A Tapeworm on the Body Academic

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.

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23 Responses to A Tapeworm on the Body Academic

  1. back40 says:

    This is getting tedious. My stance is unbalanced a bit, leaning into anticipated conflict, and if you persist in posting things that I can’t argue against I’ll fall over.

  2. The IRB thing is one side of a two-sided coin — or one blade of a two-bladed axe pointed straight at us. The other is intellectual property rights, and the tendency for institutions to want to claim a share of any potential profits from academics’ work.

    I’m not sure yet how these two things fit together, but I can’t help but think that they do.

  3. withywindle says:

    You will develop into a regular libertarian, as you generalize your distrust of government bureaucracy … while I’m perfectly willing to take this as a good example of why government intrusions generally fail to work, I feel a vague urge to quibble with your framing. You start out by saying “there are no conceivable works of oral history, journalism or cultural anthropology that require such a review.” I tend to agree with the conclusion—but I do think that should be a *conclusion* of *political* debate, not an assertion, and that the government has, and universities have, the right to consider the possibility of ethical review of all forms of scholarship that it, and they, fund. If you are going to have such a review board at all, to the extent that such ethical review should derive from expert opinion, it would be better to have a humanities board, a social science board, a sciences board, etc. rather than having scientists rule over humanities professors. To the extent that ethical judgment is generically human, and to the extent that no profession should be insulated from public judgment and control, I think it a very good idea that any such review board include non-professionals. (Cf. civilian review boards over the police.) I do rather think that you, Timothy Burke, are qualified to judge “we shouldn’t irradiate people with cancer-causing jargonium rays,” even if you don’t have a degree in quantum physics—and that physicists are not unequipped to make similar ethical judgments about oral history. Federal bureaucrats may have imperfect knowledge—but, with the ultimate democratic mandate of the people behind them, who provide the funds, they have far greater moral authority to judge the ethics of scholarship than do the professional recipients of such moneys. And if it strangles freedom of inquiry, that is the right of the people who provide the money. It may be unwise, but it is the people’s choice to make.

    The above, I think, is a theoretical statement that should be held distinct from criticism of the specific ways in which universities (mal)administer review boards at the present moment.

  4. Timothy Burke says:

    Everyone is equipped to debate the proposition, “It’s wrong to conduct a journalistic interview under false pretenses.” Or, “Cultural anthropologists should just stay at home and stop bugging non-Western peoples trying to go about their daily business”. Etc. Debate, mind you–not impose a government diktat that ends that debate. Those are quintessentially matters where people have to make a choice about how they see it, and try to persuade others.

    Equally, everyone is equipped to debate the proposition, “If I could save 10,000 lives by irradiating and knowingly killing 5 people with jargonium rays, I should be allowed to do it.” But the stakes are not symmetrical in those debates: hurt feelings or cultural intrusion versus dead people. It’s also right that by government diktat we say, “Listen, as far as a matter of policy goes, this is largely a sealed question: we do not give permission for experimentation on human subjects that we know to be fatal or exceptionally risky to the life and health of those subjects, regardless of the good outcomes possible. I don’t see much benefit to opening up human experimentation as a matter of state policy, with a few complicated exceptions. (2 of them: I kind of find Stanley Milgrom-esque social psychology interesting and wish we could do it again, within limits; I think economic development projects in the 3rd World represent a form of human experimentation that is not acknowledged as such.)

    Neither of these things cover what IRBs do when they get involved in oral history, etcetera. Instead of engaging a general debate about such work, they propose to micromanage the specifics of how such work is carried out, regardless of what that does to the research process. The stupidity of having to stop in the middle of every ethnographic interview and hand out consent forms is mind-boggling–and in many cases, actually makes the research worse in some qualitative respect. That’s why I draw the analogy to me engaging in peer review over quantum physics rather than engaging in broad ethical discussions about the advisability of cloning, because that’s why IRBs do. They don’t talk about the broad ethical questions that accompany ethnographic research or journalism–they talk about the fine-brush methodological details and procedures that they have no business micromanaging, often importing wholesale the procedures used in medical consent into contexts where those procedures are frankly freakish and inappropriate.

