual property and IRB controversies. For one thing, the IRB system exists outside of (or prior to) legal mechanisms for dealing with accusations about misrepresentation (libel laws), privacy, and the like. This is a huge issue: several of us refer to it in the AE Forum (and anyone interested in following this might also check outhttp://irbinfo.blogspot.com/ and follow references to Hamburger’s Supreme Court Review paper). In a paper that I wrote for a Cornell Law School-hosted conference on “Bureaucracies of Virtue”, I suggested that we’d be better off (and our informants no worse off) if our work were held to account in the same ways that the work of journalists and other writers are. As I understand the current situation, IRB reviews do not protect us or our institutions from lawsuits (that is, whether or not consent forms are involved, IRB reviews don’t prevent our interlocutors from suing us). As things stand, many critics see IRB reviews as constituting censorship-like prior review (arguably a kind of “prior restraint”, something that the First Amendment protects against).

“Research” as not-Therapy (or: Why “research” is dangerous and must be controlled): An IRB origin tale

In his comment on my earlier post, Kerim wrote that it would be interesting to see how IRB regulations work for “examples which are supposed to be paradigmatic” (medical research). I agree. Doing so really exposes the fundamental impotence of the rules (despite mighty efforts by droves of well-intentioned, clever rule-writers). While ethnographers and biomedical experimenters do face analogous disconnections between regulatory prescriptions and the inevitable surprises of actual research practice, exploring the problems that medical folks in particular face brings us back to the regulatory system’s “origin place”. It brings us back to the problem that the rules were meant to solve but never did.
I’ll summarize the argument—part of the forthcoming PoLAR article, “Comparative ‘Research’” (mentioned in earlier posts)—versions of which also appear less centrally in my 2006 AE paper.
I begin with the observation that there is no such thing as Research-in-general: there is no suite of ideals or traits shared by all the practices to which the term “research” usually refers. Instead, there are diverse, historically specific, socially organized ways of knowing the world, in shifting partial relations with one another, as well as ambivalent relations with particular non- and quasi-research activities (from journalism or travel writing to stage magic or, as we will see below, therapy).
Bureaucratic regulation cannot tolerate such incoherence. To control human-subjects research, variation must be bracketed so as to create a stable object with clear boundaries. Criteria must be found for deciding when instances of “research” begin and end, and for deciding what is and is not “research”.
However, research involving human beings persistently resists reductive objectification in the interest of consistency. This is true not just among the ornery humanistic social studies but also in biomedicine and other unambivalently science-identified fields whose research models fit the Common Rule definition.
So why bother? Why did “research” with human participants come to be viewed as in need of regulation (and therefore agonizing definition)?
The IRB definition of research was designed originally to provide a means of eradicating a potentially lethal ambiguity, specific to medical practice, concerning when “therapy” ends and “research” begins. This danger, publicized in the 1960s and early 1970s, is central to the history of the US federal regulations (for lots of bibliographic leads, see that November AE again).
But the design was flawed: the original ambiguity is still with us.
Human-subjects research regulations (45 CFR, Pt. 46, known as the Common Rule: see Chris Kelty’s Savage Mind 2/8/06, on which I hope to comment soon!)—formally set in place in the late 1970s/early 1980s—derive from earlier NIH guidelines that reflect specifically biomedical background assumptions. These assumptions go something like this:
1. Since it concerns directly improving the wellbeing of particular individuals, medical therapy is appropriately evaluated in terms of individual patient interests.
2. In contrast, since medical research concerns the production of knowledge “generalizable” beyond individual cases, it is appropriately evaluated in terms of the interests of science and society at large.
3. It follows that—since a concern for individuals isn’t inherent to the definition of “research” the way it is to the definition of “therapy”—even though physical risks to persons are associated with both medical therapy and research, the risks to individuals are qualitatively more serious in research
4. Consequently, “research” (in this sense) needs special oversight.
These specific background assumptions are evident in regulatory provisions that, firstly, limit risk/benefit calculi to research “emas distinguished from risks and benefits of therapies/em” and that, secondly, exclude from consideration the “long range effects of applying knowledge” (45 CFR 46.111[a][2]). “Research” is not “therapy”: not the emapplication/em of medical knowledge to individual persons (applications normally enabled when research results are published and made available to practicing physicians). The medical rationale of regulatory distinctions is just as evident in the definition of “human subject”, but I won’t discuss that here.
Now, while Common Rule regulations were applied widely to federally-financed non-biomedical research from the start, the idea of research-as-not-therapy does not translate readily outside of biomedicine. For example, cancer patients participating in clinical trials of new cancer therapies can compare the likelihood of a direct personal benefit from new knowledge against the risk of harm in the research process itself. In contrast, social research rarely promises practical payoffs to its participants. Its benefits tend to be indirect and its harms are located less in the research process than in its products.
Not only is research-as-not-therapy untranslatable across fields, but the regulatory definition did not even do away with the ambiguities within medical practice. Heroic efforts of clarification can be found in works that interpret the Common Rule for IRBs, like the IRB Guidebook (www.hhs.gov/ohrp/irb/irb_guidebook.htm). Nevertheless, to this day it continues to be a frequent topic of debate in IRB circles.
I’ll stop here for now. In the full length treatment of this argument, I offer an extended example of problem solving discussions among experienced biomedical IRB insiders concerning how the medical therapy/research distinction might be operationalized in particular cases. Such discussions—which happen all the time—demonstrate very clearly that it is effectively impossible in practice to distinguish clearly between when “therapy” ends and “research” begins: when innovations in the care of a particular patient with an unusual condition ought to be treated as research (worth publishing, in need of an IRB review). The regulations offer no solution to this problem.
More soon.

