Friday, January 23, 2015

Atran: IRBs Block Understanding of Terrorism

Interviewed by Nature, anthropologist Scott Atran reminds us that human subjects rules have impeded his efforts to understand the origins of violence like the attack on Charlie Hebdo.

[Reardon, Sara. “Looking for the Roots of Terrorism.” Nature, January 15, 2015. doi: 10.1038/nature.2015.16732. h/t Donald Pollock]

Atran explains:

If you really want to do a scientific study with jihadis — I do it — you have to convince them to put down their guns, not talk to one another, and answer your questions. Some people, if you ask them if they would give up their belief in God if offered a certain amount of money, they will shoot you. So you can't ask that question.

It’s not just because it’s dangerous. It’s because human subjects reviews at universities and especially the [US] defence department won't let this work be done. It’s not because it puts the researcher in danger, but because human subjects [research ethics] criteria have been set up to defend middle class university students. What are you going do with these kind of protocols when you talk to jihadis? Get them to sign it saying, “I appreciate that the Defense Department has funded this work,” and by the way if you have any complaints, call the human subjects secretary? This sounds ridiculous and nothing gets done, literally.

Have you run into such difficulties with your fieldwork?

As an example, I got permission, before the [three] Bali bombers [who carried out a set of simultaneous attacks in 2002] were executed, to interview them. They were going to be shot because they blew up 200 people. I couldn’t get human subjects approval because “you have to bring a lawyer, and besides we won't allow anyone to interview prisoners.” I said why? “You can never be sure you're not violating their right to speech.”

For more detail, see Scott Atran, "Research Police – How a University IRB Thwarts Understanding of Terrorism".

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