Friday, December 25, 2009

After Human Terrain, Will AAA Debate IRBs?

Earlier this month, the American Anthropological Association's Commission on the Engagement of Anthropology with the US Security and Intelligence Communities (CEAUSSIC) issued its Final Report on The Army's Human Terrain System Proof of Concept Program.

The report argues that the Human Terrain System (HTS) combines scholarly research and military information-gathering in a way that muddles ethical issues:

HTS ethnographers attempt to juggle dual loyalties both to civilian populations and to their military units, under conditions which almost inevitably lead to conflicting demands. Potentially conflicting demands (between serving occupied, studied populations, and serving the needs of the military with whom [Human Terrain Teams] embed) almost necessitates that HTS social scientists choose between multiple interests in ways that stand to undermine basic ethical principles that govern research with human subjects among anthropologists and among government researchers. (52)

Significantly, the report more or less recognizes that the choice of interests could go either way. One possibility would be to bring HTS wholly into the realm of scholarly research, with all of its ethical codes and legal regulations, including IRBs:

If HTS carries out a research function as advertised, and if it encourages its social scientists to use ethical research practices, then it should comply with 32CFR219, regulations issued by the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD) that address human subjects protection. (47)

Alternatively, the report hints that the real problem is merely a poor choice of words. "We should consider the work of HTTs to be sharply different, in its goals, from conventional disciplinary ethnographic pursuits and not to be 'ethnography' in any credible sense." (54) If HTS were re-branded to avoid the terms "anthropology," "ethnography," and "social science," and instead present itself as a counterinsurgency program pure and simple, then--it seems--CEAUSSIC would not expect it to follow either the AAA ethics codes or the Common Rule. All of this points to the need for clear definitions when discussing ethical and legal obligations.

For the purposes of this blog, a more interesting document is the October 13 blog post, "Why not Mandate Ethics Education for Professional Training of Anthropologists?" by CEAUSSIC member Carolyn Fluehr-Lobban.

Fluehr-Lobban calls for "ethics education as a mandatory part  of anthropology curricula." As she describes it,

A future standard ethics curriculum would minimally include a history of the discipline and ethics– this would help to correct misconstruing history, as has been the case in security engagement polemics where a standard of "voluntary informed consent" is often cited as 'traditional' or normative when, in fact, language on informed consent appears for the first time in the 1998 AAA code.  It would also include case studies representing a realistic spectrum of scenarios and dilemmas where mixed outcomes are the likely norm, and clear positive or negative outcomes are likely exceptions.

But while Fluehr-Lobban seems open to questioning such standards as "informed consent" and to exploring the nuances of real-world research, she is dismissive of comparable discussion of the legitimacy of IRBs:

There is still a tradition of resistance to the annoyance of having to go before an IRB. Part of this history rests with anthropology as the study of "the other," of "subjects," using "informants," whereby the anthropologist is ideally unfettered with unlimited freedom to conduct research. But, clearly, this is not the world we live in. As standard practice, all anthropological research is, or should be, subject to external review.

In other words, Fluehr-Lobban suggests that anyone who doesn't like IRBs wants unlimited freedom to study "the other." This is an insult to the many thoughtful critics who, over the decades, have shown that IRBs and their attendant apparatus can be a barrier to true ethical reflection. It is also an indicator of how entrenched the belief in IRBs has become within the AAA leadership. But has the organization ever really debated whether IRBs are the best way to promote its ethical standards? If not, CEAUSSIC should seize this opportunity for such a discussion within the profession.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Grad Student Needed 80 IRB Approvals

In an account apparently posted in July 2008, Jennifer M. Purcell describes what she went through to get approval for her dissertation research in education at the University of South Florida.

Purcell was investigating the apparent disparity between the knowledge and skills needed by college faculty, and the knowledge and skills taught in doctoral programs. She wanted to ask college professors what they thought faculty and students should know and who should teach it. A typical question asked how important these professors considered the ability to "appreciate the history and purposes of higher education." (Jennifer M. Purcell, "Perceptions of Senior Faculty Concerning Doctoral Student Preparation For Faculty Roles," Ph.D. diss., University of South Florida, 2007.)

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Is Documentary Film Human Subjects Research?

Kimberlianne Podlas, a lawyer and an assistant professor of media studies at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro, argues that "virtually all journalistic inquiry and nonfiction filmmaking . . . are not subject to IRB jurisdiction." ("This Film Has Been Rated 'Approved': Are Documentary Films Subject To Institutional Review Board Approval and Federal Human Subjects Research' Rules?")

To reach this result, Podlas argues that documentary films fail one or more of five tests necessary to trigger IRB jurisdiction:

First, the general type of undertaking must be one that is directly regulated by a federal agency. Second, the activity must be "human subjects research"; This requires the undertaking to conform to the regulatory definition of "research." Third, that research must collect information from or about living individuals. Fourth, that information must be either "data" or "private information." And finally, the "human subjects research" must be either biomedical or behavioral.

Let's take these in order.

Saturday, December 12, 2009


Google Alerts uncovered an April 2008 memo from the Army's chief of military history, explaining that while Army historians are obliged to obtain the informed consent of anyone they interview, the U.S. Army's Historical Program does not consider oral history to be under IRB purview:

Given that oral history is the collection of personal and unique insights on events, it does not fit the definition of scientific research as outlined in 45 Code of Federal Regulations 46 that is at the center of the Department of Health and Human Services regulations of the issue. Oral histories are not a "systematic" attempt to gather data from "human subjects" that can be used in any way to contribute to "generalizable" knowledge. They are therefore exempt from HRPP oversight and IRBs.

Happy Birthday, Institutional Review Blog!

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Survey: Most IRBs Lack Sociologists

The Western Massachusetts Institute for Social Research kindly alerted me to its survey of socioogists, conducted in the summer of 2009. Of the 98 respondents who have conducted research in the past five years, 90 reported that they had undergone IRB review.

The survey found that IRBs are more likely than sociologists to judge a study risky. Only 13 respondents "said that they believe that some harm could have come to respondents as a result of their involvement in the research," but 20 reported that a member of the IRB believed there was such a risk.

This is not surprising. The premise of IRB review is that committees are better able to flag potential harms than are individual researchers, so the higher levels of risk seen by the IRBs could indicate that they are working well, or that they are overestimating the risks of research.

To distinguish the two possibilities, it would help to know why the IRB members saw risk. In 1979, for example, Lauren Seiler and James Murtha showed that IRB chairs commonly insisted on modifications even though most had never heard of harm coming to a participant in sociology research. [Lauren H. Seiler and James M. Murtha, "Federal Regulation of Social Research," Freedom at Issue, Nov-Dec 1979.] Is that still the case?

Another finding of the Western Massachusetts survey is that a minority (44 percent) of respondents reported that the IRB that reviewed their research included a sociologist. Federal regulations require IRBs to include members "with varying backgrounds to promote complete and adequate review of research activities commonly conducted by the institution." This was one of the few protections offered to social scientists worried that their research would be subject to the whims of people outside their field. But it appears that many or most IRBs have failed to meet this standard.