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Dr. Zachary Schrag on ethics, IRB & ethnography

20 August, 2007

Asst. Prof. Zachary Schrag, a historian at George Mason University, and I have been engaging in a sort of blog-versation about IRBs or Ethics Review Committees on Human Research (depending upon your continent). If I ever write anything on the subject formally, I’ll probably owe Dr. Schrag a co-author credit, but if you’re interested in human research ethics much more broadly, including policy developments and recent research on the subject, you should check out his blog, Institutional Review Blog ( I started to try to work my way through it but realized that, until I get through the two new courses I’m teaching this semester, there was just too much there, but I’ll keep trying to chisel away at parts. If you’re interested in research ethics review, I’d bookmark his blog.

I promised that I would put up a sort of list of ‘most common problems’ with ethics applications from anthropologists (in my limited experience as review board member and advisor). I’ll still do that, maybe even later today, but not before I respond to Dr. Schrag’s last post. I’ll do this as a blog entry rather than response so that more people are likely to see it. (If you’re interested, here’s the original post and a couple of our notes to each other).

Dr. Schrag suggests that, since prior ethics review is the primary vehicle through which human research ethics are enforced, it might be useful to show the utility of this rather than other strategies. He then lists a number of other strategies, many of which are, and would be, extremely helpful: better training (excellent), researcher’s affidavit (I’m not sure what that would entail), or departmental review (also excellent). For Katz’s original piece in American Ethnologist, this is the key point. I’ll come back to this issue in my ‘errors frequently committed by anthropologists’ post because, from my experience, the ‘prior approval’ part is less a problem than certain other dogged issues.

I hope that most departments are putting other devices, like those suggested by Schrag, in place so that the IRB process is less isolate, less traumatic, and less difficult, but I’m not convinced that all of them are. Alone and isolated, with no training or orientation, review by an IRB may seem especially arbitrary, intimidating, and enigmatic. A LONG time ago when I was doing my PhD at the University of Chicago, we didn’t really discuss research methods at all, let alone ethics in the field or ethics review. Admittedly, I did my PhD in the last century, but back then, the primary discussion of ‘ethics’ revolved around whose ‘voice’ the anthropologist could use and the politics of representation. Ethics review, and field ethics, have grown a lot more complicated since then – and for many of my peers, I suspect that they were already a lot more complicated than our instruction was suggesting. (For example, I remember hearing stories of one colleague’s attempts to negotiate with a Native American community for research permission and ethics approval over a few beers, and the process seemed extraordinarily difficult.)

But, to specifically address Dr. Schrag’s suggestions, I think that, first, better training is absolutely essential. He’s right. Certainly, we try to provide that at Macquarie University. But I also find that students pay very close attention to what I say in training sessions because the review process looms over them. Admittedly, the form that they have to fill out at MU may not be ideal for ethnography — as Dr. Kalpana Ram has strenuously pointed out to me, it doesn’t even list ‘participant-observation’ as a research method in its list of them — but the ethics committee is reviewing this form to try to streamline it. If you know what you’re doing, it should only take about four or five hours to do the whole thing for an ethnographic project, including appendices and supporting materials if you have already thought about methods and methodology. Long, true, but certainly not unreasonable. So, I agree with Dr. Schrag: better training is essential. Would the students take to it so vigorously without the review process? I don’t know. I suspect some would, some wouldn’t.

Departmental review is another interesting idea, but I think that it’s unlikely to work in a place like Macquarie, in part because our department may not be large enough. (Note: This is NOT to say that our department is too small for other things — like providing a very good anthropology degree.) Presumably, any sort of departmental review would likely involve a number of people, even a number as small as two, so that advisors wouldn’t be reviewing their own students. With our faculty spread all over university committees (learning and teaching, research, IT, space…), it might prove onerous, especially because the academic calendar of applications tends to bunch together students from the same programs. Spread out over the university, the rhythm evens out, although we still do get crushed in February, April and May with the intake in psychology.

