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.

This is a prescription for cynicism and disengagement as Chris Kelty made clear in his post last year and others have confirmed. That would be bad enough, if there weren’t also the sense that our efforts to satisfy our local IRBs have begun to take up so much intellectual space that it is crowding out conversations about “real” field ethics that we ought to be having with one another and our students.

In a perfect world, we would devote all our energies to elaborating and innovating peer discussion and collaborative review of our research plans and their emergent enactments. Indeed with forums like Savage Minds, one can imagine fresh and flexible ways of putting such things in practice. These days, internet connections and cell phones enable active mentoring and peer discussions of the ethics and politics of field relationships during fieldwork itself; while this isn’t possible everywhere we work yet, it’s is a major improvement over the isolation fieldworkers used to experience.

All of this needs to go on before, during and long, long after IRB applications, which have very little to offer in the way of substantively improving the human quality of field relationships. What also needs to go on is that we need to find ways to change the IRB system at the national level so that it ‘does no harm’ either to the ethical conduct of fieldwork or to the quality and range of projects we do. This may ultimately mean a constitutional challenge to the concept of prospective reviews of research: a firm recognition of the need to protect critical social research against censorship. Meanwhile we also need to find ways of coping with our respective local circumstances.

I think we have alternatives to cynical simulations and sneaking around.

The alternative I have in mind does double duty as a device not only
(1) for getting our research proposals approved by local IRBs, but also
(2) for educating colleagues in other disciplines who serve on our IRBs and IRB administrators (whatever their backgrounds) about anthropological field research.

2. Fieldwork boilerplate?

At Princeton, we are developing “boilerplate” responses to certain standard IRB questions. ‘Fieldwork boilerplate?!?’ you splutter, ‘that’s preposterous: if fieldwork is so improvisational and uncontrolled, how can there possibly be a way of standardizing our descriptions of what we’re aiming to do? Isn’t this just another cynical simulation?’

I believe it can be done and I don’t think that it involves lying, on the contrary. Perhaps the key problem for ethnographers is the IRB mandated demand for a prospective review of research. This causes no major problems for disciplines in which there is a very precise research plan (experiments, surveys); and it’s no problem for us when we ourselves plan formal interviewing. Our challenge is to find ways of effectively communicating the rationale for improvisational open-endedness in informal interviewing and participant observation. Success in this regard obviates the need for dishonest, contrived simulations of research “protocols” (e.g., lists of questions, a sampling strategy). It enables us to be honest about what fieldwork involves.

Boilerplate—standardized responses to standardized questions—can be an effective strategy for educating IRB members concerning unfamiliar kinds of research (that is, research with which most board members do not have personal experience).

At Princeton, the educational value of boilerplate was made clear to me—ironically enough—by the experience of cognitive neuroscientists with respect to research using their recently acquired fMRI machine (which images brain activity). This work initially made IRB members very, very nervous. The folks who supervise this work developed a standard set of very detailed responses to the IRB questionnaire (e.g., about what subjects will experience, the safety risks they will face, and the measures that will be taken to minimize those risks). The only parts of the questionnaire that are individualized—apart from the researchers’ names, ranks, and contact information—are the brief project descriptions (what they are looking for this time and what they hope to learn from the data). Generally, since the basic responses are all, by now, familiar to our IRB, the main ethical dilemma faced in discussing fMRI protocols concerns the possibility that a pathology might show up in a brain scan and the consequent question of whether and how the researchers ought to inform subjects.

The point here is that IRB members feel that they’ve been educated about fMRIs sufficiently that they feel comfortable with the basics and can think about the things that fMRI researchers themselves worry about. This is exactly the educational effect I’d want standardized descriptions of anthropological research to have.

We need the same level of practical cross-disciplinary education concerning fieldwork. We need that education to be routinized sufficiently—and in a form—that obviates the need to go through the lengthy, frustrating reeducation campaigns that, as Chris Kelty powerfully described, we face every time seasoned IRB administrative staff or academic and community members leave and new members join.

3. An example
Ok, what would boilerplate about fieldwork look like? I’ll provide an example; this example will also address the dreaded consent form issue. This example was developed by myself and a graduate student advisee of mine, whose project was approved on its first submission and involves labor migrants who move back and forth across a national border and historically politicized attitudes about national identities.