Responses to comments on cross-disciplinary dimensions of IRB engagement

This is a response to the first five comments on my last post. These concerned a series of interconnected issues relating to the cross-disciplinary dimensions of IRB engagement:(please disregard the strange font size changes below, which aren’t intentional…) [I’ve removed some of the cruftier html to remove the weirdo fonts -Rex]:

#1 on sociocultural anthropology and ethnographic sociology: I strongly recommend Rosalie Wax’s book Doing Fieldwork (U Chicago 1971, reissued around 1986, and still available on Amazon or your college library). It’s a memoir of fieldwork, and contains a wonderful capsule history that moves between conventional anthropological and sociological sources. Park is an important part of the story, but before that (among other folks) Beatrice and Stanley Webb were working in London, contemporary with Boas and part of Malinowski’s environment. Just in U.S. anthropology, it’s my sense that the various subfields and theoretical styles are unevenly aware of ethnographic sociology (that is, we’re not all equally ignorant!).

I agree that there is a lack of reference to qualitative sociology in the recent generation’s revaluation of work “at home”. But anthropologists have always worked at home; indeed, working at home is cheaper (it doesn’t necessitate securing a research fellowship or grant) and was therefore always common. What has happened over the past generation is that working at home has become not only expedient but also sexy. So one question is: what was the relationship between ethnographic sociology and the long tradition of home style anthropology? Lots of other questions certainly (e.g., for example, how is the anthropology/sociology relationship managed in joint departments?)!

#2 on multidisciplinary projects and IRBs: How IRBs handle multidisciplinary projects is an interesting question. I haven’t seen much commentary in the gargantuan IRB literature on this: so, any stories folks? Tom—do you want to describe the HIV study with respect to IRB approval?

In any case, I very much agree that it’s important to improve our understanding of disciplinary differences: much of my work has focused on this (as my own AE paper suggests). I’ve been particularly interested in the partial connections—the reticulum of similarities and differences—among closely related disciplines like those I sketched (e.g., p 483, 484-5, and esp. 485-6) in that essay.

For example, the IRB literature—definitely including that written by folks who are critical of IRB “mission creep”—is full of generalized references to the problems “qualitative” researchers face when their work is evaluated by IRBs. While it is true that there are significant differences between qualitative and quantitative researchers, this distinction doesn’t begin to address the problems of cross-disciplinary communication between researchers and IRBs (and among IRB members). Consider that thoroughly quantitative survey researchers and thoroughly qualitative, interpretive anthropologists both approach potential informants on the latter’s home ground (where consent forms aren’t the most effective ways to ensure informant consent, where informants have considerable power to stop participating); in contrast, oral historians and interpretive anthropologists—both qualitative—have very different conventions with respect to confidentiality!

