Tara Star Johnson reports her experiences in "Qualitative Research in Question: A Narrative of Disciplinary Power With/in the IRB," Qualitative Inquiry 14 (March 2008): 212-232.
Johnson left teaching high school to pursue a PhD in Language Education at the University of Georgia. As she completed her preparatory work, she found "no qualitative studies investigating the phenomenon of sexual dynamics in the classroom." She decided, for her dissertation work, "to address this void in educational research through in-depth interviewing of teachers who have experienced desire for and/or from students to trace how these attractions happen and open the door for dialogue about embodiment, desire, and sexuality in education." Her professors were encouraging, and her advisor accompanied her to her appointment with the IRB.
After waiting an hour and a half beyond their scheduled appointment, Johnson and her advisor finally met with about twenty members of the IRB. The chair listed several restrictions, which Johnson found disappointing, but "not unreasonable or completely unexpected." Then the fun began.
One member found fault with Johnson's proposal to speak in depth with five high school teachers whom she already knew; wouldn't it be better to conduct an anonymous survey with ninety or so teachers? No, Johnson explained, it would not. "I'm looking for dialogue here, in-depth experiences of a few participants, not a bunch of Likert-scale responses."
Another member fretted, "Let's say, 10 years down the road, someone's having a party. One of your colleagues is there and happens to strike up a conversation with one of your research subjects. Your name comes up, and your subject says, 'Oh, I know her! I was in her dissertation study.' Your colleague would immediately be able to identify her." Well, yes. Participants in research are always free to identify themselves. Unless the IRB requires that they be shot.
Then the board rejected Johnson's plan to obtain an NIH certificate of confidentiality to protect the identities of any teachers who disclosed misdeeds, though such certificates are often trumpeted in IRB circles as the kind of thing a good board will suggest.
And, predictably, Johnson was asked "to come up with a list of counseling referrals in case my participants were traumatized by my research." (If anyone needed trauma counseling, it was the researcher whose work was reviewed before Johnson. She fled the IRB meeting in tears.)
The meeting ended with the IRB chair's informing Johnson that she would send a list of required changes, and then the project would be considered at the next meeting, six weeks later. When the list arrived, Johnson was particularly distressed that she would not be allowed to record or transcribe the interviews that she hoped would be the basis of her dissertation. So Johnson dug in her heels, and kept recording and transcription in her revised proposal.
So here's the punch line: on the next round, the board voted to send the application off for expedited review, and approval itself came the next business day.
To some degree, the change in the board's position from the first round to the second reflects Johnson's abandonment of some of the most interesting parts of her study design. In particular, she had to reword her recruitment flyer to screen out any teachers who had actually had sex with their students. Apparently, there are some subjects that University of Georgia scholars may not study under any circumstances.
But many of the components that the board originally objected to remained in the final proposal. She would still interview a small number of teachers. She would still ask them about sexual feelings. And yes, they might still be allowed to attend parties ten years down the road. Does this make Johnson's research dangerous or not? If no, the board had no business, in its first meeting, bullying her about her plans. If yes, then its granting of expedited review (valid only for research involving "no more than minimal risk") was a violation of 45 CFR 46.110. In short, the IRB's behavior cannot be explained by an effort to protect participants in research while adhering to federal regulations.
What does explain such behavior?
Johnson suggests that "the real issue was not protecting participants so much as protecting the university from potential lawsuits and bad publicity." This is quite plausible; to see what can happen when reporters find out that a scholar is studying teacher-student sex, read Pat Sikes's essay, "At the Eye of the Storm: An Academic('s) Experience of Moral Panic," in the same issue of Qualitative Inquiry. If a university wants to keep researchers away from controversial topics, an IRB is a good tool.
But Johnson offers another explanation as well: quantitative researchers' contempt for qualitative work, like her interviewing. In this perspective, the IRB was not so much worried about protecting the university as they were in "disciplining my department in a Foucauldian sense for allowing its students to do research that was out of line," where "out of line" meant qualitative.
Both explanations recall Stefan Timmermans, "Cui Bono? Institutional Review Board Ethics and Ethnographic Research," Studies in Symbolic Interaction 19 (1995): 153-173. Like Johnson, Timmermans had his project approved, but only after being berated by an IRB in what he termed "a Goffmanian public degradation ceremony." Part of the problem was that the board members seemed to fear that his work would reflect badly on the hospital he was studying. And part was that they despised his ethnographic approach. A board member shouted at him, "The numbers should come through in the paper. This is not systematic. What about statistics! . . . If you write something, we should know HOW MANY PEOPLE said WHAT, there should be NUMBERS in here. There is NO DATA in this paper."
(At that point, Timmermans might have pointed out that if his work wasn't systematic, it wasn't subject to IRB review under the Common Rule. But I can see why he refrained.)
Johnson begs her readers to "read to the end before making any judgments about the people I portray." In her conclusion, she notes that individual members of IRBs face their own constraints. Outnumbered by scholars in other disciplines, the qualitative researchers most sympathetic to Johnson's work may have been unable to defend her too vocally, choosing instead to maneuver her subtly toward approval. That is an imaginative and generous supposition, but it still leaves us with an IRB that abuses its authority.