3 Public Anthropology Award Winners
the University of South Florida
Prof. Kelley Curtis'
ANT 3005 (Anthropological Perspectives) Class
Catherine Dublin, Caden King, and Matthew Mercandetti
Read Their Op-Eds, Please Use Your Search Function)
on the information presented in the five case studies, you
are to voice your view on how Institutional Review Boards (in the
U.S.) and/or Review Ethics Boards (in Canada) should enforce a
set of common rules regarding research. How much freedom should
researchers be allowed in conducting their research? What regulations
should be enforced to prevent the abuse of research subjects and
ensure, more generally, that the research strives to promote positive
benefits for the larger society sponsoring it?
Respecting Human Rights Through Regulation
by Catherine Dublin
Before research regulation, vulnerable populations were experimented on without their consent. The public anthropology website sites several instances in which subjects were harmed due to lack of regulation. For example, the Tuskegee syphilis experiment in which poor black men were denied treatment in effort to collect data and again in the case of a malnourished Aboriginal population that had their diets manipulated by researchers without their consent. In my opinion and based on these cases, lack of research regulation presents the risk of human rights violations and puts the most vulnerable in our society in harm's way.
Although our justice system has its flaws, laws and regulations at their core are put into place to maintain a civilized society. If there aren't any regulations concerning experimentation, what is preventing researchers from causing harm to others in the name of research? A civilized society respects the human rights of its citizens. Experimenting on people without their consent and putting their lives at risk without their knowledge is a violation of their human rights.
The argument against regulations are that researchers feel that they cause roadblocks and prevent them from gathering proper data. That is a valid point, but the regulations are not put in place to prevent them from researching they are simply intended to protect vulnerable test subjects. Just as a speed limit is not preventing you from driving it is there for those that may abuse privileges and endanger others. The regulations are reasonable simply stating that risks to subjects be minimized, risks to subjects are reasonable in relation to anticipated benefits, selection of subjects is equitable, informed consent must be sought and documented, and data must be collected in a way that honors the subjects safety and privacy. These regulations are clearly to ensure that human rights are respected and vulnerable people are not harmed or used as guinea pigs for research without their consent.
In case three, the sociologist argued that he shouldn't have to have his test subjects sign consent forms and he believed it would deter them from agreeing to the experiment. If it were me, I would feel more comfortable signing a legal document that stated my name and information would be kept anonymous as opposed to taking your word for it. Now this researcher most likely did not have intent to harm his test subjects but that does not mean there are not researchers out there that would willingly put the lives of test subjects in danger in the name of research. Test subjects should know they are being experimented on and agree to the risks. By adhering to regulations, you are protecting the human rights of the most vulnerable in our society. Having a little extra paper work should not be a valid argument for putting innocent lives in danger.
A Long Line of Red Tape
The issue of government regulation is quite impactful, dictating the proceedings of the world of anthropology. The dichotomy that exists between allowing researchers to exercise their full capabilities and the regulation to preserve subjects of study is a difficult line that is often straddled and never crossed too far on either side. There is a spectrum of issues and situations that must be tackled by anthropological governing bodies, making the issue very difficult to apply to any given scenario. However, it is important that researches be given their due diligence when completing any research. There must be regulations in place like the IRBs or government-founded Common Rule, however these should exist to verify the safety and well-being of subjects rather than preemptively barring researchers from conducting any anthropological work. Much as the varied culture and history of those around the world is studied by the field of anthropology, so should the rules be unique to each scenario that a researcher wishes to undertake. These rules and regulations should work in tandem with each body of research to assist in coming to a fair and safe conclusion, but not prevent anthropologists from putting forth the ideas for a study.
Laurie Essig brings up an excellent point in the third case study. The human interaction aspect of anthropology, or the use of any primary living source, can be hampered by the application of bureaucratic regulations. One of a researcher's greatest tools is the informal interview that often happens when new or reclusive cultures are researched. It also applies to those who wish to remain anonymous, which is what Essig refers to in this case. The informal or anonymous interview often paves the way to a greater understanding of cultures and individuals, as the lack of a formative structure allows for more natural conversation and dialogue to arise, which can then be built upon later for a more formal approach. The interviewees are not constrained by documentation or the fear of becoming known, but are simply being spoken to in a friendly manner. It is difficult for a governing body to stretch this to violating any sorts of human rights laws or anthropological principles, nor should they.
