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An inside-outsider’s view of Human Research Ethics Review

7 August, 2007

I’ve been promising for a while now that I would start blogging on ethical issues in ethnography, especially relating to the concrete practical issues brought up by human research ethics review (referred to in the US as ‘IRBs’, ‘Institutional Review Boards’). My background is both as a practicing ethnographer, academic advisor, and teacher of research methodology, and as a sitting member of Macquarie University’s review board for human research (for one semester, the ‘Acting Deputy Chair’).

I am continually frustrated by anthropologists’ relationship to the review process; for a field that seems very comfortable with moral language and advocacy, we are surprisingly tense and defensive at the prospect of institutional oversight of research ethics. Granted, review boards everywhere are different, and a fair number of them have probably handed down some real stinkers when their decisions have involved ethnographic projects, but the widespread antipathy toward the process seems to me out of proportion to what goes on at our institution (at least), and detrimental to both our discipline’s health and teaching objectives.

So, for my first blog post on ethics, I’d like to reflect on what the review board here is like, which might (or might not) shed light on IRBs elsewhere. My first post, then, is ‘an inside-outsider’s view of human research ethics review.’

For example, a recent article by Jack Katz suggests that review boards have ‘forced participant-observation field researchers underground’ because the demands of these boards are impossible for ethnographers to fulfil (especially because they require prior approval for what is an emergent, unfolding social relationship in the field). He attributes the unwillingness of IRBs to make allowance for ethnography to the fact that ethnographers do not ‘bring in sufficient research funding to induce administrators to be more consistently responsive’ (Katz 2006:499).

Katz makes some remarkably astute points, but, from my own experience, his reading of boards, their motivations and composition, and the likelihood that any IRB will respond to our discipline’s concerns appears unnecessarily pessimistic. His desire to seek exemption from the review process—although understandable if it is as onerous at his home institutions as he describes—is dangerous in the long term to our discipline, in my opinion. But to understand that we have less to fear from IRBs than we might expect, we need to better understand their composition and conduct.

The first, and most obvious, strategy to deal with the failure of fit between IRBs and ethnography is to get anthropologists on the review boards. Katz may think that grant money talks loudest, making an anthropologist’s acceptance on these boards unlikely, but this is hardly my experience. Here, the review board is typically treated as one of the most difficult, time-consuming, and onerous administrative duties a faculty member can assume. Within a large institution like Macquarie, the review board has to deal with hundreds of applications for approval every year (at some august institutions in the states, I can only imagine the flow of applications through the research office).

Far from hogging spots on the review committee then, many prestigious faculty members have no interest in subjecting themselves to the workload involved in being on the review board (and many days I share their aversion). Departments that place especially severe burdens on the committee (such as a thriving psychology department with many graduate students) are often expected to provide several representatives to help deal with the load of paperwork. Competent, hard-working faculty reviewers quickly find that the process depends heavily upon them, even if they feel that they are stretched by the demands of the position. In this environment, where need for review is a constant heavy burden on the research office, our ethics review committee was happy to accept a permanent representative from our anthropology department (in addition to a divisional representative).

The second thing that views like Katz’s seems to miss is that university research offices—especially at state institutions like ours—are typically held accountable for the quality and quantity of research the university produces, not just the total number of research dollars. It is in the interest of the research office to approve applications and to get researchers into the field, to get PhD projects approved so that the university can produce PhDs. Far from being uninteresting because they don’t get big grants, the social sciences are extremely important because they are cost effective; that is, we generate much ‘bang for the research buck’, with research-based degrees and publications produced with relatively low overhead. So mercenary motivations exist to facilitate field research.

Third, and I think Katz is very perceptive on this point (2006:504), without public reporting of results, an enormous gap exists between the knowledge of ethically-sanctioned procedures among members of the board compared to other faculty. Faculty not on the committee do not know what is going on with ethics review, even among members of their own departments. For example, I have had to point out on several occasions to fellow faculty in our department that not a single application has been rejected outright in the past year; past trauma remains more vivid in memory than present outcomes of the procedure. In addition, students often don’t know how to read letters from the review board. Because they are led to believe that approval is a kind of all-or-nothing gamble, they think a request for more information or slight amendment is ‘rejection’. They may be preconditioned to perceive ‘failure’ by the fears of their elders.

Katz’s suggestion that decisions be made public—for many reasons—seems to me an excellent one, but that can happen on the departmental level even without university boards being involved. That is, each student need not invent the application anew every time. The goal is not vacuous or self-righteous ‘boilerplate language’ for ethics applications, as one recent anthropology blogger suggested, but a legitimate attempt by the anthropology community to think about effective techniques for recurring issues such as oral informed consent, naturalistic observation in heavily trafficked settings, the use of photographs, the protection of populations under dangerous regimes, and the ethical requirements on those learning of illegal activity.

The ethics review process should not be avoided, escaped, or ‘exempted’ away. Rather, ethics review boards can be educated about ethnographic research methods and encouraged to produce clear standards for our research. I worry that too many anthropologists inadvertently suggest that ‘ethics’ is a bureaucratic hoop, that the ‘politics of representation’ is a far more worthy consideration than the nuts and bolts of evaluating risk, minimizing dangers to participants (including researchers), balancing public interest against risks that can’t be eliminated, and thinking hard about our relationships to our subjects, our collaborators, the field, the public at large, our home institutions, and those who support our work. If we speak from a moral high horse about evading or exempting ourselves from review (presumably because we are above such pedestrian concerns), we teach evasion and a sense of ethical exceptionalism, that the rules don’t apply to us. In addition, we commit some of the crimes of bad faith misunderstanding towards the review board that we accuse these boards of perpetrating on ethnographic applications.

