Friday, August 26, 2011

Sociologist: IRBs Have Almost Killed Fieldwork

Laurie Essig, Assistant Professor of Sociology and Women's & Gender Studies at Middlebury College and a contributor to the Chronicle of Higher Education's Brainstorm blog, complains that "IRBs have effectively shut down our ability to actually find out about people’s lived experiences. IRBs have treated speaking with someone as equivalent to experimenting on them and have almost killed fieldwork in the process."

[Laurie Essig, "The IRB and the Future of Fieldwork," Brainstorm: Ideas and Culture, 12 August 2011.]

She offers four examples:

  1. "A friend, who used to interview prisoners, gave it up since prisoners are 'vulnerable populations' and getting IRB approval is far more difficult than getting through the prison doors."
  2. "Another acquaintance who used to research sexuality among young people has had to give it up since if there’s one thing you canNOT speak with people under 18 about it’s sex."
  3. Essig "was called in because I had interviewed people who identified as transgendered and did not treat these people as a 'vulnerable population,' which includes prisoners, terminally ill persons, children, people with mental illness, and pregnant women.
  4. Essig "was told that I had to get cosmetic surgery patients to sign permission slips to speak with me even though the interviews would be anonymous and details would be changed in such a way as to protect everyone’s identity . . . People love it when you offer them anonymity and then ask for a signature. Really makes them want to open up to you."

Essig calls the ANPRM "a huge improvement," though she does not offer specific proposals for reform. I fear she may be disappointed as she reads the ANPRM carefully, since none of the 74 (or 152) questions raises the possibility of redefining vulnerable populations as Essig and others might wish. [See also "Sex Researcher Calls for "An Evidence-Informed Process".]

As for her fourth complaint, the existing Common Rule already encourages IRBs to "waive the requirement for the investigator to obtain a signed consent form for some or all subjects if it finds . . . that the only record linking the subject and the research would be the consent document and the principal risk would be potential harm resulting from a breach of confidentiality." It's not clear how the ANPRM reforms would address basic IRB incompetence, though requiring an appeal mechanism (ANPRM Question 28) would be a good start.

I am disappointed that Essig derides the famous studies by Stanley Milgram and Philip Zimbardo, calling them not only "incredibly unethical" but also pointless. "After all," she writes, "these sort of human experiments were not just unethical, but ultimately gave us little information that we didn’t already have: people basically suck and they more or less will do anything if a white guy in a lab coat tells them to."

In fact, while both studies remain controversial, they both contributed significantly to our understanding of human nature. See, e.g., Robert Levine, review of Thomas Blass, The Man Who Shocked the World: The Life and Legacy of Stanley Milgram, American Scientist 92 (July-August 2004): 368-370; Rose McDermott, review of Philip Zimbardo, The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil, Political Psychology 28 (Oct., 2007): 644-646.

Nor should Essig claim that IRBs "protect research subjects from . . . the kind of researchers who would recreate prison situations to see how nasty humans could be to total strangers." Ethical or not, Zimbardo's prison experiment was IRB approved.

1 comment:

Sanjay said...

Maybe she thinks Milgram was unethical because her institution made her take the CITI course.