Thursday, May 3, 2012

Qualitative Sociology Ventures Beyond the IRB

Back in December, as I was still dealing with a crush of ANPRM-related reading, I mentioned that the journal Qualitative Sociology had published a special issue on "Ethics Beyond the IRB". I have finally found some time to read the intriguing essays it contains.

The issue emerged from an October 2010 workshop at the University of Pittsburgh and features five articles as well as introductory and concluding essays.

Qualitative Sociology

Volume 34, Number 3 / September 2011

Special Issue: Ethics Beyond the IRB

Guest Editors: Kathleen Blee and Ashley Currier

  • Kathleen M. Blee and Ashley Currier, "Ethics Beyond the IRB: An Introductory Essay," 401-413.
  • Rachel L. Einwohner, "Ethical Considerations on the Use of Archived Testimonies in Holocaust Research: Beyond the IRB Exemption," 415-430.
  • Bernadette Barton, "My Auto/Ethnographic Dilemma: Who Owns the Story?", 431-445.
  • Gloria González-López, "Mindful Ethics: Comments on Informant-Centered Practices in Sociological Research," 447-461
  • Ashley Currier, "Representing Gender and Sexual Dissidence in Southern Africa," 463-481.
  • Leila J. Rupp and Verta Taylor, "Going Back and Giving Back: The Ethics of Staying in the Field," 483-496.
  • Melissa Swauger, "Afterword: The Ethics of Risk, Power, and Representation," 497-502.

Ethical Dilemmas

All of the contributors to the issue recognize that qualitative sociologists face serious ethical challenges as they go about their work, especially the challenge of being torn between their duty to report objective truths and the wish not to write ill of the people they study.

Einwohner, borrowing from Janet Liebman Jacobs calles this the "double vision" of observer and participant. (417) Currier concurs, noting that "the injunction to report all findings may be untenable for qualitative researchers who study vulnerable populations. In some scenarios, another ethical principle may trump that of sincerity: that of the researcher’s responsibility to her research participants. Ethical and political concerns may motivate researchers to suppress certain observations they have made about research participants." (463) She suggests that researchers may want to adopt "an ethical principle of not 'air[ing] dirty...laundry in public,'" (466) but she notes that this conflicts with "researchers’ professional obligations [that] may require them to critique activists’ strategic priorities." (470). Currier resolves this tension with a rule of "When in Doubt, Leave It Out," though her list of episodes and statements she discarded from her findings is so long that I begin to wonder if her readers got a true picture of the phenomena she was seeking to describe. It's one thing not to air dirty laundy, another to suggest that people don't soil their clothes.

A second, related dilemma concerns the blurring of roles when research subjects become friends and acquaintances, and when friends and acquaintances become research subjects. How much can one reveal about people you encounter in your daily life, the very people who teach you most about the world? What do you owe to people you have studied, once you have moved on to other projects? What do you do when "every single encounter I personally have with anyone or any text is potentially data"? (442) There are no easy answers. Barton refrains from quoting from an offensive essay by a student, but notes that "I feel some ownership of the incident and the essay." (436) But she recounts another story in the belief that "it is extremely unlikely" that Kentucky lesbians will enounter their descriptions in "a sociological or feminist academic journal." (441) Given the reach of the Internet, I'm not sure I share her faith. Rupp and Taylor describe a relationship with their informants that would seem to be as good as it gets. The researchers and participants became true friends, sharing confidences, life events, and even meager book royalties over the course of more than a dozen years. But even this relationship was not without suspicion and hurt feelings.

Some of the ethical challenges reported by the authors strike me as a bit overblown. In particular, Einwohner frets about building a spreadsheet that required her to assign an ID number to Holocaust survivors, an act she found "reminiscent of similar records kept by the perpetrators of violence." (422) I think this may be an example of what Currier (following Laurel Richardson) calls "'analysis-paralysis,' a condition in which ethical worries grip researchers so much that they cannot move beyond an ethical impasse." (466) In this case, perhaps Einwohner might have taken comfort in reflecting that the Israeli government assigns its citizens identification numbers that must be used for all manner of transactions.

