If you want an example of the dangers of proposing seemingly mild or modest forms of government oversight over the everyday practices of scholars, Institutional Review Boards provide it. I’ve been a part of discussions in a number of contexts now for the past five years where cultural anthropologists and historians in bewilderment tried to figure out why IRBs were attempting to exert oversight over their disciplines. After all, said one anthropologist friend of mine, “all I do is ask people questions. They can always say no.”
In the New York Times article linked above, Bernard Schwetz of the Office for Human Research Protections says flatly that oral history and journalism (and thus, presumably, cultural anthropology) will continue to be subject to IRB review whenever they receive any federal money. (On some campuses, administrations have decided to use IRBs to review virtually all research so that they don’t have to carefully distinguish between proposals receiving direct federal funding and those may receive indirect federal support in some fashion.) There’s something in me that finds that flat refusal roughly as infuriating and obstructionist as anything that Donald Rumsfeld or other governmental figures more commonly singled out for political abuse have said. Schwetz is a veterinarian by training, but has been in the scientific and health bureaucracy of the federal government for most of his career. The proposition that someone with his professional expertise and his bureaucratic experience should push strongly for his office to make ethical judgements about oral history or cultural anthropology is roughly as ludicrous as putting me in charge of peer reviewing research in quantum physics.
This is one of those issues where there isn’t a reasonable accomodation, where people of good faith can sit down and say, “Ok, sure, maybe in a few cases, an oral history project ought to go through an IRB”. Flatly: there are no conceivable works of oral history, journalism or cultural anthropology that require such a review. There is virtually no survey research that requires such a review.
This is not to say that producing history or journalism is without ethical considerations. As an undergraduate, I wrote editorials for the Los Angeles Times one summer. I occasionally talked with some of the other interns, who were doing regional reporting. One of them had to interview some of the families of the victims of a mass murder in San Ysidro that summer, and told me afterwards that the experience had made him decide to quit journalism once the summer was finished. Cultural anthropology is pretty much defined by the way that it inflicts ethical torment on itself, makes an ethical fetish out of its central methodological commitments. However, that’s not for some collection of federally-selected doctors and bureaucrats to judge, any more than they should get to judge the relative worth of a novel.
There is a narrow class of research that IRBs justifiably should supervise: those that involve direct medical and psychological experimentation on individual human subjects. Everything else is pernicious and wasteful at best, and at worst, constitutes a kind of creeping stranglehold on free inquiry. Anyone who has ever fretted about “political correctness”, for example, ought to find IRBs extending their reach into the social sciences and the humanities to be incredibly alarming, since they’re already showing signs of a kind of benumbing insistence that any research proposal which might potentially offend anybody is somehow an unethical form of research.