  5. Alan Baumler says:

    I agree that IRBs are being applied to new areas, usually unnecessarily, and that they have become far more bureaucratic and adversarial across the board, and that both of these are bad. On the other hand I can’t agree that IRBs would never be appropriate in, say, anthropology. I have heard about at least one case where a scholar published accounts of illegal activity (and face it, a lot of stuff is illegal) without properly concealing the identities of the informants, who were in fact prosecuted. This strikes me as unethical, and something that an IRB might catch and correct, although it might take some micromanaging. I think if IRBs are going to be extended into new areas there need to be new rules that take into account what their purpose is, and how it applies to different disciplines.

  6. ADM says:

    You wouldn’t believe how absolutely lame our IRB is. Their requirements are arcane and their understanding of anything beyond what normal IRBs should handle is minimal, as far as I can tell. Frex, I’m using class project as the basis of a presentation and maybe an article. Before I found out I needed to go to the IRB, I had the students sign a waiver, in which they were allowed to have me remove their names, remove their work, or use their work, with or without names as they please, for examples — and only to scholarly audiences. This had passed muster at another university that actually had lawyers look at it. This place, they said that even if the students wanted me to use their names, I couldn’t. And they want to make my colleagues doing public and oral histories do the same thing — because, you know, people being interviewed about historic houses are subjects in an experiment. Not!

  7. One area of research where I’m a bit more sympathetic of extended IRB review to humanistic or qualitative social science projects is when it involves children, as there are extended ethical issues and clarity needed in such contexts. But there too, IRB review is no guarantee of foregrounding ethical questions and questions of responsible research. My anecdote: for a class I was teaching on Media & Childhood, I submitted IRB approval for a research project where my students would interview families about their media consumption practices, interviewing parents & kids separately. The IRB objected to interviewing siblings together, as they were afraid that one kid might answer a question in a such a way that the other sibling might use it against them (like telling their parents about breaking rules, watching adult material, etc.). My reply was that we should probably assume that kids understand that everything they say in presence of their siblings can & will be used against them in the parental court, and why should we assume that a researcher’s presence would change that dynamic! I ended up not getting approval as designed – which meant that I couldn’t publish results, but in-class research projects do not need IRB approval. All in all, I left feeling like the IRB process was more of an impediment than aid to doing effective & ethical research…

  8. Chris Segal says:

    This is the sort of thing that I tend to see as not worth fighting over.

    First, I want to point out that IRB’s are run by individual universities and colleges and research institutions, and as far as I know there is no reason why an IRB *needs* to be arcane, inane, stupid, confusing, or otherwise a waste of time.

    Like the courts, IRBs ought to be able to once-over an issue (a proposal in this case) and “throw it out” (fast-track approval), if it’s one of those things that you identify as not really needing IRB oversight.

    Meanwhile, the process would be there for those anthropological or other social science proposals that actually do need or would benefit from IRB approval.

    I guess that I feel like we should be fighting for better IRBs rather than fighting against IRBs. And in that vein, pulling social scientists into the IRB community ought to increase the number of voices calling for improved IRBs.

    This is where I admit that most of what I know about IRBs comes from my mother, who is a medical researcher.

  9. Timothy Burke says:

    I could imagine further ways to reform military procurement systems. This does not mean that military procurement systems should be used to buy textbooks in K-12 public schools. IRBs are with a very few exceptions simply irrelevant to humanistic research and to most “soft” social science research. It doesn’t matter how improved they are.

    There’s a conceptual flaw at the very heart of that extension which is raised very well by Jason’s observation. I could imagine that someone doing ethnography or oral history or certain forms of educational observation should in fact have to seek IRB approval for research design if they were researching children–because children have diminished ability to consent freely to participate in any research project.

