I had an off-blog conversation with Mitch Duneier about some of the IRB issues brought up in reference to Sudhir Venkatesh’s work, Gang Leader for a Day (see the comments to Jeremy’s post). I asked him if I could post his reply on our blog, and he graciously accepted! Part of what motivated me was that at Wisconsin I often heard that Mitch did not believe in IRBs for ethnographers because the method was not generalizable science. Mitch lays this urban legend to rest. Below is Mitch’s response:
Thanks for sending me the link to your blog. Speaking as an old fashioned “pre-rogue” ethnographer, I thought the discussion was interesting. Of course, I would have never meant to say — as someone claims — that ethnographers don’t need to go through IRBs “because ethnography is not scientific.” As you know, I have spent much of my career arguing that ethnography should strive to live up to the highest ideals of social science (and opposing the retrograde divisions between qualitative and quantitative work.) A more accurate quote — which I think was taken up by implication in the remarks that followed on the blog — is that IRBs are granted the right to regulate “research,” which is defined in the federal guidelines as work that is systematic and generalizable. For this reason, oral history and journalism have traditionally been beyond the sphere of regulated scholarly activity in universities that receive federal funding. It seems to me that, depending on the particular goal of an ethnographer on a particular project, some kinds of ethnographic projects are not trying to be generalizable. I used to say that this is indeed what many say about ethnography (its strength is depth; its weakness is generalizability); but this certainly does not mean it is not striving to achieve the highest ideals of social science which would include a range of aspirations–achieving data quality, revising theory, giving due recognition to rival explanations, being clear about procedures, specifying uncertainties. I would also add that the very best ethnographic projects — like the very best works of science — certainly do resolve issues of generalizability, but no sceintific project lives up to every one of the above scientific ideals equally well. To suggest that a particular project is not meant to be generalizable is not to argue that ethnography isn’t scientific. There is obviously a lot more to say on this question…
When I was researching SLIM’s TABLE, it was the mid to late 80s– as someone correctly pointed out. The IRB scene was very different and we certainly had no sense that it applied to us. This does not mean that I didn’t take issues of ethics very seriously. I did. By the time I wrote SIDEWALK, I ended up getting IRB approval at all the universities where I taught including Wisconsin and UCSB. As someone pointed out, this is discussed in detail in my appendix on method, particularly the experience I had reading the forms to subjects and what “informed consent” amounted to in the context of real reseach. What I find missing in the discussion on the blog (and perhaps I just missed it because there is a lot there) is that the IRB should only be a STARTING POINT in our thinking about ethics. These days, far too many people think that when they have satisfied their IRB, they have resolved ethical issues and can just move on.
By the way, Jack Katz (one of the great ethnographers of our time, who has himself studied murderers and other criminals, and a true “rogue” if there ever was one) has put a lot of time into thinking about all these issues. His work on the subject, as well as many issues of ethnographic method, is available on his website http://www.sscnet.ucla.edu/soc/faculty/katz/current.htm.