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Ethical Imperialism

Institutional Review Boards and the Social Sciences, 1965–2009

Zachary M. Schrag

Publication Year: 2010

University researchers in the United States seeking to observe, survey, or interview people are required first to complete ethical training courses and to submit their proposals to an institutional review board (IRB). Under current rules, IRBs have the power to deny funding, degrees, or promotion if their recommended modifications to scholars’ proposals are not followed. This volume explains how this system of regulation arose and discusses its chilling effects on research in the social sciences and humanities. Zachary M. Schrag draws on original research and interviews with the key shapers of the institutional review board regime to raise important points about the effect of the IRB process on scholarship. He explores the origins and the application of these regulations and analyzes how the rules—initially crafted to protect the health and privacy of the human subjects of medical experiments—can limit even casual scholarly interactions such as a humanist interviewing a poet about his or her writing. In assessing the issue, Schrag argues that biomedical researchers and bioethicists repeatedly excluded social scientists from rule making and ignored the existing ethical traditions in nonmedical fields. Ultimately, he contends, IRBs not only threaten to polarize medical and social scientists, they also create an atmosphere wherein certain types of academics can impede and even silence others. The first work to document the troubled emergence of today's system of regulating scholarly research, Ethical Imperialism illuminates the problems caused by simple, universal rule making in academic and professional research. This short, smart analysis will engage scholars across academia.

Published by: The Johns Hopkins University Press


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pp. vii

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pp. ix-xii

Do I need official permission to interview people about their lives and work? That was the question facing me in the summer of 2000, when I received a grant from the National Science Foundation to support my research on the history of the Washington Metro. If I involved “human subjects” in my research, the grant required me to get approval from something called an institutional review board, ...

List of Abbreviations

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pp. xiii

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pp. 1-9

On 18 November 2004, Hunter College told Professor Bernadette McCauley to cease all her research; she was under investigation. In a letter sent by certified mail both to McCauley’s home and office, two professors warned her that she had put the entire City University of New York at risk, and that her actions would be reported to the federal government.1 What dreadful crime had McCauley committed?...

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1 Ethics and Committees

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pp. 10-30

Social science is not a single scholarly discipline, but a loosely defined set of approaches to studying human beings’ thoughts, words, and deeds. Though many of today’s social science disciplines can trace their heritage to a shared group of thinkers in the nineteenth century, by the early twentieth century they had split apart, methodologically and institutionally. The disciplines’ shared and diverse ...

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2 The Spread of Institutional Review

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pp. 31-53

As late as the summer of 1966, ethical debates in the social sciences and Public Health Service requirements for prior review of federally funded research seemed to have nothing to do with each other. Over the next decade, however, federal officials applied the requirements ever more broadly, so that by the early 1970s anthropologists, sociologists, and other social scientists began hearing from university...

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3 The National Commission

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pp. 54-77

The National Commission for the Protection of Human Subjects of Biomedical and Behavioral Research met from December 1974 through September 1978. In those four years, harried commissioners and their small staff reported on an impressive array of topics: research on vulnerable populations, specific medical techniques, and general ethical questions. The commission’s claims about the ...

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4 The Belmont Report

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pp. 78-95

The National Commission’s IRB report remains the basis for much policy on human subjects research, but three decades after it completed its work, the commission was best remembered for another report, entitled The Belmont Report: Ethical Principles and Guidelines for the Protection of Human Subjects of Research. The report now has quasi-legal force. Nearly every university IRB in the United ...

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5 The Battle for Social Science

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pp. 96-119

Though the history of IRB review of the social sciences spans more than forty years, two years—1979 and 1980—stand out as the only period in which social scientists played a significant role in shaping federal and university policies toward their research. The skirmishes at Berkeley and Colorado, the angry letters to the National Commission, and the testimony at the 1977 hearings expanded ...

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6 D

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pp. 120-142

In retrospect, Pattullo and Pool’s victory lasted about fifteen years. In that decade and a half, IRBs never quite stopped asserting their jurisdiction over social science and humanities research, but they did not press their cases too hard. Senior scholars in those disciplines, including some who had been active in the debates of the 1970s, stopped worrying about IRBs. Junior scholars—those entering ...

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7 The Second Battle for Social Science

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pp. 143-160

By 1999, IRBs were causing headaches for social scientists nationwide, leading to complaints reminiscent of those of the late 1970s. Some veterans of that struggle reemerged to champion the old cause; anthropologist Murray Wax, now in his late seventies, reiterated complaints he had made twenty years before.1 But the most successful leaders of the earlier effort had left the field of battle. Ithiel de ...

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8 Accommodation or Resistance?

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pp. 161-186

The decisions of the OPRR and the OHRP in the years after 1995 sparked a resurgence of IRB interest and interference in the social sciences and humanities. In response, scholars began probing the IRB problem more intensely than ever before. While few argued that the system worked well in all cases, scholars disagreed over whether the problems constituted minor errors to be corrected or ...

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pp. 187-192

Since 1966, American scholars have faced four different regimes of IRB review. The first, initiated in 1966 by the Public Health Service, applied mainly to medical and psychological researchers with PHS grants. By 1972, however, IRB oversight had begun to spread to social scientists, even those without direct federal funding. The second regime was negotiated between Congress, which passed the ...


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pp. 193-236


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pp. 237-245

E-ISBN-13: 9780801899140
E-ISBN-10: 0801899141
Print-ISBN-13: 9780801894909
Print-ISBN-10: 0801894905

Page Count: 264
Publication Year: 2010