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  • Ethnographers' Experiences of Institutional Ethics Oversight:Results from a Quantitative and Qualitative Survey
  • L. L. Wynn (bio)

In 1977, an officer of the American Anthropological Association testified that "the operations of IRBs are inappropriate for ethnographic research, and ... the application of the medical model tends to stultify and discourage ethnographic research, to invade scientific freedom, and to increase federal control over universities, at no savings in damage to people."1

By 2004, the AAA had reversed that stance, stating that "the American Anthropological Association ... advocates that all ethnographic researchers should cultivate a strong foundation for the ethical conduct of research with human populations. This means that the risks of harm must be considered in relation to the potential benefits of ethnographic research. This process should actively involve the researcher and the IRB, the researcher and participants, and finally the IRB, the researcher and stakeholders."2

These two statements encapsulate not only a range of opinions about institutional ethics oversight that exist among ethnographers but also, as the dates suggest, a historical shift in attitudes toward ethics oversight among [End Page 94] ethnographers, and the successful expansion of a regime of institutional oversight. A variety of commentators have called this "IRB mission creep" or "ethics creep": the process by which, over two or three decades, bureaucratic regulations over what is called "human subjects research" in U.S. universities have expanded to encompass not only clinical studies but also ethnographic research, and not only federally funded but also privately funded or unfunded research.3 As Bledsoe et al. report, even some U.S. high schools are requiring student research projects to go through IRB procedures. Other parts of the world have seen a similar expansion of the domain of their ethics review bureaucracies.4 These go by different names in different countries, from IRBs in the United States to Research Ethics Boards (REBs) in Canada, Research Ethics Committees (RECs) in the United Kingdom, Human Research Ethics Committees (HRECs) in Australia, and Ethics Committees in New Zealand. (While much of the literature uses IRB as the default acronym, in this article I will attempt to avoid American provincialism and generically refer to such bureaucracies as "ethics committees" or "institutional ethics review.")

I am one of those researchers who have lived through the two eras. When I first went to Egypt to conduct my dissertation research, I did not seek ethics approval from my university's Institutional Review Board. Ph.D. students discussed research ethics at length in our seminars, we presented our research proposals in a departmental forum and received feedback that could include concerns about research ethics, and we also studied the National Institutes of Health (NIH)'s online ethics training module (, but as far as I know, it was not established practice for Ph.D. students in Princeton's Department of Anthropology in the mid-1990s to go up before a university committee for ethics review before we left for the field. However, by the time I came back from the field, graduate students in that same department were getting university-level ethics committee approval before starting research.

For a long time, I felt furtive; I worried that I had somehow failed to do something that I was supposed to do, and wondered whether I would ever be accused of unethical research practice. This was in spite of the fact that I considered my own research to have been conducted in an ethical manner, and I considered ethical issues at length in my dissertation. As Canadian sociologist Kevin Haggerty points out, "ethics" is a kind of magically efficacious word. He compares it with "motherhood" in the way that it is unassailable as a concept of principled good.5 No wonder, then, that as a newly-minted Ph.D. I was anxious about the lack of official approval for my research that would mark it as "ethical."

I lacked the perspective to appreciate that I was living through a changing era. It was only when I started doing research on research ethics and the history [End Page 95] of institutional ethics oversight that I started to understand my own experience from within that historical trajectory of the...


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