Sample ethics approvals for student research in anthropology

March 27, 2012

Culture Matters blogger Lisa Wynn has posted links to some approvals for ethics clearance at Macquarie University (in New South Wales, Australia). The projects are for a variety of anthropology class projects.

Fieldwork Classes and the IRB

January 13, 2011

I am teaching a traditional field methods class this semester. We are working with a speaker of a Tibeto-Burman language. The class has both undergraduate and graduate students in it. Late last semester I called Yale’s IRB regarding the question of whether the class required IRB clearance, and if so, which forms I should use (at my university we have separate forms for student research and class projects). I am reproducing my IRB’s response and their rationale here.

The class was determined to be not subject to IRB review. That is, it did not come under the definition of “research involving human subjects” from the regulatory perspective. (Remember that this is distinct from “exempt”, which is a category of review.)

There were two reasons for the determination, as I understand it. The first was that it is a class activity, and most class activities are considered not to come under these rules. The relevant passage in the regulations is here:

§46.101 To what does this policy apply?

(b) Unless otherwise required by department or agency heads, research activities in which the only involvement of human subjects will be in one or more of the following categories are exempt from this policy:

(1) Research conducted in established or commonly accepted educational settings, involving normal educational practices, such as (i) research on regular and special education instructional strategies, or (ii) research on the effectiveness of or the comparison among instructional techniques, curricula, or classroom management methods.

In this case, even though publications are likely to come out of the project, this clause was deemed to cover field methods classes.

The second reason was that the class is studying the structures of language, not human behavior. That is, we will be doing research about the properties of the language, and not the speaker. The crucial point here is the definition of a human subject:

(f) Human subject means a living individual about whom an investigator (whether professional or student) conducting research obtains …

Since we are not gathering information about our consultant, but about her language, the regulations don’t apply.

Note: I present this material here as a case study. I am not saying that on the basis of this determination, no field methods classes need to be approved by IRBs. Instructors for field methods classes need to check with their own IRBs about how they interpret these regulations. Furthermore, in my class I make sure that the students receive training in consent procedures and other areas of ethical regulation, and our consultant is an employee of the university for this semester (that is, we employ our consultant as an junior instructor in the class) – this may also have an effect on how the regulations are interpreted.

Language Documentation and Conservation

January 14, 2010

The most recently released issue of Language Documentation and Conservation contains an interesting article by Gary Holton on the difficulties of applying “universal” ideas of ethical research practices in very different cultures. He compares research in Indonesia and Alaska and discusses some of the factors that lead to different experiences for the researcher, different expectations for the researcher’s behavior, and different views of language and linguistic data. It is a nice example for why ethics is not a ‘one size fits all’ proposition.

I disagree with Holton’s criticism about the definition of ethics as “standards which are appropriate to the community in which one works”. I agree that this is somewhat vague, but his article is a very good illustration of why it is difficult to be specific when writing guidelines which cover many different cultures. We could have an interesting discussion here about the ethics of relativity — Holton’s example where he behaved “inappropriately” in the community by not being seen to make material gains from a project in Indonesia is a nice example of how to reconcile ethics standards across countries and communities. Perhaps readers have suggestions on how one might reconcile the need to appear to make money from a project while still keeping within the guidelines of US federal funding.

Podcast on Ethics

June 16, 2009

Nancy Dorian’s paper at the recent University of Hawaii meeting on language documentation and conservation is now available as a podcast. (Link opens in a new window.) From the site:

In the documentation of endangered languages a researcher’s responsibility to scholarship, to the sources who supplied the material, and to the study community overall may be in conflict. The opposing ethical claims of such responsibilities are discussed in the light of long field experience with a variety of Scottish Gaelic.
The presentation at the conference was made by Pamela Innes reading Nancy Dorian’s paper.

Research Monitoring

May 26, 2009

Someone recently sent me a link to the Australian Indigenous Law Reporter‘s 2003 Guidelines for Indigenous Research. These are not IRB guidelines; they have no legislative power (as far as I know), they apply to research done through the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (note that research project here has no technical definition).

The first paragraph is striking:

It is ethical practice in any research on Indigenous issues to include consultation with people who may be directly affected by the research or research outcomes whether or not the research involves fieldwork.

This would seem to imply that if I go to my local library and use published materials to write a paper on some aspect of Indigenous languages, I would need to obtain the permission of those groups (who? the person who talked to the original researcher and their family? the community council? the Land Council?) in order to publish it.

Section 7 contains the following guideline:

Research on Indigenous issues should also incorporate Indigenous perspectives and this is often most effectively achieved by facilitating more direct involvement in the research.

Does this imply that research which may be contradictory to “Indigenous perspectives” is inethical? For example, is research in Australian prehistory inethical, since a hypothesis of mid-Holocene expansion of Indigenous groups in Australia is in contradiction to traditional belief systems which either place people on the land since the beginning of time or have languages placed there by culture heroes? How does one sensitively and appropriately incorporate perspectives which are based on an incompatible set of assumptions? (At some level this guideline seems to me to be not all that different from requiring research on evolution to incorporate perspectives on creationism.)

Finally, these guidelines appear internally contradictory by simultaneously requiring recognition of individual differences while (in several different sections) demanding public acknowledgement of participants. They demand consensus, negotiation and inclusion of indigenous participants as researchers while at the same time requiring research participants to defer at all times to an undefined group of people. That also seems to be contradictory.

The intent of the guidelines is clear; the guidelines seem to guard against the type of exploitative, generalistic and unethical research which indigenous people (particularly in Australia) are justifiably angry about and eager to prevent. Does a set of guidelines like this achieve that?

Case study/Discussion: anonymity

May 1, 2009

Imagine the following situation:

A linguist is doing fieldwork in a small village. Some of the linguist’s consultants would like to be identified and acknowledged by name in publications relating to the work. However, publishing these names in connection with the language name will allow the identification of previous fieldwork participants who strongly wished to remain anonymous.

  • What are the ethical issues here?
  • How could the linguist proceed?

Case Study: spotting potential ethical issues

March 9, 2009

A graduate student is conducting a study to find out how bilinguial English-Spanish speaking students navigate bi-cultural, bilingual identity in a rural high school setting. The study will take place in small town in Eastern Washington State that has one high school with approximately 400 students. The research methods include:  weekly interviews, and  in-depth classroom observation of four Spanish-English bilingual 14 – 17 year old students over one academic year.  The researcher will also conduct interviews with administration, teachers, parents, and other students about their thoughts on language and local identity.  What are some of ethical issues inherent in the design of this study?  What are some of the ethical issues that might unfold during the conduct of the study?