Monday, February 21, 2011

Jessee Reviews Ethical Imperialism

Dr. Erin Jessee of Simon Fraser University reviews Ethical Imperialism for the Oral History Review. [First published online February 15, 2011, doi:10.1093/ohr/ohr027.]

She finds the book "an impressive assessment of IRBs, from their tenuous beginnings in the early 1960s as a practical response to a perceived threat to the public from medical research to its present status as a threat to academic freedom in the social sciences" and "a significant contribution to those oral historians and related practitioners who would seek to challenge IRB's right and ability to adequately evaluate their research projects, particularly before the research has been conducted."

On her blog, Jessee offers additional kind words: "this was one of the more enjoyable book reviews I've had to write. Schrag writes clearly, and has an immense knowledge of the history of institutional review boards (IRBs) based on archival research and interviews with key decision makers in the US government and US universities and research institutions."

Jessee would have liked more prescriptive analysis in the book's conclusion:

Schrag is justified in calling "for Congress to relieve health regulators of the responsibility for overseeing the social sciences, a task they have mishandled for decades" (191). But what would present alternatives to IRB regulation look like? It is on this point that Schrag's analysis falls short. He expresses approval for the work of anthropologists (46–47) and oral historians (152–59) who have attempted to return responsibility for designing and implementing ethical research projects to the individual researcher and their immediate peers (who presumably will have a better understanding of the discipline and its foibles than the interdisciplinary representatives typically found on IRBs). Yet he is strangely silent regarding possible alternatives to IRBs.

This raises the question of voice in a book that mostly subordinates its prescriptive judgments to its historical analysis. Pages 184-186 of the book present a section entitled "Alternative Models," where I outline several proposals that I believe have real merit. But because that section appears in the body of the work, rather than the conclusion, I did not signal my approval as clearly as I could have. Jessee's review suggests that while I am getting better at writing conclusions, I still have much to learn.

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