    To maintain that any other kind of oral history, journalism, ethnography or similar project legitimately requires any oversight, any supervision, beyond the ethical judgement of the researcher, the consent of the people to talk to the researcher, and the professional judgement about the worth and value of the research that the discipline renders after the fact is to consent to the permanent infantilization of adult human beings. In fact, in some cultural anthropology, this is precisely what goes on within the discipline, and it’s pernicious enough when it’s anthropologists doing it to other anthropologists. It’s a disaster when it is medical doctors or biomedical researchers thoughtlessly transplanting their professional norms onto cultural anthropologists, historians or journalists.

  10. withywindle says:

    You do keep recurring to “professional judgment”–it is clearly a base value of yours. I do think that to make “professional judgment” a base value is to consent to the permanent infantilization of all non-expert adult human beings. To be an adult is (following Arendt here) to exercise liberty, not just to possess freedom; to share in governance–including, ultimately, governance over the professions. Furthermore, to act as a professional is to submit yourself to the polity’s specific right to oversee all professions, the right it gains by constituting the professions in the first place. What right you have as an individual to be free from oversight is necessarily greater than your right as a professional.

    This all at the level of first principles; as a practical matter, the IRBs don’t sound terribly well constituted.

    Meanwhile, I am now imagining what military procurement would look like if it followed the means used to buy K-12 textbooks …

  11. Timothy Burke says:

    The level of oversight you’re talking about, Withywindle, is extremely general. The IRBs are extremely specific–the level of specificity at which process, and therefore also professionalism, apply. My polity oversees me as a human; it does not oversee me in my day to day business. The generativity of the professions in modern life is a direct consequence of their autonomy at the level of their day to day functioning. We may specify general regimes for the professions to follow, often in direct proportion to the potential general harm of misconduct in those professions. The more we mismap our general oversight for minute control over the particulars, the more we destroy the generative capacity of the professions. As with all things. My government may properly set the parameters of what I may or may not do, but the moment it presumes to know better than I about my professions of everyday life (what I should watch, what I should do in my spare time, what I should eat, what I should be doing right this moment), it overrides that which I am likely to know best about. And even when I do not, the cost of controlling my action is so surpassingly high, it overrides all possible benefit (as, again, with professional oversight: the cost of a medical doctor trying to second-guess the ethical particulars of an oral historian working on New York City labor history is very high to all possible oral histories, to no visible gain).

  12. withywindle says:

    I do want to stipulate the right of the polity to intervene at the level of detail, and to judge for itself the costs and benefits. After all: “How dare you interfere in the details of our experiment here at Tuskegee? You’re destroying the generative capacity of the medical profession!” Or substitute various outrages worldwide justified by reference to the details of the military and legal professions. The distinction between “general oversight” and “minute control” is itself one that needs to be reserved to the polity at large.

    I am suspicious of your phrase “professions of everyday life.” This sounds like an attempt to elide the distinction between the rights and status of the citizen and the rights and status of a professional–which, if often analogous, are not identical.

    When you say, “the cost of controlling my action is so surpassingly high, it overrides all possible benefit,” I do think that the benefit of preserving the polity’s right to override the autonomy of the professions does outweigh all possible costs. Indeed, I think the benefit to you as a citizen outweighs the cost to you as a professional.

    I’m afraid I’m repeating myself. I do keep hoping I will hit on the magic words that will persuade you to abandon your attachment to professional judgment as a principle.

  13. Timothy Burke says:

    Tuskegee is a good word to do that with. E.g., when the possible harm is of legitimate public concern. Which returns me to the basic premise of this entry: there is no conceivable such harm to any oral history, cultural anthropology or journalism.

  14. jpool says:

    A couple of things:
    The question of whether the state has a right to or “interest in” regulating the way that certain kinds of (or any and all) academic research is carried out and the question of whether they ought to are two different questions, so I think you two are arguing a bit past one another. Arguing philosophically about these principles in the abstract, I think, also misses the point of how these standards are actually enforced. As I understand it, the federal government requires an IRB process to be in place, but rather than actually enforcing a set of regulations for ethical research or how proposals could be fast-tracked or what-have-you, the government instead has offered extremely punitive responses for what it has deemed to be not properly vetted research, thus terrifying university administrations into a hyper-vigilant legalistic approach, as well as help to further the application of that approach to any and all subjects. I think of it as similar to the current situation with the FCC and obscenity, except that instead of limiting free speech we get a system that encourages a cover-your-ass approach rather actual ethical consideration.