The wording we came up with is based on an understanding about the kinds of questions and confusions that usually come up around ethnographic projects on our particular IRB. The point here is that you need to do some good fieldwork on your own IRB. If you want to make this work for your own local conditions, you need to join your board and to listen carefully to how they read ethnographic proposals (rather than leaping into argument before you’ve gotten to the bottom of their interpretive frames). For example, our board handles only social and behavioral research proposals; if your IRB reviews medical research, for example, then I’d bet you’d need a somewhat different emphasis. As you’ll see below, the phrasing we have adopted takes into account that, for our board, “participant observation” needed to be clearly distinguished from “interviewing” (a problem to which Tom Strong referred in an earlier comment on this site).

Our IRB application has 18 questions. The first substantive questions (#5-7) request a brief project statement, a description of “procedures that will be used to achieve the objectives”, and a space for “the method of subject selection” and “everything the subject will be told about the study in advance and during the research”. Our strategy with regard to all of this is to keep our descriptions brief, non-technical (no theory jargon), and positive. That is, we don’t say things like “I have no method of subject selection and I have no so-called subjects” or “I cannot possibly tell my ‘subjects’ about the study accurately in advance since anthropologists don’t plan their fieldwork in advance”; instead, we do our best to say what we will be doing. After all that, the next questions concern consent forms, deception and debriefing, risks and benefits, and various other items.

My boilerplate example concerns the consent form response, but it also illustrates how we clarify references to ethnographic research method in our preceding responses:

The question:

Do you plan to obtain signed consent from all study participants? If not, please explain why. If you plan to use a consent form, please attach a copy…

The advice we give members of our department:

Signed consent is not a mandated requirement according to the federal regulatory code, and is not necessary for ethnographic projects particularly if your main method is “participant-observation” (rather than “interviewing”). Here a basic response, which you ought to adapt to your own project (which may involve other approaches):

My ethnographic fieldwork will involve conversational participant-observation. This method is driven by the interests of the respondents and relies on the development of an open-ended, informal relationship between researcher and respondent. The aim of this research method is to understand issues and relationships as a respondent understands them.

In order for this approach to be effective, researchers need to treat their consultants as experts from whom they are learning. Introducing a consent form inhibits this process by giving the researcher a false appearance of authority and expertise, and by giving the research a false appearance of narrow precision. In this kind of research, consent forms have a tendency to undermine respondents’ ability to direct conversation by positioning them as subjects to be studied rather than experts who are contributing to scholarship.

For these same reasons, introducing consent forms also tends to undermine the mutual trust which must be present in participant-observation. This approach is premised on the idea that respondents are empowered to determine their level of comfort in revealing information and that they may cease to participate at any time. Clearly communicating this basic premise, I will make certain that each respondent is fully aware of their right to discontinue participation in my research at any time.

Finally, confidentiality is an important value in this research. Consequently, I will be using pseudonyms in my field-notes and all other documentation; if consent forms were to be collected in this research, these forms would be the only documents linking named individuals to my study. While I will not intentionally record illegal behavior in my notes, not having consent forms would provide an additional assurance both to my respondents and myself concerning preservation of confidentiality.

I have found that seeing this language repeated across IRB applications has had the helpful effect on our panel of familiarizing them with this logic. Over the period that we’ve been using this rubric, two new members have joined the IRB; when anthropology proposals came before us, other members clued the newbies in—I didn’t have to say a word. I recognize that this example will not work for everyone and—with just this example—I certainly haven’t addressed all the important issues with which we’re all concerned. My point here to promote the idea that, with a little local IRB-centered fieldwork of your own, you might come up with rubrics relevant to your own circumstances, that work to routinize IRB education about fieldwork.


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).

3 thoughts on “Educate your IRB (a boilerplate experiment)

  1. Rena — I have come a bit late to the discussion, but I am actually preparing an IRB now to go to PNG this summer, and I find this summary extremely helpful. Thanks much for this entry!

  2. Just tried this with my own IRB. The response:

    “1. Please provide questionnaires/interview schedules.

    2. Obtain written consent. Please provide a detailed consent form.

    3. Please specify a date for the destruction of the data; include this information in the consent form.”

    Ahhhh. Here we go again!

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