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).