Like many ethnographers, I often do my research by putting myself in places and relating to people without a very clear idea as to what I’m looking for. Even when I have a clear idea, like when I’m going to interview someone about their life in a neighborhood, I’ll see things on the way there and back that may be more valuable than what I find out when my questions get answered. Much of my fieldwork becomes “data” in retrospect. This makes it impossible to clear much of my research beforehand with an IRB.
To different degrees, many social researchers, not just anthropologists but political scientists and many others who would create “generalizable knowledge” and thus fall within IRB jurisdiction, work this way. So do law professors, as entries on this blog have already acknowledged.
This means we are all vulnerable to attack for violating the rules in our universities or colleges. There are ways of limiting our vulnerability; I’ve detailed some in a paper that’s part of a collection currently being considered by an anthro journal.
A long time ago, Lon Fuller wrote about a ruler who would command the impossible, suggesting that such tyranny isn’t as absurd as it seems. There are clear power advantages for the ruler in having the ruled in a perpetually vulnerable position. I’m not suggesting there’s a conspiracy out there, but much social and humanistic research is now in a vulnerable position because the researchers cannot comply with IRB regs., no matter how much they would like to.
Their vulnerability is not theoretical and it has little if anything to do with protecting the rights of research subjects. Across the country university researchers are being attacked by what I would term “third parties” who are not contacted in the research nor even written about directly but who are opposed to the substance of the claims asserted in the research. The cases sometimes reflect the university’s own interest as a third party. These range from universities that shut down research on admissions practices because it might reveal illegal affirmative action, to universities like Brigham Young that block research on homosexual Mormons, to UC –San Fran that blocked an “auditing” study of single cigarette sales for fear of the university’s liability from inducing convenience store clerks to break the law.
Another set of cases of repression respond to pressures by third parties outside the university who see the IRB as leverage for undermining their critics. These include cases of employers trying to undermine research that serves unionization campaigns, psychologist/expert witnesses trying to smear studies that question alleged recalled memories of sexual abuse, transsexuals opposed to research that indicates erotic homosexual motives behind claims of transsexual identity....
In another set of cases, academics are using the IRB to attack their career competitors, sometimes graduate students whose expertise challenges the claims of more senior faculty to special expertise. These are pretty ugly affairs. All other considerations aside, it’s deeply disturbing to see the IRBs emerging as a national institution that can be exploited to turn university power to such brute, petty uses.
I am writing these cases up into an essay currently entitled A Natural History of Ethical Censorship. The main point is that, with respect to social, behavioral and humanistic research, IRBs have no clear value for actually protecting subjects but the evidence is increasingly clear that they have value for censoring substantively objectionable views. From a sociological perspective, it is becoming increasingly clear that, outside of the biomedical area, the essential social meaning of IRBs is as censorship agencies. They provide crude, ineffective, even counterproductive ways of protecting the subjects of social and humanistic research, but increasingly powerful ways of suppressing inquiry deemed substantively troublesome by the university, its constituencies, and shrewd tactical observers of IRB machinations.
One gaping hole that enables censorship repression to come into the process is through what IRBs consider “third party” subjects: people or groups not directly contacted by the research but implicated in a study’s findings. Like if you interview Lady Diane’s chauffeur and find out she’s a drunk, she can object that you didn’t get her consent to interview her chauffeur. The development of “third party” doctrine, as that phrase is used in IRB culture, will reinforce the disproportionate power of those in higher positions to suppress research that might put them in a bad light.
Here’s a question for the law types out there. IRBs reinstitutionalize the definitions of harm that already exist in society. If the civil courts consider damage to reputation to be actionable, then that’s a risk IRBs are committed to protect against. Now, if a group, corporate entity, or collectivity can sue to get redress for libelous expression, that may mean that IRBs have to block (or more specifically, require the researcher to get the consent of the would-be libeled group) a whole range of social/political research that might elicit such suits. Although I sense that if we have to await the answer, the whole battle is lost, I wonder about the line between group libel, which I understand is not actionable, and libeling corporations, which I gather is actionable. Since a main point of much social research is to debunk the claims of prestigious and powerful groups (types of medical practitioners, the police force in a given city, organizations that profess to represent residents of a given neighborhood), is this line of research, which varies from the muckraking to case studies framed in fancy theoretical language, vulnerable even when the researchers get the consent of those they contact but cast their superiors in a negative light?