I spent this July in Papua New Guinea. The trip was mostly pleasure — to catch up with friends, talk with fellow academics and policy wonks, and of course to see my adopted family in Porgera. I did however, do a bit of research (mostly to satisfy the requirements of the grant that sent me there). What counts as ‘research’ as an anthropologist is difficult — as a recording instrument human beings never switch off while they are awake — and during my time in PNG I had no explicit research design or method. My goal was simply to interview a few people and take notes during my holiday in PNG. The human subjects people at my uni took a look at my research proposal and suggested that I file an exemption for a full IRB review since all the information I would be gathering was more or less public knowledge in PNG. However, they did still ask that provide a one page informed consent sheet to everyone I interviewed so that they could read it, sign it, and keep a copy of it.
In the past I’ve been quite skeptical of this sort of bureaucratization of the relations I have with informants. However, as I think more and more about the politics of doing fieldwork and writing about it over the course of a whole career, and the more I read Rena Lederman’s “posts on IBRs”:https://savageminds.org/author/rena-lederman/ the more strongly I felt that informed consent sheets, no matter how silly they seemed to some of my informants, were an important way of establishing some boundaries for myself and my ‘research subjects.’
So this is how it went down:
I designed a one page informed consent sheet, and wrote it up as a letter addressed to the person I was interviewing. I was interviewing managing directors of oil and mining companies, and I wanted something that was less clinical than a form and gave them the sense that I was listening to their stories, rather than demanding that they answer my questions. This letter could be faxed or emailed to people to give them some sense of my project before we met, although most of the time I simply gave the form to them before the interview started, or when it started shifting from small talk (when I did not take notes) to more serious topics (when I did).
Overall, the forms worked very well and did not break ‘rapport’ the way that I feared. There were several reasons for this. The first had to do with the setting of my research — I mostly met my informants in the boardrooms of their corporate offices. They were professionals (often lawyers or people with training in social science) who — the resource extraction industry being what it is — often hire consultants to teach them how to speak to the press. One company, for instance, hires the same consultant who works with John Howard, the prime minister of Australia. As a result they understood that my interview was formal, that they were on the record, and speaking about important public issues, and they appreciated the fact that I appreciated this along with them. This was, after all, an interview, not me moving into their house or drinking with them after hours while they dished the dirt on their industry.
That said, reaction to the form was mixed. Only a few people decided it was ‘silly’ and signed without reading it. Others read it and signed it even though they had a pretty low opinion of it. “I’ll sign this,” said one executive impatiently, “this doesn’t say anything!” Most people read it through carefully, and then we got on with the interview.
A second factor that had to do with the ease of the IRB was my own subject position. As a young tenderfoot graduate student it can be difficult to explain to Informants Of Great Power (or yourself) exactly who you are and what you are doing. This time around, however, I was established as a professor. And a professor at UH Manoa no less, a university that many people in PNG have been to or heard of because of our specialty in the Pacific. This gave me a bit of credibility that I could expend getting people to sign forms.
The time factor also had something to do with the success of the forms — I was in town for a month, I was on vacation, and these sorts of opportunistic interviews (with no research design or schedule of questions — just chats really at which I took notes) were punctuated bouts of anthropological presence in otherwise busy businessmen’s lives. I was asking for one hour of their time and that was it. I’m sure if I was asking for more prolonged commitments on their part.
Expertise also helps smooth over rough patches. Although most of my time is spent at the operations end of the mining industry rather than the in the corporate office, I do know quite a lot about PNG, and it is much easier to establish ‘rapport’ with someone when you clearly understand their job and they think they might learn a thing or two from you (although to be fair not everyone had such a high opinion of me!) In some cases I interviewed people I’d known for years. I’d have breakfast or lunch with them and then schedule the official ‘interview’ for later on in the week.
But fifthly (and finally), I think that the best way to use informed consent sheets wisely is simply to recognize they are inevitable part of the research process. As Charles Briggs points out in Learning How To Ask, there is no point in trying to achieve ‘naturalness’ in an interview (as opposed to ‘artificiality’) since, as moments in social life, all interviews are negotiated.The goal is not to get back to the ‘pure’ unproblematic world of ‘genuine’ social interaction, but to attend to the process by which you and your informant build up the interview as a social event. Informed consent sheets are part of that process. They have limitations, can be multiply understood, admit of ambivalent valences and so forth. But in the end it is easiest, I think, to admit them as one part of the definition of the situation rather than try to hide their existence or guiltily introduce them to your informants as an ’embarrassing formality’. If you’re going to use them, after all, you might as well use them right.