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 ), 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 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).                


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).

4 thoughts on “Responses to comments on cross-disciplinary dimensions of IRB engagement

  1. Rena (and others)–

    I’m reading your posts with great interest. Many thanks for helping to broaden debate about the increasingly troubling role of IRBs for fieldworkers.

    One point at which the IRB and IPR debates cross is the so-called precautionary principle. In a general way, the precautionary principle seems like an admirable yardstick: do nothing that could conceivably harm your subjects. Unfortunately, if the principle is extended far enough, it can be paralyzing. After all, it’s impossible to predict how new technologies will affect people in the future or how ethnographic work from one era might be used (and abused) by another. Add to this a growing institutional fear of litigation–often under the rubric of “risk management”–and a therapeutic ethos focused on promoting self-esteem and preventing “trauma” of even the most ordinary sorts, and we find ourselves in our present fix.

    Before I launched ethnographic work with New Agers in the 1990s, I was lucky to be briefed by a well-known writer of non-fiction, then my next door neighbor, about my legal vulnerabilities. The biggest risk in the US, he explained, is not libel but claims of invasion of privacy. If interviewees can plausibly assert that they didn’t know you planned to write about them, they can claim that their privacy was invaded. So he recommended taping all interviews and beginning them with a statement on the order of, “You do know, don’t you, that this interview may be part of a book that I’m writing?” Verbal assent to this provides modest protection. Nevertheless, most ethnographers go to considerable lengths to protect privacy by using pseudonyms, etc. Unfortunately, in our present situation, the _threat_ of litigation is often enough to create an institutional crisis or prevent a press from publishing a book.

    My friend scoffed at the idea of handing release forms to interviewees for their signature. In his view, it instantly creates a combative, legalistic atmosphere that is anathema to good interviewing.

    The New Age project illustrates the kind of ambiguous situation Rena’s original post discusses. When I went to public channeling events as an anonymous, fee-paying customer, what obligation did I have, if any, to reveal why I was there? Although I didn’t hide my ethnographic intent if asked about my goals directly, I felt that there was no presumption of privacy in such situations. One-on-one interviews were a different matter altogether, and there the usual ethical guidelines applied.

    A final note: as a 25-year member of a joint anthropology-sociology department organized around a commitment to ethnography and qualitative work, I can attest to the robustness of the ethnographic tradition in sociology. Admittedly, qualitative/ethnographic sociology represents a far smaller subset of the discipline than it does in anthropology, but there’s still plenty of good work being done. It’s a pity that arbitrary disciplinary boundaries prevent more anthropologists from realizing this.

  2. Allow me to add an anecdote about the freedom enjoyed by Japanese market researchers.

    One of the studies conducted by the Hakuhodo Institute of Life and Living that didn’t make it into my book on Japanese consumer behavior but has always been a wonderful teaching example for all the issues it raises begins with two male researchers considering the question, “What is the most elementary form of selling?” [The marketing equivalent I noted to myself of Durkheim’s famous question concerning the elementary form of religion.]

    The answer they come up with clearly reflects a male perspective: “Men trying to pick up women.”

    Then their planning continues with what seems to me a very Japanese approach: “In every field of endeavor, if you want to know what’s going on you ask the professionals.” But who are the professionals? “For the art of picking up women, it has to be the scouts who recruit women for the water trades (“water trades” is a Japanese euphemism for the sex industry).”

    But how can you ask secrets from people who depend for their livelihood on activities that verge on the illegal? You can’t. So….

    The researchers hired two good-looking college women, wired them up like informers in police thrillers, and sent them cruising up and down Center Street in Shibuya, a fashionable haunt for teenagers where scouts are known to look for new girls.

    The output of the research was an issue of the internal newsletter published by HILL, with content largely composed of verbatim transcripts and the analysts’ comments in call-outs. There was also a discussion of tactics that took the form of an extended military metaphor: The opening bombardment to soften them up, the flanking maneuver, the siege, pressing home the attack, etc. The one concession to the sort of ethical issues with which IRB concern themselves was careful avoidance of names. Both scouts and girls were referred to with Japanese equivalents of A, B, C.

    The result is a body of ethnographic information that could have considerable value to an anthropologist interested in the arts of persuasion in Japanese. Should it be ignored because the way in which it was gathered may leave some of us feeling squeamish?

  3. I have worked on a few projects that teamed researchers together to look at social knowledge related to sex with a view to identifying effective interventions to help prevent HIV infection. These were mostly conducted at the University of California, San Francisco, which is a medical sciences campus of the UC. The reigning IRB ethic is very much within a medicalized paradigm, so to speak.

    Fortunately, I was not in fact responsible for IRB approvals for all these different projects. Nonetheless, it is true that I filed many IRB updates and such, and these were extremely onerous. Paperwork itself is something to complain about in this regard, I humbly submit.

    Generally, however, my sense is that in the multi-disciplinary context of HIV prevention studies, what happens is that ‘ethnography’ is submitted to some rather jarring lexical transformations. First among these is that ‘ethnography’ becomes something one ‘does.’ Anna can do the statistical analysis, and Tom will ‘do the ethnography.’ I remember encountering this locution first in the mid-90s and finding it nonsensical and nongrammatical. ‘Do ethnography’? Write ethnography, yes. Do it? It was weird.

    But I soon learned that ‘doing ethnography’ in fact mostly seemed to mean: doing interviews. There was sort of conventional understanding that ethnography meant interviewing (as I remember). Certainly, say, ‘participant observation’ in the context of, um, public sex seeking in parking lots at 4 am on Saturday nights, was not really included.

    Contrarily however it was also true that ‘doing ethnography’ might mean ‘qualitative research that is not interviews,’ which was another sort of black boxing of the topic. I recall both framings being salient.

    In any case, all of these projects required very careful consent procedures. And, I think, rigorous or micromanaged ‘consent’ by its nature disallows some kinds of observational strategies. I actually think the black boxing of ethnography, or its reification, as a type of action that one simply ‘does’ is interesting. And I wonder if perhaps it is a tactic of evasion. By ‘doing ethnography,’ one avoids the actual specification of what one is doing: e.g., observing illegal acts (say).

    There’s is much more to say here… but I have to prepare lecture!

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