Sociologist Alice Goffman claims that “IRB guidelines” prevent her from disclosing the location where she was interrogated by police.
[Paul Campos, “Alice Goffman’s Implausible Ethnography,” Chronicle of Higher Education, August 21, 2015. (paywall)]
Goffman’s comments come in response to a lengthy critique of her book, On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City, by Paul Campos, a professor of law at the University of Colorado at Boulder. Campos points to several passages, some of which have been flagged by other critics, that he is reluctant to believe without further documentation, documentation that Goffman has been unwilling to provide or is unable to because she destroyed her field notes.
The only mention of IRBs in the essay concerns this passage from Goffman’s book:
[The police officers] take me up the stairs to the second floor, the Detective Unit. I sit in a little room for a while, and then two white cops come in, dark green cargo pants and big black combat boots, and big guns strapped onto their legs. They remove the guns, and put them on the table facing me.
Campos ran the claim by three Philadelphia police officers. They doubt the story, noting that “as a matter of basic security, all personnel are prohibited from bringing weapons into interrogation rooms, let alone placing guns on a table where they could be seized by a suspect.” Campos hints that Goffman may be confusing her experience with a scene in the movie Menace II Society. He then reports,
When asked by email where she was interrogated, Goffman declined to provide this information on the grounds that doing so would be “stepping far outside the IRB guidelines for protecting the identities of human subjects.” Why an institutional review board would protect the identities of the officers who interrogated her, who were not her research subjects, is unclear.
Yes and no. I wouldn’t put such behavior past the UCLA IRB, which once told an undergraduate that he couldn’t use information he’d gained from a casual conversation about the 1960s. But the proper response to such silliness is to challenge it, not surrender.
And I would be surprised to learn that the IRB at Princeton, where Goffman did her dissertation work, imposed such a restriction. Rena Lederman, a member of that IRB, is already on record stating that Goffman has misstated IRB requirements there.
I suspect, then, that Goffman has decided on her own either that it would be unethical to identify the officers who violated police procedure in order to intimidate her, or that she does not wish to give them the opportunity to rebut her account. Either way, attributing that choice to “IRB guidelines” muddies understanding of what those guidelines do and do not say. Goffman’s readers deserve a clearer account of her ethical choices.