Thursday, September 29, 2011

Tuchman Reviews Ethical Imperialism

Gaye Tuchman, author of Wannabe U: Inside the Corporate University, reviews Ethical Imperialism for Contemporary Sociology: A Journal of Reviews.

[Gaye Tuchman, "Review of Ethical Imperialism: Institutional Review Boards and the Social Sciences, 1965–2009," Contemporary Sociology: A Journal of Reviews 40, no. 5 (2011): 617 -619.]

As a sociologist, Tuchman enjoyed the sections dealing with the history of her discipline. "It is a real treat," she writes, "to read how Ithiel DeSola Pool, James Davis, Albert Reiss, Howard Becker, Edna Bonacich and Jack Katz all more or less agreed that the regulations harm social science."

Tuchman apparently disagrees with Donald Bersoff's sense that "Schrag, as an academic historian, has an axe to grind." She writes,

this scholarly book does not read like the result of anger. Rather, it is the dry and thoroughly researched story of how IRBs came to be, how they came to adopt rules designed for medical, biological, and psychological researchers and then to apply them to the social sciences, how those rules became institutionalized, and how the rules protect universities rather than the people who serve as subjects and informants in social science research.

Tuchman herself finds that

IRB regulations and especially their application to social science are examples of an accountability regime, a politics of surveillance, control, and market management that disguises itself as the value-neutral and scientific administration of individuals and organizations that increasingly dominate American higher education. At colleges and universities, the accountability regime is itself redolent of neoliberalism, an approach to socio-economic policy that lauds the efficiency of private enterprise, promotes the effectiveness of managerial oversight by fostering individual and institutional accountability, and seeks to increase the role of the private sector in determining the political and economic priorities of the state. IRBs are just one piece of the new higher-education complex that has been mandating missions statements and strategic plans, encouraging profit from (copyrighted) research, assessing teaching practices, fiddling with faculty governance, and expanding the (largely powerless) contingent labor force.

IRBs protect universities, not researchers, not the subjects or informants whom social scientists observe and interview. At my own university, I can think of graduate-student projects that (I believe) the IRB killed, because the research would have made the university look bad.

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