    I would agree with you that the kind of harm that can result from social research is of a different order than that which can come from medical or behavioral research, but no less serious for that. Reputations can be destroyed and there are of course some situations where clueless behavior by a researcher could get folks killed. That said, I think I am agreeing with you in saying that IRBs are a poor way of preventing this and, while they could become less bad, are not going to become actually useful. Where I might disagree slightly, is in wanting some acknowledgement that adulthood is not simply a matter of becoming older and wiser but of training in proper behavior. If anthropologists can be a bit self-flagellating about ethical concerns, I would say many historians can be overly cavalier. This however is better served through professional training (no guarantee, but then neither are IRBs) than through committee vetting.

  15. Timothy Burke says:

    How could an oral historian destroy someone’s reputation in a way that was not actionable through litigation? Can you think of an example?

  16. withywindle says:

    I have been trying to distinguish between “right” and “ought”…

    The point of controls over the professions, whether internal or external, is to prevent professional behavior from reaching the point where litigation is the only recourse. You can sue a doctor for malpractice, but the point of medical professional ethics is not to reach that point in the first place–to place the minimum professional standard significantly above the level that warrants litigation. All such regulations are supposed to act as prior restraints. I think adherence to professional standards already implies a commitment to self-restraint far above the standards of the law–and that the question, therefore, resolves back to whether such standards can be/should be applied externally or internally.

    Aside from that … in America, I thought truth was a defense against accusations of libel. Surely, then, an oral historian could publish a truth that destroyed a reputation, and therefore wasn’t legally actionable?

    Incidentally … dragging in current events, alas … the legal aspects of this whole Libby imbroglio turned in part on whether the law could and should override professional journalistics ethics. (I.e., can a subpoena force a journalist to reveal a source to whom you’ve promised confidentiality.) I *don’t* want to force a discussion on the merits of the Libby affair, but I do think it does touch, in theory, on the current discussion.

  17. Doug says:

    Reporters were compelled to tetstify because there was a crime involved, and because the prosecutor had pursued all other available avenues to obtain the evidence involved, and those efforts had failed. This is relatively well-trod legal ground.

    The issues at hand were also important: Libby was accused, and is now convicted, of obstructing an investigation into the exposure of an American secret agent. This exposure ended her career, possibly endangered her life, probably endangered the lives of contacts she made during her professional activities, and almost certainly harmed efforts of the United States government to gather useful foreign intelligence. If she worked on nuclear proliferation in Iran and/or Iraq, her exposure touched directly on issues that led to one war that the United States is fighting and may yet lead to another. The reason for all of the qualifiers (“may,” “probably,” etc.) is that Libby’s perjury and obstruction prevented a proper investigation. Because of the crimes of which he has now been convicted, the American public does not know the motives or the method behind exposing an American secret agent.

    In this case, there are clearly greater interests at work than the professional commitment.

    I’ve also worked as a journalist, and though I have never worked with publications where anonymous sources were useful, I would use anonymity to protect people from the powerful. In Libby’s case, anonymity appears to have been used to protect the powerful from the public. At times, the description of the sources actively misled readers (Libby, for example, was described as a “former Congressional staffer” instead of his actual job, chief of staff to the Vice President of the United States, or if for some reason anonymity could ethically be granted, a “senior administration official.”), about as great a journalistic sin as I can imagine.

