Writing for Contexts, Abigail Cameron, an IRB manager for the Texas State Department of Health Services, laments that “IRBs and ethnographers often ‘talk past each other’ resulting in confusion, delays, and frustration—i.e., a very unhappy marriage.” She rightly blames faulty federal regulations as the prime cause of this unhappiness, yet she downplays IRB misbehavior as a contributing factor.
[Abigail E. Cameron, “The Unhappy Marriage of IRBs and Ethnography,” Contexts, accessed March 24, 2016, h/t Rob Townsend.]
It’s nice to have an IRB manager acknowledge that “Federal regulations were not written with ethnographic research in mind,” and that “the details required by IRBs to assess risk to participants may not be known by the ethnographer until they have begun fieldwork.” And Cameron even concedes that some “institutions review few ethnographic proposals regularly and/or do not have IRB members well-versed in qualitative methods.”
That said, Cameron has her history wrong when she writes that “The unhappy marriage of IRBs and ethnography has existed since the Common Rule was published in 1991.” She is off by a quarter century; sociologists have been unhappy with the marriage since 1966.
More significant are Cameron’s claims that “Most IRB committees working in university settings have seen their fair share of ethnographic proposals and have responded proactively to facilitate quality reviews. For instance, some IRBs may have subcommittees assigned to review ethnographies or a list of subject-matter experts to consult with.”
Cameron offers no evidence or citation for these claims, and I tend to doubt them. Indeed, I have never heard of an IRB that has an ethnographic subcommittee. I do know that IRBs are frequently groups of ignorant amateurs committed to avoiding any controversy, even at the expense of important, valid research.
Until Cameron acknowledges this, she won’t understand why so many researchers reject her advice, “Don’t sweep potentially problematic details under the rug!” When researchers are faced with an incompetent boards, “we can’t be to broad/honest in our thinking when filling out these forms.”