Research, the IRB, and Risk: “known knowns,” “known unknowns,” and “unknown unknowns”

Just over a decade ago, going through the IRB process seemed relatively new and simple:
While in graduate school, I took the required research methods class, which included discussions of research ethics. For both my qualifying paper and dissertation, I designed my study and submitted my research plans to Human Subjects, Harvard’s Institutional Review Board, or IRB, which reviews research proposals to ensure that the rights and well-being of human subjects are adequately protected. If my memory serves me correctly, a consent forms for interview was not yet standard. However, an anthropology student told me that her book publisher had asked her to get written permission to publish quotes from their interviews. She was having difficulties re-contacting people she had previously interviewed for a study. This made a big enough impression upon me that I developed my own consent form that not only explained my study and interviewees’ rights, but also outlined how the research might be used for future publications. Now, these kinds of forms are standard.

Currently, the IRB process is rationalized, with a “one size fits all” approach:
As a new professor at a state university, I was required to complete and pass multiple-choice quizzes for the on-line course Collaborative Institutional Training Initiative (CITI). Several of the modules concerned medical research, which is the main “model” for the IRB process.

Because I changed institutions and my original CITI certificate will soon expire, I took a new set of modules and multiple choice quizzes yesterday afternoon. Interestingly, I missed the same trick question that I probably got wrong 3 years ago:

“Where can student researchers and/or student subjects find reliable additional resources regarding the IRB approval process?


B. Student Advisor

C. “Gray’s Anatomy”

D. The Student Union

E. Compliance Office.”

I chose A., but according to CITI, the correct answer is B.

While I have learned a few new esoteric facts (example: educational testing is exempt from review), the main lesson I’ve learned over the years is that IRBs, like many institutions, are demanding more assurances of predictability and rationality. Just like Donald Rumsfeld’s quote about “known knowns,” “known unknowns,” and “unknown unknowns,” researchers face an on-going conundrum: anticipate and articulate risk, even before the research has started, and reevaluate and adjust as the research progresses.

Ethnographic research and risk

In their 2004 article “Bureaucracies of Mass Deception: Institutional Review Boards and the Ethics of Ethnographic Research” (The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 595: 249-263), Charles L. Bosk and Raymond G. De Vries explain how this anticipation of risk is an especially difficult task for ethnographers. Bosk and De Vries also make a number of suggestions, including learning from the example of the Netherlands, which exempts social science research from review, barring “a demonstratable psychological or physical burden” (259).

During my Burning Man research, one of the decisions that I made about risk was (1) whether or not to disguise the Burning Man event, and (2) whether or not to automatically disguise the identities of interviewees. I decided that disguising Burning Man was too difficult given that only one temporary arts event in the desert exists. This decision linked to my next decision: I also decided to give interviewees a choice of whether to have a pseudonym and disguised characteristics. Most chose to use their real names, but a few noted information that they wanted kept confidential or requested that I check with them before using quotes, which I respected. In my writings, I felt that as long as the information conveyed was not potentially harmful to individuals, it was important to use people’s real names in reporting their experiences.

Years later, with the book and articles in print, I revisited that decision. Several follow-up conversations with new volunteers and interviewees reinforced my decision to use real names. One interviewee expressed surprise and delight about reading about creative work that she had forgotten. Another interviewee who no longer volunteers worried that if he returned to the organization, he would be turned away by new volunteers and staffers who were unfamiliar with his previous contributions. A new volunteer recounted to me her realization that an organization would continue, despite her departure, and that no visible trace of her contributions would remain.

A conventional organizational history might reduce these people’s experiences to a few key figures and facts. For new volunteers, the opportunity to read and understand details about their predecessors’ experiences humanizes an otherwise unknowable void. For longtime volunteers and organizers, remembering their own words and experiences provides a much-needed moment to reflect on the past, the present, and the future.

Readers, your comments, please:

(1) Does your institution require you to get a CITI certification or to otherwise demonstrate IRB “competency”?
(2) Your thoughts on the IRB process, particularly in relation to ethnography?
(3) Your or others’ experiences with follow-up or returns to the field?

Written by katherinekchen

September 18, 2009 at 6:42 pm

11 Responses

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  1. What exactly is problematic about the researcher-observed relationship that, even if both parties consent and no one is lying, heavy-handed regulation is required? A researcher, on his own, could do virtually all research legally if not connected to a University, no approval necessary. Companies, after all, have focus groups and experiments. Journalists quote people all of the time.

    Sure, they are nightmare scenarios of researchers drugging unsuspecting subjects, or the milgram experiments, etc. But to stop that, you only need an IRB focused on weeding out the extreme cases.



    September 18, 2009 at 7:59 pm

  2. I agree with Thorfinn. The IRB process was designed with medical research in mind, where there is serious risk. On the brighter side, most IRB’s will exempt or expedite reviews of harmless research such as educational test, consumer preference research, etc (as Katherine noted. They’ve been responding, however slowly, to the complaints.



    September 18, 2009 at 8:03 pm

  3. Thorfinn, the issues and frustrations that you raise are what many qualitative researchers mutter under their breath when filling out an IRB form or when resubmitting a rejected IRB form. I’ve heard chatter that at some institutions, historians are beginning to face scrutiny concerning human subjects. Part of this is mission creep – that is, everything starts to look like a nail to the hammer (an IRB). Part of this is presumably a CYA maneuver on the part of the institution should anything happen – that is, “the professor should have known better, s/he completed this certification and IRB form.”

    If I remember correctly from my multiple choice test, the IRB is not responsible for enforcement. The institution (and presumably the profession) are.



    September 19, 2009 at 2:55 am

  4. I am sensitive to IRB mission creep. See the white paper written by a multidisciplinary team at the University of Illinois, including Mike Pratt, who has done ethnographic work.

    On the other hand, my 2nd IRB training (of 4!) sensitized me to the kinds of risk — social risk — that organization members could face by inviting me into the organization, answering my (routine?) questions on firm decision-making and strategy, and turning tacit knowledge into explicit data. Don’t smugly assume that your interventions into organizations are without risks just because you don’t perceive them.



    September 19, 2009 at 4:29 am

  5. I just do my research and then apply for IRB approval post hoc, right before I send in the first paper for article review.

    This post won’t show my identity, right? Shit.



    September 20, 2009 at 6:08 am

  6. “I just do my research and then apply for IRB approval post hoc, right before I send in the first paper for article review.”

    Right on! Nobody believes those BS statements about professional ethics on the ASA website.



    September 20, 2009 at 5:55 pm

  7. See for a discussion of the First Amendment implications.


    Stuart Buck

    September 21, 2009 at 6:17 pm

  8. […] the issues of analyzing “unusual” cases,  gaining access to organizations and dealing with the Institutional Review Board (IRB) about human subjects.  Now I’ll turn to the topic of conducting ethnographic research.  Later, I’ll follow […]


  9. […] my 2009 series of posts on analyzing “unusual” cases, gaining research access to organizations, research, the IRB and risk, conducting ethnographic research, ethnography – what is it good for?, and writing up […]


  10. […] prior posts on analyzing “unusual” cases, gaining research access to organizations, research, the IRB and risk, conducting ethnographic research, ethnography – what is it good for?, and writing up […]


  11. […] orgtheory, we’ve discussed how researchers face challenges concerning the IRB here and here. Although the IRB offers detailed guidelines that can protect human subjects in medical research, […]


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