Ethnography proposals pose problems for IRBs

Lack of details or written forms can cause conflict between researchers and IRBs

When an IRB considers a proposed study, the devil is in the details: Exactly what are you studying? Exactly how? Who will participate? When? For how long?

Ethnographic studies look at groups of people in their own communities, often in foreign countries and among cultures that may not be literate. Studies tend to be open-ended and change over time, as the researcher learns more about the community.

Combining those two elements — detail-driven IRB requirements and fluid ethnography studies — often can lead to conflict, says Rena Lederman, PhD, associate professor of anthropology at Princeton University, Princeton, NJ. Lederman, who is herself an ethnographer, is also a member of Princeton's institutional review panel.

Lederman says the conflict between ethnographers and IRBs comes because of a fundamental disconnect between the IRB's assumptions about research and the way in which ethnographic research is conducted.

"There's a huge mismatch between ethnographic fieldwork and what the Common Rule assumes about research," she says. "Consequently, the main IRB guidebooks, the basic IRB handbook, the NIH training course, have assumptions about what research is that are not coordinate with the conventions of ethnography."

She says ethnographic proposals look "incomplete" to IRBs, lacking details in such areas as when research will start and end, exactly who will participate and what questions will be asked.

"Ethnographic research is maximally undemarcated — you can't really say when research begins and ends in ethnography," Lederman says. "Very frequently, especially in ethnographic sociology, researchers get research ideas from life experience, even before they become sociologists. So you can't really say when the research started."

Because ethnographers in sociology and in sociocultural anthropology go to where their informants are, and allow those informants to shape the topics that will be studied, the ethnographer is not in control of the study in the way that a researcher in a lab would be, she says.

"Not only are you embedding yourself in the home turf of the folks in whom you're interested, you're in effect 'apprenticing' yourself to your informants," Lederman says. "They're in charge. They have a shaping influence on the research process."

This creates problems with the standard IRB application, which demands all the details that ethnographers can't give, says Donald K. Robotham, PhD, a professor of anthropology and IRB member at the City University of New York in New York City.

"The changes requested [by the IRB] often ask proposals to be more specific in explaining how informants will be chosen, how many, length of 'interview,' a more detailed interview schedule and so forth," Robotham says. "The chief difficulty here is that the IRB treats ethnography as qualitative sociology or psychology."

Using 'mock-ups'

Lederman says some ethnographers may try to fulfill the IRB's requirements by producing a "mock-up" of the questions they'll ask and the informed consent they'll obtain from participants.

"People come up with sample questions," she says. "The problem is that that feels fake. You're in effect being forced to make something up, something that will almost surely be jettisoned in deference to your informants' interests and emphases, once you're in the field.

"When ethnographers are forced to provide a mock-up of the conversations they might have with their interlocutors, I wouldn't say it's lying, but it is artificial, and it doesn't help IRBs really understand what ethnographers actually do. It contributes to misinformation about ethnographic fieldwork."

Robotham believes that conflicting assessments of risk lie at the heart of much of the IRB/ethnographer conflict. The problem drives IRBs to require the most specifics possible from ethnographers at the outset of a study.

"Many [IRB members] feel that without those specifics, they in fact cannot discharge their responsibility under the law and under IRB regulations and procedures to protect research subjects from undue risk," he says.

In fact, Robotham believes the most recent IRB training protocols geared toward qualitative methods and ethnography actually heighten this conflict rather than resolving it.

"My sense is that in the past, the IRB drew a sharp line between reviewing the proposal for human subject problems as distinct from methodological problems and stayed away from the latter," he says. "The tendency now is to feel that the obligation around risk protection empowers the IRB to scrutinize methods more carefully and to call for a review of particular research methods which they may find wanting."

From her discussions with ethnographers across the country, Lederman says she believes the problems with IRBs are "pervasive, and getting worse and worse."

But she says appropriate, enlightened IRB review of ethnography is possible.

Lederman served on Princeton's institutional review panel for four years in the 1980s and again for the past two years.

