Friday, August 10, 2007

Insider-Outsider-Down Under

David Hunter kindly alerted me to "An inside-outsider’s view of Human Research Ethics Review," posted on Culture Matters, a blog hosted by the Department of Anthropology at Macquarie University, Sydney, Australia. The posting is anonymous, but the author describes himself "as a sitting member of Macquarie University’s review board for human research," which I think identifies him as Greg Downey. Alas, another failed attempt at keeping an informant anonymous.

Downey's [?] essay is a rebuttal to Jack Katz, "Ethical Escape Routes for Underground Ethnographers," American Ethnologist 33 (2006): 499-506. In that essay, Katz argues that protocol-review, the basic tool of ethics committees, is inappropriate for ethnographic fieldwork because fieldwork is so unpredictable. As Katz puts it

when researchers participate in naturally occurring social life and write field notes on what they observe, they often encounter people and behavior they cannot anticipate. Indeed, one of the strongest reasons for conducting participant-observation research is the view that the current state of knowledge, as shaped by fixed-design research that prespecifies the kind of people to be studied and the ways to study them (sampling designs, formalized questions and protocols, and time- and space-delimited situations in which to observe), is artificial, a product not of the subjects’ social lives but of prejudice.

He also notes that some ethnographers draw from past experiences and observations of everyday life, neither of which can be reviewed by an ethics committee. He then suggests ways that researchers and universities might escape the regulatory boundaries that seem to require prior review of research.

Downey [?] seeks to rebut this argument by insisting that prior review can improve the ethical content of anthropological research. He writes,

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.

This is unresponsive to Katz's critique. If anthropologists lack "clear standards for our research," by all means they should develop them, with or without the help of scholars in other fields. But I don't see how ethics committees can contribute to this effort by demanding from researchers that they get "preauthorization for observations and interviews," as Katz puts it. That's just a demand for information that doesn't exist.

Downey [?] also writes,

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.

OK, so we have some movement toward compromise and consensus. I would like to suggest that if Downey [?] believes that departments are the appropriate organs to publicize ethics-committe success stories, the first department to do so should be the Department of Anthropology at Macquarie University. A listing of proposed ethnography projects and the improvements made to them by the Macquarie ethics committee could prove a model for researchers around the world.

Finally, I thank Downey [?] for drawing my attention to Australia's
National Statement on Ethical Conduct in Human Research. This document is so shocking that I will save comments on it until I have more time.


Jovan said...


Greg's username appears on the post on the homepage of blog. I'm surprised that it doesn't appear anywhere on the permalink page -- something I hadn't noticed before. Obviously a problem with our theme. We might have to change as we don't want to give the impression that we are posting anonymously.

Jovan Maud

Zachary M. Schrag said...

Thank you for the clarification.