Thursday, March 31, 2016

IRB Manager Laments “Unhappy Marriage” with Ethnography

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.”


Cameron said...

Hi Zachary,

Thank you for your blog post about my article. Contexts asked me to write the article for the ethics series as a general interest piece rather than an academic submission with citations. I also did not have the space to take my brief review of the debate back very far in time. I certainly feel your pain. I can tell you that at NC State, we were fortunate to have excellent anthropologists serve as ethnography experts for our committee there many years ago. Many IRBs are not as fortunate. I have also been to many PRIM&R conferences where anthropologists have presented about their collaborations with IRBs. If you are interested, Laura Stark from Vanderbilt, has written a great book about IRBs, "Behind Closed Doors: IRBs and the Making of Ethical Research," that you might be interested in. There certainly needs to be more research on contemporary IRB committees and how they are implemented differently across institutions with attention to the review of qualitiative work. Best, Abby Cameron

Zachary M. Schrag said...

Thank you for this response. The NC State IRB webpage makes no mention of subcommittees, nor does Stark's book. I must question the accuracy of your claim that "some IRBs may have subcommittees assigned to review ethnographies."

Cameron said...

Hi Zachary,

NC State does not have their internal list of topic consultants published online, as is the case with many IRBs (many do not even post their minutes online, which I feel is essential for transparency). I was employed at NC State for several years and can refer you (privately) to the names of ethnographers used to consult on ethnographic projects. I have reached out to the IRB Forum (moderated by PRIM&R) to see if there is a public list of IRBs with subcommittees that I can provide you with. I have also posted a question on the subject on an IRB Facebook page to see if anyone is willing to share their subcommittee information. I will pass along my findings to you.

I can also assure you that there are published articles on the topic and that subcommittees are utilized. The Amdur and Bankert book is the "IRB Bible" for administrators and covers the use of subcommittees (chapter 3.7 in my ancient addition).

My short article in Contexts and my professional efforts (as a researcher and IRB administrator) have always been to improve the IRB experience for social/behavioral researchers and to offer constructive suggestions. I enjoy Laura Stark's book because it provides a contemporary understanding of how IRB decisions are made. Unlike most critics of IRBs, Dr. Stark attends PRIM&R conferences and makes a committed effort to understand the perspective of both researchers and administrators.

I certainly understand the frustrations of researchers and wish there could be less animosity and more productive communication and collaborative work between committees and investigators. Thank you.

Abigail Cameron

Zachary M. Schrag said...

Thank you for your reply. The 2006 edition of Institutional Review Board: Management and Function does mention subcommittees, but not for specific fields, such as ethnography.

Putting ethics review in the hands of specialists is a good idea, as LL Wynn, an ethnographer, has argued. Some universities did deploy more specialized subcommittees in the early 1970s, only to face scolding from federal regulators. (See Can We Patch This Flat Tire?.

The current system lacks provisions for review of ethnography by ethnographers.