She says she's seen a real difference in the way ethnography proposals are handled during her two stints on the panel, which only handles social science research, because Princeton doesn't have a medical school.

"It's always been necessary to educate other members on IRBs about ethnography, because ethnography is anomalous," she says. "It's generally an unfamiliar research strategy to the usual folks who end up on IRBs — social psychologists and survey researchers, and obviously, biomedical people (at institutions with medical schools).

"In the '80s, at Princeton anyway, the other members weren't particularly aware that ethnography is all that different from other kinds of social science research," Lederman says. She says that after continually explaining ethnography proposals to the other members, she was asked to write a memo outlining the basics about the research strategy. But she remembers that it didn't seem to help.

"My sense was that it didn't have a lasting impact," she says. "Despite my memo, there wasn't any perceptible institutional memory on that issue. The problem needed to be addressed, more or less every time, freshly."

However, in her most recent term on the panel, she thinks there's a better understanding that ethnography is different, and needs to be handled differently by an IRB.

"The board members and particularly the secretary that we've had for the past eight years, are aware that they need education on ethnography, so that certainly helps," she says. "Their strategy was that you want to bring people into the process who have competence in all the varieties of social science research."

She says Princeton's IRB sees a small number of ethnographic proposals, most from the anthropology and sociology departments. Because of the IRB's manageable workload, its reviews are accomplished fairly quickly, within about two weeks.

"Our IRB process is very respectful," she says. "We appreciate one another. I always come away from IRB meetings with a sense that the members of the panel are generous with their time and thoughtful and smart in the reading of individual proposals."

Robotham joined CUNY's IRB in 2004, by which time it already had been reviewing ethnographic proposals for several years. He, too, says he finds his board to be flexible in its approach to ethnographic studies.

"This is largely because they already had considerable experience reviewing projects from psychology and to a lesser extent from education, which used qualitative methods," he says.

Boilerplate, subcommittees could help

Lederman is actively working to help smooth the path for ethnographic proposals at Princeton.

She is working with sociocultural anthropologists in her department to produce a kind of boilerplate language that can be put into their proposals. This language would work toward standardizing the ways in which the ethnographic process is described, so that ethnographic proposals will be easier for IRB members to understand and evaluate.

"I'm trying to develop language — which is challenging for ethnography, given its unfamiliarity — that will become familiar enough to the board members that they won't have to rethink the key issues every time."

She compares it to the language commonly reviewed by her IRB when it considers psychology research that involves the use of functional magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI, to view the active brain.

"Researchers using fMRI at Princeton have an elaborate set of boilerplate responses for the basic [IRB] full review form," Lederman says. "It describes the safety procedures and the standard operating procedures for that kind of research. Whenever our IRB gets an fMRI proposal to review, there are sections that we have already approved from previous proposals."

In the debate over the role of IRBs in ethnographic research, there are some who believe that such research should be removed from IRB authority entirely. Lederman says she respects that argument. However, she suspects that if IRBs didn't review ethnographic proposals, funding agencies likely would require some other entity to do so.

"I doubt that an IRB-like system involving prior review would be workable within the framework of national professional associations," she says.

Lederman does believe that IRB review of ethnography could be improved at many institutions by creating subcommittees, made up of ethnographers from various fields, to review the proposals. She suggests that this model for ethnographic reviews might also be feasible if ethnography was exempted from IRB reviews.

Depending upon the makeup of the university, membership could be drawn from anthropology, sociology, education, nursing, medicine, political science or even economics since ethnographic subcultures exist in all those fields.

"If you collect the ethnographers together to review ethnographic proposals, a lot of the issues would not have to be explained over and over again," she says. "Researchers would know that if their research relies on participant observation, they should submit it to this subcommittee."

As the subcommittee reviewed proposals, it could help modify the basic IRB form to accommodate the particular needs of participant-observation fieldwork.

"It would engender helpful changes organically in its review process," Lederman says.