#3 on inconsistencies and a sneaky plan to heighten the contradictions:  John McCreery raises an excellent question.  It would be nice if consistency ruled: all researchers should face the same constraints, but they don’t. The irony here is that consistency is one of the core values of bureaucratic ethics management.  Consistency is a recurrent refrain on many local IRBs (“…well, if we allow you guys to do away with written informed consent, then we’d have to allow everyone to…”) and it is a key theme at the national level as well.
 

Ironies aside, as I understand it, there’s an important, fatal flaw in your deliciously sneaky consistency argument:  market researchers don’t depend on federal funds to do their work.
 

Strictly speaking, IRB oversight is only required for institutions (like most universities and colleges) that accept federal research funds.  The federal human subject protections regulations (45 Code of Federal Regulations, Pt. 46) were nicknamed “the Common Rule” in 1991 when 17 federal agencies (like NIH) that fund human subjects research all signed on.  Rick Shweder’s contribution to our November 2006 American Ethnologist Forum explains that universities and other institutions that accept federal research funds cannot get those funds unless they sign an “assurance” with the relevant funding agencies, or a general Federal Wide Assurance (FWA): documents that obligate them to have one or more local IRBs to review their employees’ research proposals.    
 

Now, as Shweder’s article also explains, university and college IRBs only need to promise to review federally funded research.  However, it seems that most of our institutions have gone beyond this minimum requirement and have checked a box on the FWA form that obligates them to review all research, not just federally funded research!  (Folks all over the place are looking in to this situation at their institutions: I recommend that you make friends with someone in your institution’s counsel’s office and look in to it too!)  In any case, over the past five or six years of IRB “hypervigilance” (the situation that prompted the AE Forum) boards have been jittery and have tended to review all research regardless of how it is funded, regardless of whether their FWA obligates them to do so or not.    
 

Responding to John’s question about the existence of guidelines parallel to those on which IRBs are founded: I can think of one that, while still being at least partially academic, is interesting nonetheless.  Check out the National Academy of Sciences “On Being a Scientist” booklet (available online at http://bob.nap.edu/readingroom/books/obas/ ), which concerns science research ethics very generally.  This is another example of the inconsistencies mentioned above:  unlike the IRB oversight of research with human participants, these general (mostly non-human participant research) guidelines are completely voluntary even tho the research is very likely to be federally funded!
      
#4  on the roots of the IRB problems in disciplinary ‘cultures of research’:  Another terrific question!  My responses to other folks’ questions contain bits and pieces of an answer to this one (as does my AE Forum paper).  But a fuller response would be the paper I mention in my comment on #5 (below).  My contribution to the Cornell conference was a paper entitled “Comparative ‘Research’: A Modest Proposal Concerning the Regulatory Object” (which I’ll be ready to make available in a few weeks).  In my view, the problems go way, way beyond the IRB context and derive exactly from the “cultures of research” of which IRB members and the rest of us are part.  My own long-term research has been all about disciplinarity and interdisciplinarity—that is, engagements like those cross-disciplinary discussions concerning methodology you mention.  As I explained in my AE paper, IRB discourse is just one of my “fieldsites” (which include other places in which disciplinary practitioners bump up against one another, as well as fractious intra-disciplinary moments of ethical crisis).  But it’s a fieldsite in which everyone is implicated and consequently of great interest.  My AE paper unpacks the Common Rule “definition of research” a bit; and it also begins to address exactly the issues you identify concerning how ethnographic fieldwork is understood by folks from other disciplines (and vice versa).  Check it out.  
  
#5 on the relationship between IRB and intellectual property issues:  If Michael Brown is still out there, what do you think about the relationship between IRB surveillance and the management of intellectual property contradictions? 
 

Different institutional mechanisms are at play with respect to intellectual property and IRB controversies.  For one thing, the IRB system exists outside of (or prior to) legal mechanisms for dealing with accusations about misrepresentation (libel laws), privacy, and the like.  This is a huge issue: several of us refer to it in the AE Forum (and anyone interested in following this might also check out http://irbinfo.blogspot.com/ and follow references to Hamburger’s Supreme Court Review paper).  In a paper that I wrote for a Cornell Law School-hosted conference on “Bureaucracies of Virtue”, I suggested that we’d be better off (and our informants no worse off) if our work were held to account in the same ways that the work of journalists and other writers are.  As I understand the current situation, IRB reviews do not protect us or our institutions from lawsuits (that is, whether or not consent forms are involved, IRB reviews don’t prevent our interlocutors from suing us).  As things stand, many critics see IRB reviews as constituting censorship-like prior review (arguably a kind of “prior restraint”, something that the First Amendment protects against).                
 

