Practitioners of community-based participatory research (CPBR) warn that standard IRB review can reinforce the power inequalities that CPBR hopes to mitigate.
[J. Cross, K. Pickering, and M. Hickey, “Community-Based Participatory Research, Ethics, and Institutional Review Boards: Untying a Gordian Knot,” Critical Sociology, June 3, 2014, doi:10.1177/0896920513512696; Bruce Pietrykowski, “Participatory Economic Research: Benefits and Challenges of Incorporating Participatory Research into Social Economics,” Review of Social Economy, July 7, 2015, 1–21, doi:10.1080/00346764.2015.1044841.]
Jennifer Cross, Kathleen Pickering, and Matthew Hickey, all of Colorado State University, warn that “Traditional research paradigms can reinforce existing power relationships by defining researchers as experts and community members as mere objects of study.”
Bruce Pietrykowski gives an example of this practice. In the first CBPR study to go before his university’s IRB, the IRB categorized community researchers as “subjects,” in a way that student researchers doing the same work would not have been. This distinction, he writes, “positioned the community researchers as outsiders lacking equal standing to the academic researcher during this phase of the project.” Eventually, Pietrykowski and his associates—within the university and without—were able to proceed, but it sounds as though the IRB was more hindrance than help.
Cross et al. imagine a wholly different role for IRBs. In their ideal world,
the IRB would oversee the negotiated agreements between the researcher and the community, rather than simply imposing a universal, and potentially a culturally inappropriate, standard. The model also assumes that the IRB is not the final arbiter, but rather a participant in the dialogue, or a guardian of processes for designing, implementing, and interpreting ethical community-based research. The process of human subjects review would then become less an issue of regulation, and more an issue of relationship – which is one of the foundational principles of CBPR. We envision an IRB that manages an ethical pluralism with sensitivity to competing ethical obligations, rather than simply making and enforcing rules. [Citations omitted.]
That sounds lovely, but IRBs are the creature of regulation, and their essence is to make and enforce rules. I’m not sure that Cross et al. understand that their proposal would require a rethinking of human subjects regulation even bolder than imagined by the ANPRM, or that they recall that, in the end, the Gordian Knot could never be untied. Alexander sliced it with his sword.