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.