discussing the irb, human subjects, and qualitative research
Recently, at a faculty meeting of professors and graduate students from several disciplines, discussion turned to the IRB’s interpretation of human subjects guidelines and the implications for students’ efforts to document phenomena for class assignments. Participants pointed out a variety of problems, including changes over the years in IRB decisions about whether results of projects could be publicly shared – in this case, whether students’ videorecorded interview of a retired elected official could be publicly shared under today’s IRB guidelines. Faculty and graduate students also described delays in getting feedback from their IRBs, raising concerns about how the lack of accountability on the part of some IRBs increases the uncertainty of planning class research, students’ timely graduation, and faculty productivity.
At 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, how the IRB and human subjects concerns can contribute to the conduct of qualitative research, particularly organizational ethnography, is less clear.
Several recent publications offer researchers’ experiences with these issues.
When meeting prospective subjects and representatives of prospective field sites
One is Texas A&M Prof. Nancy Plankey-Videla‘s article in Qualitative Sociology. In “Informed Consent as Process: Problematizing Informed Consent in Organizational Ethnographies,” she extensively details her experiences with negotiating consent amongst managers and frontline workers of the factory where she conducted overt participant-observations. Raising issues of race, gender, and class, she discusses the difficult balancing act when navigating relations with different parties as research questions evolve. Plankey-Videla’s article deftly intertwines research dilemmas with experiences that can kickstart a discussion for those teaching qualitative methods or ethnography.
When subjects actually read manuscripts
For those interested in learning more about informed consent and human subjects, two chapters from UPenn Prof. Charles L. Bosk‘s anthology What Would you Do? Juggling Bioethics & Ethnography (2008, University of Chicago) stand out. In chapter 8, “Irony, Ethnography, and Informed Consent,” Bosk details one subject’s anguished reaction when reading a pre-publication manuscript of genetic counseling at a pediatric hospital. The subject objected to the accuracy of Bosk’s depiction of activities as not suitable for a public audience. In a series of subsequent phone and in-person meetings, Bosk parried with a company lawyer and haggled with informants over which details to correct or obscure. While Bosk ultimately preserved his interpretation of organizational activities, he realized that promising confidentiality is not possible for some informants.
When preserving confidentiality obscures a phenomena
In chapter 10, “An Ethnographer’s Apology, a Bioethicist’s Lament,” Bosk reveals how protecting a subject’s identity forestalled further exploration of inequality in the workplace. In his original ethnography, Bosk changed the gender of a surgeon, a woman shunned by colleagues in a male-dominated unit, thereby ironically silencing discussion about gender dynamics in the workplace. Re-reading this ethnography with this corrected detail, one is struck by how much like a commonly recounted puzzle about a surgeon’s refusal to operate on a child, this one seemingly innocuous change can unveil a more nuanced interpretation of tokenism at work.
Returning to the field, etc.
Finally, Qualitative Sociology has a special issue devoted to research ethics and the conduct of research, which includes revisiting field sites. See that issue’s TOC here.
Have recommendations for readings or issues to raise? Put them in the comments.