Anthropological Quarterly 76.2 (2003) 203-204
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From the Editor
At the 2002 annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association in New Orleans, the editorial board of Anthropological Quarterly agreed to increase our efforts to encourage authors to write about some of the practical issues facing anthropologists, not the least of which is the challenge of seeking human subjects approval from our university institutional review boards (IRBs). Researchers working for institutions that receive Federal funding are required to receive IRB approval and training in the responsible conduct of research from their institutions for research that involves human subjects. Reviews are guided by the mandates issued by the Department of Health and Human Services and its office of Human Research Protection, and the sixteen federal agencies that have established the federal regulation for protecting human subjects known as the "common rule."
As Elisa Gordon, Patricia Marshall, and Stuart Plattner note in this issue's "Social Thought and Commentary" section, there is a trend in the United States towards increasing regulation and monitoring of research practices. However, anthropologists have not been as involved as they could be in the discussions and debates that have led to the regulations, and they are frustrated by the demands placed upon them by IRBs. This is not for lack of interest or commitment to protecting people involved in our research from possible harms; anthropologists will benefit from other disciplinary perspectives on the potential risks of our research. But only recently have anthropologists come to the forefront in debates about the ethics of cross-cultural research, arguing for confidentiality, consent, and assurances from researchers working in international settings that they are protecting their subjects to the same degree that they would protect subjects in their home country. [End Page 203]
The problem is that anthropologists have yet to become an integral part of the IRB machinery. First, serving on an IRB demands a regulatory and bureaucratic perspective that many anthropologists find uncomfortable, or at least unfamiliar. Second, many of the people anthropologists work with do not understand the concepts of risk or consent, not because they are uninformed, but because such concepts are culturally embedded and better suited to the discourses of biomedicine. Some anthropological research subjects are not literate, others are afraid of signing forms for a variety of reasons, and others find the communication about risk in research projects so unsettling that they are unwilling to participate. IRB demands can thus seem impractical in many anthropological research settings.
Anthropologists need to be more active in communicating with their Institutional Review Boards about the complexities of anthropological research so that we can work collaboratively and find a balance between the extraordinary freedoms with which anthropologists used to work and excessive constraints on anthropological practice. There are several pathways towards achieving this balance. First, we can encourage anthropologists to conduct ethnographies of human subjects reviews, studies that look critically at the question of whether concepts like "risk" or "consent" have transcultural validity. Second, we can make sure that anthropologists become a part of the debates about regulation and monitoring of research, either by communicating with those scientists who administer institutional review boards, or by serving on those boards ourselves. Anthropologists can play an important role informing other scientists about how to think about ethical issues in the conduct of ethnographic and qualitative research. Third, we can write and publish articles that focus on the complexities of anthropological ethics, and teach about ethics to our students. The essays published here are a start.
Roy Richard Grinker