Leon Neyfakh’s essay on Alice Goffman’s methods illustrates the dangers of researchers’ anticipating, rather than documenting, IRB restrictions on their work.
[Leon Neyfakh, “The Ethics of Ethnography,” Slate, June 18, 2015.]
The first example is Goffman herself. She earlier told the Chronicle of Higher Education, “In keeping with IRB requirements, I kept the field notes and the research materials for three years. After that time had passed, I disposed of them. I did this in an effort to protect the subjects of the study from legal action, public scrutiny, or any other undesirable result of the book’s publication.” [Marc Parry, “Conflict Over Sociologist’s Narrative Puts Spotlight on Ethnography,” Chronicle of Higher Education, June 12, 2015.]
Now, Neyfakh reports that “According to [Rena] Lederman, who sits on the IRB at Princeton, no such demands are placed on researchers at the school.” So it seems that Goffman anticipated or assumed what the IRB required, rather than requesting clear instructions.
The second example is that of University of Chicago sociologist Richard Taub. Neyfakh writes,
Taub is among the ethnographers who would prefer not to anonymize their research to the extent IRBs oblige them to. He wanted to use actual place names in his 2006 book There Goes the Neighborhood, co-written with Harvard’s William Julius Wilson, about four working- and lower-middle-class neighborhoods in Chicago, but decided not to because the authors knew the institutional review board at the University of Chicago wouldn’t allow it.
I am troubled by that phrase: “the authors knew.” How did they know what the IRB would do without submitting a formal proposal that would identify neighborhoods by name?
I would suggest that all researchers, from any discipline, submit the protocols they wish to follow and put the burden of rejecting them on the IRB. If the IRB accepts the proposal as submitted, so much the better. If the IRB demands inappropriate anonymity, then scholars at least have more evidence of IRB interference with research, of the sort that has contributed to calls for reform at the regulatory and university levels.
Challenging IRB assumptions can be harder than it sounds, especially for graduate students, who may see the provisions listed on a boilerplate IRB application as non-negotiable. But self-censorship or docile acquiescence removes a crucial step in the feedback loop.
In Goffman’s case, any misunderstanding seems to have been inconsequential, in that Goffman wanted to destroy her notes with or without IRB demands. And in this, she may well have been following best practices for researchers of criminal behavior. As I’ve noted on Twitter, scholars receiving privacy certificates from the National Institute of Justice must pledge that
the security of research or statistical information will be protected by either:
- the complete physical destruction of all copies of the materials or the identified portions of the materials after a three year required recipient retention period or as soon as authorized by law; or
- the removal of identifiers from the data and separate maintenance of a name-code index in a secure location.
If you choose to keep a name-code index, you must maintain procedures to secure such an index.
Since name codes for research not funded by NIJ would still be vulnerable to subpoena, Goffman’s destruction of her notes may well have been the only ethical option. I don’t know if she took the three-year retention period from the NIJ guidelines, but she’s not alone in thinking that a reasonable compromise between accuracy and security.
One more comment on the IRB storyline of this saga. Neyfakh relates,
Goffman’s graduate school adviser, Mitchell Duneier, voiced a somewhat dissenting view about the inflexibility of IRBs when it comes to anonymity. “It’s a case by case thing that IRBs decide,” Duneier said, noting that he was able to use real names and places in two of his ethnographies, about street vendors in Greenwich Village and a restaurant in Chicago.
This is a rather different account of Duneier’s IRB experiences than the one he related for Chris Shea’s 2000 landmark article, “Don’t Talk to the Humans.” In that version, Duneier did not even contact the University of Chicago IRB for his restaurant research, and “improvised” techniques that may not have fit his protocol for his Greenwich Village book.
Researchers serious about ethics must do what’s right, whether that means going beyond the IRB or going around it.