Bioethics Blogs

Chilling Effects

Leon Neyfakh’s essay on Alice Goffman’s methods illustrates the dangers of researchers’ anticipating, rather than documenting, IRB restrictions on their work.

[Leon Neyfakh, “The Ethics of Ethnography,” Slate, June 18, 2015.]

The first example is Goffman herself. She earlier told the Chronicle of Higher Education, “In keeping with IRB requirements, I kept the field notes and the research materials for three years. After that time had passed, I disposed of them. I did this in an effort to protect the subjects of the study from legal action, public scrutiny, or any other undesirable result of the book’s publication.” [Marc Parry, “Conflict Over Sociologist’s Narrative Puts Spotlight on Ethnography,” Chronicle of Higher Education, June 12, 2015.]

Now, Neyfakh reports that “According to [Rena] Lederman, who sits on the IRB at Princeton, no such demands are placed on researchers at the school.” So it seems that Goffman anticipated or assumed what the IRB required, rather than requesting clear instructions.

The second example is that of University of Chicago sociologist Richard Taub. Neyfakh writes,

Taub is among the ethnographers who would prefer not to anonymize their research to the extent IRBs oblige them to. He wanted to use actual place names in his 2006 book There Goes the Neighborhood, co-written with Harvard’s William Julius Wilson, about four working- and lower-middle-class neighborhoods in Chicago, but decided not to because the authors knew the institutional review board at the University of Chicago wouldn’t allow it.

I am troubled by that phrase: “the authors knew.” How did they know what the IRB would do without submitting a formal proposal that would identify neighborhoods by name?

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.