You all remember Ronsencrantz and Guildenstern from Hamlet. “Peripheral to the main action, they stumbled onstage and off, neglected or despised by the main charactes and destined for a bad end” So they are described by Zachary Schrag in his recent book, Ethical Imperialism: Institutional Review Boards and the Social Sciences, 1965-2009, in which he likens their plight to that of the social sciences in the development of current human subjects review processes. In this volume Schrag traces the history of the IRB and the ways in which the social sciences have been increasingly brought under the control of these bodies without having had significant involvement in the process of creating them.
As Schrag points out, the IRB system was designed to address issues facing medical and behavioral sciences and based on four assumptions:
1. Researchers know more about their subjects’ condition than do the subjects themselves.
2. Researchers begin their work by spelling out detailed protocols explaining what hypotheses they will test and what procedures they will meploy to these those hypotheses.
3. Researchers perform experiments designed to alter subjects’ physical state or behavior, rather than simply gathering information through conversation, correspondence, and observation.
4. Researchers have an ethical duty not to harm their subjects.
But while these assumptions may apply to medical and some forms of psychological research, they don’t do a good job of recognizing and addressing the ethical issues facing researchers in other social science fields, and certainly don’t begin to respond to the ethical implications of action research where we acknowledge that our community partners know more about their experience than we do, where we co-generate meaningful research questions that may change as the process moves forward, and where we create knowledge together through a variety of methods. We do agree about not causing harm, but don't impose this on our partners with the same patronizing attitude that seems to pervade much other human subjects research.
This week is the Association for Practical and Professional Ethics conference (where, by the way, this blog is going to be featured in a discussion of ways to use electronic media to teach ethics!) and Schrag will be visiting Cincinnati and meeting with members of our Action Research Center and other students and faculty colleagues. We’ll continue this discussion of his book together in next week’s post.