Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Claude Fischer: Zealous IRBs Can Derail Social Studies

Claude Fischer, professor of sociology at UC Berkeley, links IRB restrictions with the death of The Statistical Abstract of the United States and fears that they and other trends "combine to increasingly blind policymakers and the public to what is going on in America."

[Claude Fischer, "Stumbling in the Dark," Made in America (blog), 22 November 2011,]

Fischer writes that in addition to the cuts to census data collection and the National Science Foundation's behavioral science programs,

Social research has been boxed in from another angle by what many scholars consider a too-obsessive concern about privacy. For example, my colleagues and I found that it extremely difficult if not impossible to obtain decades-old information about neighborhoods – for example, the proportion of the workers living in a particular census tract in 1960 who held professional jobs. The fear, baked into U.S. Census rules, is that with enough such general data we might be able to identify a particular person in a census report 50 years ago and find out, say, how much money he made.

Social scientists on campuses have been struggling against zealous IRB’s – university Institutional Review Boards — that must approve any research conducted by faculty on human subjects. Designed quite properly to prevent harm to subjects of studies, particularly subjects of medical treatments, the IRBs in many places have expanded their mission to closely supervising social science research. Some, for example, treat the posing of survey questions – say, asking respondents’ opinions about social issues – or even the gathering of historical records as if they were in the same category as injecting people with drugs. This zealotry sets up great hurdles that delay or derail social studies. Doctoral students, in particular, can have careers crippled by these restrictions. (See statements by social science organizations here in 2001 and here in 2011.)

(At one time here at Berkeley, the local IRB, according to some reports, entertained the idea of “social harm”: research that might impugn a social group — for instance, showing that women get more emotional in some settings than men — ought to be stopped. That would pretty much stop social research altogether.)

Readers of Ethical Imperialism will know that in 1972 Berkeley's IRB chair, Bernard Diamond, did indeed announce his intention to screen research that could threaten the reputations of social groups. Faculty protested this infringement on academic freedom, and the university reversed this policy in the spring of 1973.

Fischer suspects that today's "restrictions on social science may also reflect yet another attitude held by some, both left and right: the conviction that there is no need to gather the data, because they already know the answers." Indeed, IRB regulations and procedures do make more sense if you believe that social science plays an unimportant role in a democracy.

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