Monday, July 7, 2008

Ideas on Fieldwork Are Oldies but Goodies

The second article in the PS symposium on IRBs is Dvora Yanow and Peregrine Schwartz-Shea, "Reforming Institutional Review Board Policy: Issues in Implementation and Field Research."

The authors argue that "the character of its implicit research design model, embedded in its historical development, . . . renders IRB policy problematic for ethnographic and other field researchers." (483) Specifically, they contend that ethnographers are likley to have trouble meeting IRB demands that their protocols spell out procedures for selecting subjects, obtaining informed consent, disgusing the identity of participants, balancing risks and benefits, and protecting the data they collect. (489)

Fieldwork, they argue, is just too unpredictable to be planned out so thoroughly in advance. They note,

Field researchers must enter others’ worlds, and are expected to do so with care and respect, and these worlds can be complex, unbounded, and in flux. Instead of rigidly delimited, predesigned protocols laying out research steps that are invariable with respect to persons and time, which subjects can be handed as they step into the world of the medical researcher, field research often requires flexing the research design to accommodate unanticipated persons and personalities and unforeseen conditions.

And, they find,

extending [the Belmont] principles to other, non-experimental research settings without making the underlying mode of science and its methodology explicit and without exploring their suitability to non-experimental scientific modes and methodologies has resulted in a hodgepodge of ethical guidance that is confused and confusing. Those guidelines do not give the many serious ethical problems of field research design and methodologies the sustained attention they deserve. (491)

All of this sounds perfectly sensible. What suprises me a bit is the authors' belief that they are the first to make these arguments:

The proposals that we have seen to date for reforming IRB policy (e.g., Carpenter 2007) all tinker with the existing system. None of them, to the best of our knowledge, has yet identified and engaged the underlying methodological frame—experimental research design—shaping that policy and its implementation. Policy reforms that address resource, organizational, and other features of the existing policy leave that framing and its prosecution in place. The impact of these policies on field research is, however, serious, extending IRB policy to these other forms of research in the absence of systematic evidence of their having harmed research participants. If we are to have policies to ensure the protection of human participants in all areas of research, those policies need to be suited to other than just experimental research designs in ways that are commensurate with their own potential for harms. It is vital that recognition of the misfit between existing experimentally based policy and field research design and methodologies also be on the table in discussions of IRB policy reform. (491)

In fact, ethnographers have been complaining about the imposition of experimental research ethics on non-experimental research for thirty or forty years. Anthropologist Murray Wax, in particular, eloquently distinguished experimental research from fieldwork in just the way that Yanow and Schwartz-Shea do. See, for example, his essay, "On Fieldworkers and Those Exposed to Fieldwork: Federal Regulations and Moral Issues," Human Organization 36 (Fall 1977): 321-28. Indeed, despite a long bibliography, Yanow and Schwartz-Shea cite none of the many IRB critiques written in 1978-1980, when the IRB regulations were being overhauled.

I don't fault Yanow and Schwartz-Shea too much for not knowing this history. It is one of the tasks of the historian to save others from having to reinvent the wheel, and I hope my book, when finished, will make such a contribution.

Yanow and Schwartz-Shea end their article with "A Call for Action," most of which is fairly vague. IRB critics are split between those who seek to "tinker with the existing system," and those who seek to exclude large categories of research from any IRB jurisdiction. Yet it's not even clear on which side of this divide these authors fall. For example, they want APSA to "Issue a statement calling for reform of IRB policy in a substantive way that protects the interests of APSA members." (492) Lovely, but what should such a statement say? They demand reform without defining it.

More promising is their call for more research. They note,

There is much that we do not know about the kind(s) of field research political scientists are doing today . . . We need more systematic, policy-oriented research about members’ field research practices, and we call on APSA to take the lead in conducting or facilitating it . . . (491)

They mention the possibility of an APSA handbook on ethical issues and current regulations.

This sounds a bit like the effort undertaken by the American Psychological Association in the preparation of its 1973 Ethical Principles in the Conduct of Research with Human Participants. As described in the first chapter of that book, rather than sit together and lay down some rules, the drafting committee surveyed the APA membership and assembled thousands of descriptions of real research projects that had raised ethical issues. The descriptions became the basis for an ethical guide directly relevant to the needs and values of the APA's members.

Around the same time, APSA itself undertook a similar effort, on a smaller scale, by conducting a study of actual cases in which researchers faced problems with confidentiality. Unfortunately, the full study seems not to have been published. A brief summary was published as James D. Carroll and Charles R. Knerr, "The APSA Confidentiality in Social Science Research Project: A Final Report," PS 9 (Autumn 1976): 416-419.

Whether or not a detailed ethical study would help ethnographic political scientists with their IRBs, it would be a great resource for scholars who want to do right by the people they study. I hope APSA--and other scholarly societies--will consider such a project.

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