The IRB and the future of fieldwork – Amen, sister! preach on.

The IRB and the Future of Fieldwork

August 12, 2011, 7:40 pm

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.

Amen, Sister! I also see the need for IRB, but it is simply silly to require IRB approval for non-experimental interviews and observations. One of the things I love most about being in Korea is that I am not required to do so. Do I still provide information on the study, yes. If I’m going to use identifiable information I still get approval from participants; it’s just the right thing to do. However, for much of the research done in education, it is simply ridiculous to require IRB approval.

I’d like to see “exempt” status research expanded on, and it would help if it were no longer “approved” but rather “reviewed”. This would allow researchers to be more nimble and engage situations that arise without concerns of hours of paperwork for doing non-approved research. Let’s face it. Many folks just do it anyway and then fudge the paperwork later.

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