As I will suggest in later posts, I believe that many parties contribute to the current loggerheads at which anthropologists and IRBs find themselves. As a discipline, we must accept a fair portion of the blame and work toward making IRBs better instruments for oversight. In Australia, we labor under a substantial National Statement on Ethical Conduct in Human Research; although there are certainly differences with the situation in European and North American (and other) review bodies, I suspect that there are more similarities.

Katz, Jack. 2006. Ethical Escape Routes for Underground Ethnographers. American Ethnologist 33(4):499-506.

8 Comments leave one →
  1. 7 August, 2007 9:19 pm

    Great post, very interesting reading, especially to someone from outside of the Australian system and I look forward to your next post on research ethics. It is good to hear posts from people who are on both sides of the research ethics fence.

    A couple of things you might be interested in going on in the Blogosphere:
    1. Over at Institutional Review Blog I’m having a discussion about the review of history with the IRB’s author Zachary M. Schrag. The particular discussion is whether more general ethics review ought to be preferred to departmental review
    2. Over at the group blog I run, Philosophy and Bioethics, I have just posted an entry about the present system of ethics review in the UK: Research Ethics in the UK: The present “system”

    David Hunter,
    Lecturer in Bioethics
    University of Ulster
    Northern Ireland

  2. 15 August, 2007 2:03 am

    Katz lists several projects for which he thinks IRB review was or would have been inappropriate, including:

    * Emerson and Pollner’s study of psychiatric emergency temas.

    * Charles Bosk’s study of genetic counselors .

    * John Irwin’s study of felons .

    * Elijah Anderson’s work on race relations .

    * Katz’s own work on crying.

    (Full citations for each work are included in Katz’s essay.)

    In each case, Katz argues, prior review by an IRB would have been impossible or irrelevant, because the research was based on observations made long in the past, in situations that arose unexpectedly, or concerning topics that only emerged on the course of the research. I would like to know how you think an enlightened IRB would have handled any of these projects and, in particular, if you think “preauthorization for observations and interviews” would have been an appropriate requirement.

  3. Greg Downey permalink
    19 August, 2007 6:08 pm

    Dr. Schrag raises a number of cases that Katz describes as problematic for pre-approval from IRBs (we don’t call them that here), many of which are truly difficult cases to decide. On his own blog, Dr. Schrag has suggested that I wrote my original post anonymously and that I sought to ‘refute’ (his word) Katz’s piece.

    While I very much appreciate Dr. Schrag’s continuing work on the history and processes of IRBs, I don’t think he got my original piece 100% correct. I certainly did not consider myself attempting to ‘refute’ Katz’s journal article with a short post on a blog; would that my writing were so effective (and it’s not even close). Nor did I even focus on Katz’s central issue: pre-approval of ‘research’ that happens unexpectedly, such as social science insights that arise without expectation or preparation (Katz’s own work on crying, for example, draws on events he has witnessed in his own life when he was intending to do research). Most of these events, of course, would not need approval; one does not need IRB approval to live and move in public.

    But that’s just NOT my point. Perhaps I did not make it clearly enough. My point is that among many anthropologists — and I say this primarily from my experinece over the last two decades or so rather than from anything Katz wrote — see ‘ethics approval’ as a bureacratic hoop, a process to be avoided as much as possible. Given the way things work in many universities, this is probably a sane, appropriate, and optimistic (overly optimistic) response. But I am suggesting that one other response is to better understand and then even work to change IRBs so that they help anthropologists to enforce some sort of ethical standards in our field.

    I’ll write more soon about the things that I find repeatedly cropping up as problems on anthropologists’ applications and how we might better anticipate certain obvious problems, but I’ll point out that I try to practice what I preach — I serve on our university’s ethics review board and try to make the process work better for us in spite of the fact that it’s a personal sacrifice (like any university committee that one might serve on without gaining much material benefit). I actually think it’s a fascinating committee to serve on. I’m much better aware of the research happening all over campus, and I feel like I’ve learned quite a bit about research design from some outstanding applications. One colleague suggested to me once — perhaps without knowing that I was on an ethics board (or perhaps BECAUSE she knew I was on an ethics board) — that she thought people served on these things out of a desire for power. Although I haven’t done the requisite self-psychoanalysis to truly know myself on this issue, I certainly don’t feel powerful; but I do feel a hell of a lot better informed. And I know that I strive in my comments and suggestions on applications to balance the need for enforcing ethical standards with the need for research to occur in a timely, sensible, and not overly difficult manner. For example, i frequently suggest that ethnographers strike from their applications onerous promises of returning results to informants in the field, suggesting less expensive and elaborate mechanisms to achieve these worthwhile goals.

    From reading his blog, I know that Dr. Schrag is much more constructive in many of his posts. I’m not sure why he singled me out on his blog for derision, but I regret that my primary point may not have come through more clearly. My point here is quite simple: turn an ethnographer’s eye on the ethics committee, and maybe even engage in some participant observation on a committee, rather than just rage as a field against the ‘injustice’ and then seek to avoid the process.

    Posted by Greg Downey

  4. 20 August, 2007 4:34 am

    Thank you for your reply.

    Since ethics committees’ main tool is prior review of applications, showing the utility of such review may be crucial to winning researchers’ respect. Thus, I look forward to reading about “the things that [you] find repeatedly cropping up as problems on anthropologists’ applications,” and your thoughts about why ethics-committee review–rather than better training, a researcher’s affidavit, or departmental review–is the best tool to avoid those problems.




  1. Dr. Zachary Schrag on ethics, IRB & ethnography « Culture Matters
  2. Some practical notes on ethics applications « Culture Matters
  3. The Cycle of Ethics Review (Ethics review part 4) « Culture Matters

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