[URBANTH-L]IRB woes / news from Canada

Radice, Martha Martha_Radice at UCS.INRS.Ca
Mon Apr 2 12:39:00 EDT 2007

Dear all, 

In response to the "IRB woes" discussed on the list lately, I'd like to add an interesting article to the references: Haggerty, Kevin D. 2004. "Ethics Creep: Governing Social Science Research in the Name of Ethics." Qualitative Sociology 27(4):391-414 (plus response articles in the same issue).

In Canada, research ethics are overseen by the Tri Council Policy Statement (the three councils in question being federal research councils). This is an interesting resource in itself, e.g. definitions of minimal risk, observation in natural setting, etc. http://www.pre.ethics.gc.ca/english/policystatement/policystatement.cfm 
Having realised that ethics procedures are usually pretty maladpated to qualitative research, the three councils have recently produced a consultative memo on Qualitative Research in the Context of the Tri Council Policy Statement http://www.pre.ethics.gc.ca/english/workgroups/sshwc/consultation_instructions07.cfm
which begins to address and calls for comments on some of the inadequacies of current REB (Research ethics boards, Canadian name for IRB) procedures. All Canadian colleagues are encouraged to respond with comments. 

I think the key things for anthropologists to address are notions of minimal risk and expectations of privacy (e.g. for justifying observation in public or semi-public spaces) as well as informed consent. As for tools, to obtain consent during my urban fieldwork I have been using a combination of research presentation letter (headed paper, contact details for me, my supervisor, and the IRB chair) with written consent, research presentation letter with oral consent, and a less formal leaflet (photos, user-friendly, contact details for me only) about the research with oral consent, depending on who I'm talking to and what kind of conversation/interview we're having. One of the 'problems' for anthropologists is that participant observation entails very varied kinds of conversations with people, only some of which are likely to be construed by either party as 'proper' research interviews. This is why I'm finding the leaflet useful - I can give it to someone who is curious about what I'm doing, someone who is having a quick chat with me, or someone I'm approaching for a more in-depth interview. It accounts for what I'm doing and gives my contact details without making them feel like they've signed their life away. People seem to really appreciate having the info, whether they'll be talking to me at length or not. Of course, this doesn't solve the problem of identifying the moment at which it is appropriate to "reveal" oneself as a researcher instead of just a typical participant (in my case, it's not obvious from the start, since I'm doing research "at home"), but it does offer more fine-grained levels of information and involvement in the research. (The leaflet tool has also been useful when doing past research in an institutional setting, to give to people who work there but are not the subjects of the research.) 

That said, we need to try to convince ethics boards that what really matters is how one conducts one's research, not whether one has the 'right' bits of paper. From teaching ethics, I have noticed that students all too easily confuse the *process* of obtaining free and informed consent with the form that supposedly proves it! 

Martha Radice
Doctorante, Études urbaines
INRS Urbanisation, culture et société
385 rue Sherbrooke Est, Montréal, QC, H2X 1E3 
Tél. (514) 499 4050
Téléc. (514) 499 4065
Bureau 7102
Page web personnelle http://www.aeucs.org/spip.php?auteur3

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