A kind of departmental review does take place within the university-wide committee at Macquarie, as members of the committee are clustered so that color-coded sub-groups do the preliminary and most serious review of applications for which they have special expertise. If an application has to go to the whole committee (for example, research with children, medical procedures, Aboriginal Australian groups, or ethically challenging research tends to), we usually turn to the members of our committee who are best versed in the area of study. If we have a particularly difficult ones, we’ll consult with a faculty member outside the committee who has special experience.

Also, we find that advisors sign off on applications without really reading them at all, which leads me to think that departmental review might work well in some departments, terribly in others. We’ve had applications come from departments, signed off by advisors, that are not merely unethical, but also unreadable, illogical, and incomplete. Sometimes its clear that the amount of time that reviewers are putting in to trying to sort out what’s actually being proposed in the research is much greater than the time that was spent on preparing the application. If departments were good at reviewing, then departmental review would work; but I suspect that, as long as the universities are potentially liable for their decisions, the oversight on departmental committees might make the departments wish that a divisional- or university-wide body would take over the task.

So while departmental review might work in some places, I suspect in others that it would not work as well as university-wide review. But this requires that the committee not impose inappropriate ethical standards, procedures, or expectations on some disciplines, something that I think anthropologists suffer from severely elsewhere, in universities other than ours.

In addition, departmental review might be part of a devolution process wherein more and more of the onerous administrative tasks once performed by divisional or university offices are made the responsibility of departmental staff (without necessarily increasing the departments’ resources). The ebb and flow of management theory seems to be leading some universities to do this, making life for departmental chairs, administrators, and faculty in key admin posts very difficult. This sort of dynamic would make university or divisional level ethical oversight less onerous on the departments simply because too many responsibilities are being thrust on understaffed departments. Your university may not be experiencing administrative devolution, however.

The suggestion of departmental review seems to me especially worth considering if the current environment at your university leaves the IRB or ethics review committee hostile or obdurate on ethnographic research methods. I’m more worried at the moment about freeing academic faculty from burdensome administrative tasks better done by administrative professionals so that they can teach, advise, write, and do research. But the consideration might be very different here at Macquarie if we could not successfully influence our university’s review process. It’s not merely that I’m on the committee; one of the key administrators of the committee is a former student in our department, so we may have a more congenial and open atmosphere for ethnography than at an institution where all the staff and representatives, for example, come out of bench and laboratory sciences.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. 21 August, 2007 10:30 am

    “One does not need IRB approval to live and move in public”?
    Review of projects by faculty “best versed in the area of study”?
    No imposition of “inappropriate ethical standards, procedures, or expectations on some disciplines”?

    Are you sure we’re talking about a university ethics committee here?

    Seriously, the system you describe is far superior than any university-wide system I have read about. I do encourage you and your colleagues to write up a complete description for circulation to other universities. Among other details, I would like to know:

    * What training must various researchers undergo, and who decides what is necessary? (E.g., can oral historians avoid learning about venipuncture? Historians only draw blood when reviewing books.)

    * How many members must the committee have, in order to maintain sufficient “color-coded sub-groups [to] do the preliminary and most serious review of applications for which they have special expertise”?

    * How did this system come to be, and have you encountered any flak from within the university or government regulators?

    I must say, though, that the unusual sophistication and sensitivity of the system you describe undercuts your earlier argument that “to understand that we have less to fear from IRBs than we might expect, we need to better understand their composition and conduct.” I can’t speak for Katz, but I know enough IRB/HREC critics to state that many of us earned our antipathy, as researchers or even as members of ethics committees (see, for example, Christopher Leo’s recent essay, “Does the Ethics Bureaucracy Pose a Threat to Critical Research?”). For such critics, the more we understand IRBs, the less we like them. We have tasted the green eggs and ham, and found them putrid.


  1. The Cycle of Ethics Review (Ethics review part 4) « Culture Matters

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