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Anthropological Quarterly 76.2 (2003) 287-297

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Human Subjects Protection and Cultural Anthropology

Stuart Plattner
National Science Foundation1

Institutions in the United States who receive federal funding to engage in research involving human beings must follow the appropriate regulations, known as "The Common Rule". 2 Here is a little quiz on this rule:

a) Professor A is beginning a new project, interviewing Latin American domestic workers in Boston on their transnational ties to their homelands. "I don't have to present my research to my university's human subjects Institutional Review Board (IRB) since it is ethnographic, not biomedical, and exempt from the regulations." Is the professor right?

b) Graduate student B is about to leave for Africa to conduct her dissertation research on tourist art sold in airports. "I don't require IRB approval since my research is part of my education." Is the student correct?

c) Professor C and his students are frustrated. They are eager to begin their classroom project of ethnographically interviewing exotic dancers at the local nightclub, who are also students, on gender roles and sexuality. The results of the project will be term papers used for the students' grades. But the IRB chair has

[End Page 287] advised them against presenting the project for approval. The chair said the IRB would be concerned that the research could embarrass the dancers and would not be likely to approve it. Was the chair acting in accord with the regulations?

d) Professor D is really upset. She is in the third year of her National Science Foundation-supported sociolinguistic research on Japanese children's use of verb tenses for everyday activities, asking questions like "How would you say 'the pencil fell from the desk'". Dr. Parola has just changed universities and her new institution is insisting that she have a Japanese IRB review her research, and that she get signed informed consent from the parents of the children in accordance with Subpart D of the regulations. Neither her old institution nor the funding agency required these things. The consent form suggested by the IRB is full of vague alarms more suitable for biomedical problems, and she is concerned that the form itself will frighten away potential respondents. What should the researcher do?

If you answered "wrong" for A and B, you are correct. While much ethnographic research, like much of social and behavioral research in general can be exempt from the regulations, an independent institutional authority like the IRB must make that determination. The researcher has a clear conflict of interest in excusing himself or herself from IRB oversight. While classroom exercises are normally exempt from federal oversight, the research involved in a dissertation should be reviewed by the institution to make sure it follows official regulations.

Example C is about a course requirement and not about human research intended to advance knowledge through publication. While coursework is not covered by the regulations, many institutions extend their implementation to cover a wider range of research activities than the policy calls for. This review should be reasonable and should follow the principle that oversight of research should be commensurate with real risks of harm to human research participants ("subjects"). People who perform in public, like the respondents in C, expect to be observed. The IRB should make sure that the normal confidentiality of respondents is respected without preventing the research from progressing. In this case the IRB chair was improperly interpreting the regulations by being excessively strict. However, readers should note that their IRB is not bound to follow alternative interpretations, since universities are free to adopt policies over and above the Common Rule. What should you do when you disagree with your IRB's interpretation? This will be discussed below. [End Page 288]

How about poor Professor D? This case is more complex, and requires a bit more information to comprehend. Two issues are raised, that of parental consent for research with children, and the requirement for foreign IRB review. The federal government's overall human subjects regulations, the "Common Rule," only refers to "Subpart A" of a total of...


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