[Air-L] A valuable addition to the discussion on IRBs

Lois Ann Scheidt lscheidt at indiana.edu
Tue Aug 14 16:40:19 PDT 2007

I know there are lots more subtitles involved in Mary's research than 
this article outlines...and part of her work is online.

This excerpt is taken from today's Inside Higher Education,
summarizing some papers given at the Am Sociological Assoc meetings
this week:

* * *
Mary L. Gray, an anthropologist at Indiana University at Bloomington,
described her work in graduate school, which raised all kinds of red
flags with her IRB at the time: She wanted to study the way gay,
lesbian, bisexual and transgender youth develop their identities in
the rural Southeast, and she wanted to base her research on
interviews with such youth, under the age of 18, without their
parents' knowledge. Her project, she said, "had every imaginable red

With some regrets, she won IRB support by appealing to prejudice many
have of the rural South. Although she had no evidence to make this
claim, she argued that the situation in the rural South is "so awful"
for the young people she was studying that she couldn't possibly
approach their parents for consent. (Actually Gray believes that the
situation for gay youth is more subtle and less uniform than she
suggested, but she guessed it would work with the IRB, and it did.)

Because the IRB was - like most IRB's - oriented around medical
research, not social science, the focus was on potential harm that
Gray could cause her research subjects in person. Gray reported that
she received relatively little questioning or guidance from her IRB
on one of her major areas of research: what the young people she
studied wrote about themselves online. Gray developed her own ethics
rules (she wrote to the subjects to ask permission), but she was
struck by what was and wasn't considered important by the IRB.

To the IRB, "distance read as objectivity" and so was by definition
"good," she said. Never mind that what her subjects shared about
themselves online was as important as the thoughts they shared in
person. This points to Gray's broader critique of the IRB process.
Social scientists frequently complain about IRB's failing to
understand their studies, but Gray suggested it was time to move
beyond the idea of just adding more social scientists to the panel.
Rather, she said it was time to question certain underlying
assumptions of IRB's and whether they even make sense for social
science. It's not that Gray doesn't think there are ethical issues
researchers must consider, but whether the medical model can ever
work for projects that don't follow the pattern of having a
hypothesis designed to lead to the dispassionate creation of
generalizable knowledge.

Gray said that "IRB fatigue" is discouraging researchers - especially
graduate students - from even trying to get projects approved. * * *


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