Using informed consent forms in fieldwork

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.

Rex

Alex Golub is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. His book Leviathans at The Gold Mine has been published by Duke University Press. You can contact him at rex@savageminds.org

8 thoughts on “Using informed consent forms in fieldwork

  1. Funny, I was just thinking about the whole issue of informed consent. When I did my M.A. research, I was talking with two main groups of people: Natives and non-Natives. With non-Natives, I didn’t feel awkward at all asking them to sign a consent form since my interviews with them seemed to “naturally” take on a more business-like flavour, even though my interviews were more discussion style, unstructured and informal. However, when I had these same kinds of discussions with Native people, I felt more awkward because adding a business-like component to the dialogue seemed to put a kind of wedge in our relationship.

    Anyhow, I’m currently planning for PhD work in the same location except that this time my research will be community-based and will have to do with young Natives to drink. Informed consent with people who are intoxicated much of the time has its own set of complications and I’m still trying to work all that out.

  2. Thanks for the post, Rex — my graduate students’ methods class is talking about IRBs and such this week and I’ll suggest that they read it, along with Rena’s interesting musings. There was an unfinished thought in the third-from-last paragraph: “I’m sure if I was asking for more prolonged commitments on their part.” … ? Care to finish it?

  3. When I did work in a village in China, I tried to make sure I got some kind of IRB permission, especially in terms of my use of pictures for publications. I always explained verbally what I was doing there, and after a month or two, everyone in the area knew what I was doing – it actually helped my research, since people would come to me to tell me if there was a funeral or wedding (since this is what my neighbors concluded was important to my research), and they also came to me with their own “data” such as their own videotapes of funerals.
    But in terms of getting signed permission sheets, that was harder. I went through the local political hierarchy to do this (at that time, there was no village head in this area; the pastor of the Catholic Church in this Chinese village seemed to fulfill this function, along with a party secretary), and the pastor insisted that he had the authority to allow me to do the research and take photographs. He knew that I had already gone through the various levels (national, provincial, municipal, county, and township – at the municipal level on down, each involved a welcoming banquet and lots of drinking!), since I had an official temporary household registration. Bureaucratically, this would seem to not fit most IRB standards, but it in essence was the local version of IRB approval; in fact, for survey distribution in the 1990s, the Peoples Republic of China research procedures were much tighter than American IRB standards. I figured that as long as my process did not violate AAA ethical standards or local standards, then I fulfilled the spirit of the human subjects research restrictions.

  4. The issue that has been increasingly on my mind is: given that these forms are going to be (as Fuji puts it) ‘in your fieldwork bag’ how does using them in interviews then feed back not just on the interviews, but on all other sorts of interactions that you will have with your informants? This is particularly important since, it seems to me, the stuff that_isn’t_ interviews will be as important or more important than formal interactions.

    The answer to the question really depends on where you work — Fuji’s comment is a great example of that. I think the key thing is that the letter disambiguates issues of privacy in the realm of formal interviews, and this then creates an awareness/demand that issues of privacy be disambiguated in all the OTHER domains that you will share with your fieldwork community: “she asked me to sign a form about this interview, and now she is shouting me drinks at the bar — what is the status of the dirt I am dishing her now?”

    This means that being an anthropologist is a bit harder because the bar is set higher — but it is probably a good thing in the end since (obviously) people SHOULD know whether drinks at the bar are going to show up in your ethnography or not. The key thing is — like I said in my post — to work the letters into the process of your arrival in the field so that you and everyone else feels comfortable.

    For instance, you may want to spend a lot of time discussing your project with people and give them a chance to know you before you move on to something more formal. This is good advice for lots of things besides just IRB sheets — often times it not until half-way through your fieldwork you finally hit on the people who will end up being closest to you.

    The other option would be to introduce them very early about do interviews about a trivial or noncontroversial topic so that people have a chance to try out the form in a low-stakes way.

    I’m sure that there are lots of other options, and that a good deal depends on the anthropologist and the community they are studying with. Obviously if you are an unpleasant person it doesn’t matter how long it takes for you to establish ‘rapport’ since you’re never going to!

  5. I’d be interested to see the exact language of the consent forms that your IRB recommended. Oral historians have no complaint about the concept of consent forms for interviews, in part because we like to archive our interviews, and that takes some kind of copyright permission. But IRBs concerned about 45 CFR 46.116 may insist on language better suited to a medical experiment, such as a statement of risks and benefits or a promise that the interviewees “may discontinue participation at any time without penalty or loss of benefits to which the subject is otherwise entitled.”

    Did your IRB ask you to include any language that you considered inappropriate?

    Zach

  6. I’m glad your IRB treated you well. I’d still be curious to see one of the letters you sent. Since you say the interviews were “on the record,” I assume you did not promise anonymity, as required by the sample social-science letter. Did you use the oral history letter, or write a new one yourself? If the latter, did the IRB review it prior to your research?

    Zach

  7. Interviews were “on the record” in the sense that I will quote my interviewees word for word, but their identities will remain anonymous — so my letters were essentially similar to the form I linked to above. My letter was reviewed by IRB prior to my research.

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