Unhelpful IRBs

The introductory essay by Blee and Currier explains that IRB system as it now exists is only one of many ways we could imagine to promote research ethics, and it may not be a very good one. Prospective review can be a poor fit for much research, since "the evolving understanding of the field that is characteristic of qualitative studies may change what is studied and how it is studied, while IRB procedures assume the full scope of a research study and contacts with people can be anticipated in advance. Particularly troubling, qualitative scholars face complex ethical issues that are not addressed by the procedures and protocols of institutional reviews, which are mainly oriented to the possible negative impact of research on individual subjects." (402)

Likewise, the Belmont Report's reliance on principles--respect for persons, beneficence, and justice--may be less effective than approaches emphasizing the training of ethical researchers (virtue ethics), explorations of cases (casuistry), or social relationships (feminist ethics). (403) Since "the ethical quandaries researchers face are particular to their research projects," Blee and Currier are skeptical of "universal rules of research ethics." (407)

Finally, Blee and Currier suggest that the punitive nature of the current IRB system could trap researchers who find themselves in ethically ambiguous situations. They offer the example of a researcher in Rwanda who showed compassion for one woman, which in turn offended another woman whose husband had been killed by the first. The researcher did her best to make amends, but I shudder to think how a case like this would be treated by an adverse-event reporting system.

The articles in the body of the issue present examples of the way the present system may fail researchers and participants alike. Einwohner describes work with "publicly available archived data collected from Holocaust survivors." Curiously, she then reports needing IRB permission to revise her protocol once she decided--on ethical grounds--to use the survivors' names in her project. If this is really the case, then Einwohner's IRB erred in not telling her that it has no jurisdiction over publicly available information. (It also sounds as though Einwohner might want to consult some historians as she continues her research on the Holocaust. She writes that "my strong desire to restore these survivors’ identity and humanity by using their real names conflicts with the standards of research practices . . ." (427) Whose standards is she talking about?)

Other authors seem timid in their relations with IRBs, and somewhat unfamiliar with the regulations that govern them. Barton writes of her ethical practices "in addition, of course, to complying with [IRB] protocols." (432). Why "of course"? González-López is generous in her belief that "the IRB process helps researchers think about ethical issues and concerns," though she provides no examples. (448)

The authors are more eloquent about the ways the IRB process can impede rather than promote ethical reflection. González-López writes,
In the past, I immersed myself in the field with great excitement after I had naively “taken care of all” of potential ethical problems or concerns, mainly through the IRB. However, by using a grounded theory approach to focus on the process of research, I realized that most ethical questions emerge after IRB review, especially in studies of sensitive topics, such as emotional trauma and sexual and sexualized abuse. (450)

She also has more specific concerns:

  • The "taken-for granted signed consent form" that "could jeopardize the safety of my research participants." (447-448). Of course, 45 CFR 46.117(c)(1) specifically anticipates such circumstances, and a better IRB might have pointed that out to González-López. Instead, she had to reinvent this particular wheel.
  • The IRB's power to "silence youth (as well as other populations socially constructed as vulnerable by the IRB) [which] may represent an ethical challenge and frustration for feminist qualitative researchers who are actually interested in investigating and exposing injustice, and advocating for populations vulnerable to multiple oppressions." (457) González-López offers the example of a young woman who had traveled three or four hours through Mexico City traffic to have a chance to talk with her. This case is a reminder that IRBs that imagine conversation about traumatic events to be risky in itself are likely to deny such people the chance to make their own decisions about whom to talk to.
  • The IRB's failure to anticipate that an informant might sexually harass the researcher. (456) This is not the IRB's responsibility, but the IRB could have done a better job explaining its role to González-López.
In her concluding essay, Swauger echoes some of these concerns, noting that
The IRB’s commitment to fixed procedures and rules and its discourse about the vulnerability of certain populations inadvertently blocks the ability of scholars to represent girls’ voices, and homogenizes youth subjects by assuming a shared familial experience, particularly that both biological parents are present and capable of consenting for their child. Too, by seeking to protect girls by empowering organizational gatekeepers and parents to make decisions on their behalf, the IRB gives more importance to parents and organizations than to young people. It does not treat youth subjects as social agents capable of making life decisions. (497)

Swauger is more explicit than other contributors about the tension between research ethics and IRB compliance: "Some [researchers] redesign their methodological approach. Others sneak around IRB regulations, stating, 'I'll just leave it out of the protocol and see if they say anything.' Many push forward with projects that are directly opposed to IRB policies." (498)

Next Steps

The special issue offers little in the way of concrete proposals for improvement. The introduction ends with a call for "continued discussion among scholars who confront complicated ethical issues in their fieldwork," rather than any kind of change to the IRB system. (410)

Swauger's proposal is similarly vague:

As we busy ourselves satisfying the IRB and teaching our students to get through the process, that is, as we "orient [our] consciousness and actions in relation to institutional ethical oversight," we lose opportunities to acknowledge, discuss, and confront the real ethical issues we face in our research. We must move beyond our fear of, acquiescence to, and confrontation with IRBs toward a deeper understanding of the ethical conundrums that emerge in our work." (498)

That sounds lovely, but how can deep understanding emerge in a climate of fear, acquiescence, and confrontation? It seems to me that only reform of federal and university policies can bring this change.

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