Institutional Review Boards exist, according to their websites, to protect research subjects from unethical researchers, the kind of researchers who would recreate prison situations to see how nasty humans could be to total strangers or would tell their subjects that they had to administer electric shocks to a stranger with heart disease just to see if they’d do it.
It makes sense that after some of these incredibly unethical experiments, universities cracked down with some oversight. After all, these sort of human experiments were not just unethical, but ultimately gave us little information that we didn’t already have: people basically suck and they more or less will do anything if a white guy in a lab coat tells them to.
But as any field researcher—that is, the kind of researcher who actually speaks with people (as opposed to experiments on them)—will tell you, IRBs have effectively shut down our ability to actually find out about people’s lived experiences. IRBs have treated speaking with someone as equivalent to experimenting on them and have almost killed fieldwork in the process.
A friend, who used to interview prisoners, gave it up since prisoners are “vulnerable populations” and getting IRB approval is far more difficult than getting through the prison doors. Another acquaintance who used to research sexuality among young people has had to give it up since if there’s one thing you canNOT speak with people under 18 about it’s sex. I myself have had a few run-ins with IRBs. One time I was called in because I had interviewed people who identified as transgendered and did not treat these people as a “vulnerable population,” which includes prisoners, terminally ill persons, children, people with mental illness, and pregnant women.
When I asked why transgendered people were “vulnerable,” I was told, by a psychology professor, that anyone who identified as “transgendered” was “mentally ill” suffering from Gender Identity Disorder as listed in the DSM. When I countered that no one I interviewed identified as having a mental illness and I myself did not wish to force labels onto them, the psychologist, who was normatively gendered, became angry at my “bad research design.”
“These people have issues with their gender,” she yelled.
When I suggested that from a sociological perspective, we all have issues with our gender, even the most normatively gendered among us, she told me I could come up with a plan for dealing with “those people’s mental illness” or forget my project.
A year later, at a different institution, I was told that I had to get cosmetic surgery patients to sign permission slips to speak with me even though the interviews would be anonymous and details would be changed in such a way as to protect everyone’s identity. You can imagine what this was like.
“Hi, may I ask you intimate questions about what you hate about your body, what heroic medical interventions you will undergo, and how you’ll finance it?”
“Um, sure, I guess.”
“Can you sign this legalistic looking form with your real name even though I just promised you that I will never use it?”
People love it when you offer them anonymity and then ask for a signature. Really makes them want to open up to you. But as annoying as this sort of bureaucratic bookkeeping is, and as frustrating as it is to realize that it’s probably more about making sure the university isn’t sued than protecting those people who are kind enough to speak with field researchers, it is even more upsetting that biomedical and psychiatric paradigms are forced onto those of us who come from fields, like sociology, that are fundamentally at odds with such paradigms.
As a sociologist, the last thing I want to do is decide who is mentally ill and who is mentally healthy. The sociological questions are far more likely to be “How do cultures determine who is and is not mentally ill?” and “What forms of power lie behind those determinations?”
The result of all this IRB intervention in fieldwork has been twofold. One, to convince a lot of us who talk with people for a living to give it up and study other things, like TV shows or graphic novels. Two, to force many of us to go “underground,” to act as if we’re complying with our IRBs and then do what we want in the field.
Just when most of us had given up on the future of fieldwork, the US Department of Health and Human Services is reconsidering how to make research safer. And they’re actually allowing researchers to weigh in. Which is a huge improvement over letting the fields that actually experiment on human beings tell those of us who just collect stories what is and is not ethical. Next we might even let the human subjects themselves weigh in. And that would be a conversation. Which is, in fact, what field researchers have been having with their subjects for well over a century now.