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.
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).
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.