[Susan B. Ridgely, “Doing Ethnography with Child Consultants: Making the IRB Process Work.” Journal of American Folklore 125, no. 3 (2012): 474–485.]
The Bad News
Since 1996, Ridgely has been talking with children about their religious practices. She describes elements of her IRB experience in terms familiar to many frustrated qualitative researchers:
- "Since each IRB has its own interpretation about how to meet the federal requirements, what might be approved by one board may be rejected by another."
- IRBs require researchers to complete training "focused . . . on a series of exploitative medical experiments, [which] can be off-putting for those of us in the humanities."
- "The process for translating an interactive research plan into language that the review board will find acceptable can be arduous . . ."
- "The approval committee . . . prefers yes and no answers to existential questions."
- "The IRB goal in the process was less child-centered than my own: they wanted to ensure that I had made my research clear to children, therefore meeting the institution’s legal obligations."
The Good News
Yet Ridgely finds that some IRB requirements have helped her think through the ethical consequences of her research design:
- "I realized that my belief in the parity of children’s and adults’ ability to understand the consequences of participating in research (when the research and the consequences are clearly discussed) failed to account for the real power imbalances with which children must continually contend. The IRB process forced me to grapple more directly with this power differential."
- "As I wrote short answers to each of the application’s inquiries . . . I found it useful to have to process my own motivations for working with children and assess my abilities to make my study safe and free from coercion."
- "Even though many children wanted their real names to be in a book, my IRB protocol helped me to understand that these children might not be able to foresee the longterm consequences of their participation." [Ridgely is ambivalent about this one, noting that "scholars working with teens and children involved in youth advocacy have argued persuasively that insisting on pseudonyms is paternalistic and further marginalizes children."]
Biomedical Ethics to the Rescue?
The biggest surprise in the article is Ridgely's finding that evolving standards in biomedicine, which so often mean stricter rules for social scientists, can benefit them as well. In her case, the NIH's call for children to be included in research created "an opening for scholars in the humanities to find ways to bring children’s social experiences into the purview of adults." New NIH standards "can be used to demonstrate that work in the humanities, as well as the sciences, can no longer be excluded because of vague concerns over children’s vulnerability," though Ridgely notes that "I do not mean to suggest that the process is simple."