IRBs and the ethnography problem: demarcating ‘research’, locating allies

The point of the November 2006 AE Forum I put together, “Anxious borders between life and work in an age of bureaucratic ethics regulation” (follow the link in Tom Strong’s post introducing me), was to identify the distinctive features of ethnography and of the IRB system (so-called ‘human subjects committees’) that set them up for conflict, and to explore the implications.

Demarcating ‘research':

A key distinctive feature of ethnographic research is the fact that ethnographers–whether they work in Highland Papua New Guinea or New Jersey–typically embed themselves with their interlocutors: that is, both ideally and often enough in practice, ethnographers live where they work. Anthropologists have long recognized that significant ethical dilemmas derive from the fact that research (ethnographic ‘work’) isn’t demarcated from not-research (the rest of the ethnographer’s ‘life’). But it is a fresh headache on account of intensified IRB oversight. This is because the federal human subjects research regulations (what IRBs are set up to enforce) presume a clear distinction: ‘research’ is, after all, the regulatory object. (I’ll discuss this point in another posting.)

To exaggerate this problem so as to make it more visible, the AE Forum focused discussion on unfunded fieldwork. While ethnographic sociology is typically unfunded–a surprise to most of the anthropologists, I suspect–anthropologists who work “at home” (wherever that may be) also often do so without research grants. This may be especially true of research past the dissertation phase: I’m interested in Savage Minds readers’ experiences. We also focused on the necessarily open-ended, exploratory character of ethnographic discovery practices. While this is also obviously not a new insight, viewed as part of the IRB ‘research’ demarcation problem it helps clarify the distinctiveness of ethnographic work. This is because the federal human subjects research regulations are meant to be applied before ‘research’ begins. The rules are designed for ‘research’ understood as a distinct event, not as an emergent process (as is oftent the case in ethnography, and especially when it’s done at home).

Locating allies:

The focus of the AE Forum was on ethnography in the broadest sense of the term–that is, the research style that anthropology shares with several other fields, notably sociology. This is why I invited Jack Katz (a well known ethnographic sociologist from UCLA who has been doing important critical work in IRBs) to be part of this project.

There’s an important strategic point here. Anthropologists are in the habit of telling themselves that they are the inventors of ethnographic fieldwork and that others who adopt the approach are derivative or in some sense inauthentic. This is just not true. Fieldwork–participant observation particularly–was a co-creation of sociologists and anthropologists, whose methodological histories overlapped heavily during the 19th and early 20th centuries. (I’m happy to say more about this, if anyone is interested; for example, look at Rosalie Wax’s fascinating book, Doing Fieldwork.) While there’s no doubt that fieldwork is positioned differently in present-day anthropology (where it’s the default approach) and sociology (where it’s a marginal or minority approach), I think that recognizing this common history may help anthropologists cultivate allies in their IRB struggles. It’s in our strategic interest to make common cause with ethnographers of all sorts both locally (in our respective institutions, on our local IRBs) and nationally, given the expansion and intensification of ethics regulation.

Thanks, folks

Thanks in advance to Savage Minds participants for this virtual conversation, and thanks in particular to Tom Strong for the invitation. This is an introductory test message, to check whether I understand how this software works…

The pretext for my being here is the November 2006 AE Forum on the special problems ethnographers face in negotiating with IRBs, especially given the expansion and intensification of IRB scrutiny over the past several years.  Over the next few weeks, my aim will be to raise questions and to make a stab at being informative.  I’ve read previous SM posts concerning IRBs and ethnography with interest and will pick up some of the themes raised earlier, but will also move off in other directions.  For example, we have lots (and lots) of horror stories and worst case scenarios, and while we need good critical analysis of all that, we also need reports on survival strategies.  I’ll provide some; consider this an invitation to login with your own.