Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Strangers on a Train

In Patricia Highsmith’s novel, Strangers on a Train (adapted for the screen by Alfred Hitchcock), a sociopath plans to get away with murder. Rather than kill his own nemesis and risk arrest, he will kill the troublesome wife of a stranger, and expect that stranger to reciprocate by killing his detested father. Since each man could arrange to be out of town at the time of his relative’s murder, each alibi could be ironclad.

Ethnographers Staci Newmahr and Stacey Hannem think this is a good way to deal with the IRB. The idea might be stupid enough to work in some cases, but it is also a distraction from the hard work of regulatory reform.

[Staci Newmahr and Stacey Hannem, “Surrogate Ethnography Fieldwork, the Academy, and Resisting the IRB,” Journal of Contemporary Ethnography, May 10, 2016, doi:10.1177/0891241616646825.]

Newmahr and Hannem call their proposal “surrogate anthropology”:

‘‘Surrogate ethnography’’ is a methodology in which one ethnographer donates a story from her life to another ethnographer, who represents and analyzes that story, and in so doing, furthers our understanding of an aspect of society, culture, or social process.

In other words, one researcher tells a bunch of stories to another, who writes them up and, in return, tells her stories to the first researcher. Both get publications.

As a writing method, it may not be a bad idea. As Newmahr and Hannem put it,

For those of us disinclined to write about ourselves, for whatever set of reasons or at whatever particular moments, surrogate ethnography provides an interloper; we can share our rich, reflective, and instructive stories without writing our own hearts onto the page.

Something like Byron Dobell telling Tom Wolfe just to type out his notes from the car show. But is this a way to evade IRB scrutiny?

No systematic investigation here, officer!

Here’s Newmahr and Hannem trying to explain why they think surrogate ethnography (SE) could evade IRB jurisdiction:

There are no recording devices, no consent forms, and no interview guides: this is not a study, but two academic friends hanging out and swapping stories. Nor is it an interview (or a series of interviews), for as with any surrogacy, the “donor” must relinquish control of the process. The surrogate carries, and ultimately gives birth to, the tales from the field. Otherwise the pair (or triad or quad, etc.) is merely ghostwriting for the other. The point is not to sign their names to other researchers’ stories and analyses. Rather they interpret, tell, and analyze the stories for themselves. True to ethnography proper, one person’s story becomes the other’s data. The difference in SE is that the (first) storyteller (the donor) is not a “human subject,” but the site of a cultural text. Thus, a (would-be) ethnographer who witnesses a fight in a schoolyard, volunteers in a children’s hospital, or whose brother competes in the Special Olympics can use her life as data.

In short, SE means that we stay in the field. We keep personal diaries, we think our thoughts, we cultivate our relationships. We call ourselves field- workers. But we do not publish these stories ourselves. Instead, we tell someone else about them. We (probably) cannot provide our surrogates with our diaries, but we can talk about them … say, at a bar, at a conference.

This situates SE as a kind of folklore, rather than social science. We are not studying the surrogate, only the oral history she provides, thereby, at least at this time, exempting it from human-subjects oversight. SE turns ethnography from a “data-gathering” project into a kind of narrative analysis. We recognize that this shift, like all methodologies, brings with it a set of challenges and important considerations. However, in order to provide (brief) illustrations of surrogate ethnography here, we cannot delve deeply into the method itself, nor explore the set of interesting methodological issues we encountered in the course of this project. Our aims here are to begin a conversation about its potential, via a case study of the method, and to continue the conversation about ethnography and IRBs.

Newmahr and Hannem do not cite or quote any regulations here, leaving us to guess why they think these activities would not qualify as research under U.S. or Canadian definitions. (Hannam teaches in Canada.) Clearly their proposal involves gathering data through interaction, so they can’t escape scrutiny on that grounds. It’s hardly worth asking whether surrogate ethnography is “designed to develop or contribute to generalizable knowledge,” since the U.S. regulatory concept of generalizability is effectively meaningless.

Perhaps a more interesting question, then, is whether surrogate ethnography could avoid being counted as a “systematic investigation” (the U.S. term) or “disciplined inquiry and/or systematic investigation” (the Canadian version). Does it depend how long they stay at the bar?

As Newmahr and Hannem concede, the biggest problem with their argument is that some IRBs have asserted jurisdiction over even autoethnography. If you can’t report your own life experience without asking permission, reporting the experiences of a colleague isn’t going to be much better.

Playing at powerlessness

The essay includes two examples of surrogate ethnography: one concerning visitors to a prison, humiliated by the prison guards, the other about participation in sadomasochism. The latter story explains that “the bottom has agency, although she or he is playing at powerlessness.” The same could be said for these ethnographers.

Newmahr and Hannem revel in their alleged powerlessness:

When our flagship academic organizations step in on the side of IRBs (as ASA has; see Adler and Adler 2002), railing against IRB controls becomes even more daunting, if not entirely futile. Even the American Anthropological Association has abandoned the fight: “This means that the risks of harm must be considered in relation to the potential benefits of ethnographic research. This process should actively involve the researcher and the IRB, the researcher and participants, and finally the IRB, the researcher and stakeholders” (AAA 2006). We have seen an increase in journal editors and peer reviewers request- ing that authors include the status and process of IRB reviews in their submitted manuscripts.

Beyond the fundamental problem, that IRB mission creep directly challenges the very freedom of inquiry that many universities claim as their raison d’être, nearly everyone who has thought about it agrees that ethnography is uniquely affected by IRB regulations (see Adler and Adler 2002; Bosk and De Vries 2004). IRB translations of the federal mandates governing funded research are so grossly inapplicable to fieldwork that it becomes impossible to be fully compliant and honest, and still conduct (perfectly ethical) fieldwork.

I usually strip citations from quotations on this blog, but notice something about the ones here: while good articles, they are all over ten years old. Before TCPS2. Before the ANPRM. Before the NPRM. Particularly unfair is the treatment of the AAA, citing its 2006 statement but not its marvelous 2011 attack on the current regime.

Neither Newmahr nor Hannem seem to have commented on either the ANPRM or the NPRM; I don’t think comments on the draft TPCS2 are posted anywhere, but I can’t find anything to suggest they commented on that either, or that they are at all aware of the efforts in both countries at reform. Nor do they seem to realize that blogs have authors. Meanwhile, some of us are working to make the rules better: in Canada already, and perhaps in the United States before too long.

I suggest, then, that Newmahr and Hannem are playing at powerlessness. Though they frame their essay as a “call to action,” all they are really doing is sitting at the bar, shouting “Fuck the IRB!”

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