  18. Timothy Burke says:

    An oral historian could publish a truth that destroyed a reputation. That ought to be up to an oral historian whether to do that or not, not to a board of doctors trying to figure out how that question maps onto the question of whether a drug trial is too risky to human subjects. Some truths may be worth that price; others may not. There is a wide range of legitimate disagreement about which truths fall into which camp, and an IRB is likely to decide that any disagreement constitutes a reasonable doubt which justifies prior restraint. That, in my mind, would be a misunderstanding of history, which intellectually requires interpretation and thus wide latitude for the judgement of writers. This is especially so once we recall that the truth gleaned by an oral historian comes through conversation with human beings. If a person says something that ultimately comes back to injure them, it’s important to presumptively regard what that person says as something they decided to say, freely. Oral history or journalism are not tricks that ordinary people somehow cannot understand or decode without layers of careful explanation (here I agree with Withywindle’s insistence that history is not the pure provenance of professionalism). Unless there is a serious issue of diminished competence (a child, a mentally ill or mentally disabled person), it’s enough that an oral historian explain himself or herself conversationally, informally, and whatever follows, including an interview, is grist for the mill. The apparatus of consent-seeking that IRBs seek to impose is wildly inappropriate for that context.

  19. withywindle says:

    Doug: you are, of course, preventing a version of events with which I profoundly disagree. As I say, I didn’t want to get into the merits of the case; I will merely direct you to the varied posts on the subject at the National Review Online.

    Your phrase “I would use anonymity to protect people from the powerful.” is, indeed, another phrase that comports very badly with any popular trust of journalistic professional standards–it imports various non-professional judgments into what should be strictly professional standards. The various journalists who refused to identify any source, on principle, strike me as hewing more to purely journalistic professional standards. The point, rather, is that pure journalistic standards, and judgment, should not be the final word on the subject.

  20. Doug says:

    “The point, rather, is that pure journalistic standards, and judgment, should not be the final word on the subject.”

    Are you making my point for me, or am I misreading you here?

  21. withywindle says:

    Some overlap in points, not total identity.

  22. jpool says:

    Just to clarify, because I was a bit rushed when I finished my post, I agree that the kinds of harm that can result from truthful but unnecessary disclosures (or reasonable but possibly damaging speculation) are best weighed by the individual conscience of the researcher (as well as, retrospectively, the scholarly community and wider public), and that IRBs do nothing to prevent the kind of boneheaded mistakes that folks can make in the field that can result in harm of one kind or another for their informants. What I would advocate for instead is some kind of formal professional training. The best possible form of an IRB for humanistic and social research would, in my opinion, be something like the form one is (or was at least a few years ago) required to file when applying for Fulbright-IIE, which would indicate that the researcher has thought through the possible ethical implications of their research and how they ought to respond to them. There are many ways that interviewees, particularly from impoverished or politically subordinated communities could feel pressured to take part in research, or in which they could reveal information potentially harmful to them in ways that they might not recognize. I think I am agreeing with you that the institutional presumption ought to be that they are freely consenting subjects, but a researcher can only consider possible extenuating circumstances if they have been trained to do so. One of the advantages that journalists have is that discussions of ethics are not only part of their professional training but part of their professional culture. Similarly, my impression is that most Africanists are trained in ethical issues in research, while historians more broadly are not (though a much greater discussion of these issues goes on within the profession informally than anthropologists give us credit for).

    Withywindle, it seems to me that under the heading of “professional standards” you are squishing together, say, medical ethics, as debated by the profession as a whole and carried out by individual practitioners, and regulatory review carried out by the AMA or state licensing boards (except that, to be equivalent to the IRB process, doctors would have to submit their procedures and possible considerations in advance and have them approved by either a professional/internal or a governmental/public/external agency). There is professional ethics and then there is professional ethical regulation of either a prospective or retrospective kind. Are you simply taking the first one as read and arguing that there has to be some version of the second, because only it can satisfy public interest?

  23. withywindle says:

    I’m taking the first one as read, and saying there has to be a *right* to the second, with judgment about whether to enact it reserved to the polity writ large–to satisfy the right of the people to govern itself. As a *second-order* question, I think that one ought presumptively to delegate such regulation to the various professions–but there are enough “profession failures” (to parallel “market failures”) that there are, and should be, a non-trivial amount of external oversight in every profession.

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