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”.     


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).

One thought on “Constructive, creative coping (a complement to IRB critique)

  1. 1. Define your research protocol narrowly.

    Much of what anthropologists do in doing ethnography falls well outside the purvue of research and more in the area of “preliminary investigation.” There is a lot of guesswork and friend-making and question asking that comes to naught as we go through the motions of starting a project, even after we have “gone to the field.” I find that my students and colleagues are too willing to define everything they do, from emailing a potential informant to videotaping a interview full of personal questions as research. Since IRB’s are concerned primarily with tangible forms of harm, I recommend that anthropologists should be to. Thus, your research protocol should be specific about the precise kinds of data and information you expect to record and analyze– and should leave out everything else. This may sound obvious, but given our generally hyper-ethical tendencies, I think it is more common than not that anthropologists, especially grad students, are too concerned about whether simply emailing an informant, or knocking on someone’s door constitutes research. If you don’t have a strictly defined protocol for doing so, then it probably doesn’t…

    2. Fill out forms meticulously and consistently.

    90% of the problems my students and colleagues encounter is in not being careful to fill out forms precisely, to answer all the requested questions, check all the boxen, and limit answers to practical, detailed, protocol-oriented answers (and not how your research will ultimately prove the Rex Golub was wrong wrong wrong!). This may seem obvious as well, but bureaucracies demand administrative ascesis, and creative forms of resistance to standardization gain you absolutely nothing in this case. Anwering questions concretely, in detail, and briefly allows your form to be quickly processed by overworked IRB minions, instead of throwing up red flags immediately…

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