There are also two cases that similarly point to the procedural problems of the IRBs. Mitch Smith interviewed Laura Stark, who testified about a few key points that happen during any given IRB's deliberation process on conducting new research. She said that often times, clerical or spelling errors contributed to a lack of trust in the researcher, and they were not judged objectively based upon the content of their research. This is also exemplified by the inconsistencies between different IRBs, as some of them judged a project differently than others despite no variation in the research done. Essentially the IRBs judge subjectively who they want to be conducting the research, not why, and this is not equitable for anthropologists. The New York Times also reported on the procedural interworking of IRBs, and judged that the goal of many of these boards is not to do their appointed job in protecting human and cultural rights from being infringed upon, but rather to create an aura of governance in the name of things like efficiency or convenience. Both of these reports yield some information that can be rightfully labeled as inappropriate for any anthropological governing body.
In summation, the ideal scenario is a governed field of anthropologists who have free range to express their ideas for experimentation, but must first have them approved by a governing body. The regulating bodies should simply be providing oversight but not actually dictating the process of experimentation, so long as no basic human rights or cultural boundaries are being violated. Too much regulation will disturb the desire to study new cultures, and potentially prevent relevant information from being discovered by those who could use it to benefit and enrich the world as a whole.
Institutional Review Boards:
Do Not Feed the Bureaucratic Beast
by Matthew Mercandetti
The question of ethics is one that permeates our society. The pursuit of scientific research is no exception. In the current era, there is a lot of scrutiny placed on the method and means by which research data is collected. On its face, the rise of Institutional Review Boards in the United States and Ethics Boards in Canada seems a logical progression in our quest to protect the individual from abuse or mistreatment while being studied. Such a goal is perfectly in line with our modern sensibilities and these Institutional Review Boards are founded with the best of intentions. However, there is a quandary that arises as we consider these regulatory bodies. A slippery slope where these review boards lose sight of their mission and do little more than impede potentially vital research. They become meddling bureaucracies that are more interested in propagating themselves than furthering the fields of scientific research. Ineffectual bureaucracy can be a plague upon progress but there is a cure. A cure in the form of a standardized set of criteria. A ruling body of consensus that enforces that each review board is focused on overall goal and not getting bogged down.
Here is a pitfall of a system as it exists today. They get mired in the minutiae instead of the focusing on the major concepts. In the realm of scientific study, is not consistency and the ability to replicate the results an important facet? These concepts should be inherent in the ethical assessment systems that govern such study. Consider the example put forth in Case Four. A potentially valid research project is impeded because of the misuse of the word principal in the presentation. That is a clear loss of focus on the part of the board member. What is the researcher trying to achieve? How are they planning to execute their fieldwork? What effect will it have on the research subjects? All are valid questions and these should be this Board's primary concern. Case Four highlights another issue in the form of each review board uses its own set of criteria to assess new research. The concept that a researcher will receive different answers for each IRB he or she approaches is a direct reflection of the system needing an overhaul. Situations like these beg the introduction of ruling body that can ensure these review boards are focused on the prime directives and asking the right questions.
A consensus to standardize these review boards creates continuity across the table. Consider in Case Five when it covers a rules revision by the Office for Human Research Protections. In this case study it states, 'The problem is that the Office for Human Research Protections, in its revised rules, did not specify exactly who gets to determine what is and is not a benign behavioral intervention". Here is a organization that bears the hallmark of a bureaucracy. It enacts procedure but there is no specific person marked to set the standard. It creates ambiguity and leaves a researcher struggling to find out who is making the rules. These are the systems currently in place that are constraining the ability to get a viable project off the ground. Enter an oversight authority that sets clear guidelines. It ensures that all research is being given a fair assessment and is not being subject to individual bias or rampant ambiguity. Imagine a potentially ground-breaking study that is composed and enacted ethically. Would you deem it viable to stop this research because a word was misspelled on the application? We cannot shackle the intellectual in the chains of the bureaucratic. It us up to academia along with students, researchers and intellectuals to press so a standardization of the review system
In short, there must be a middle ground where research flows and intellectualism thrives while maintaining ethics and protecting those that are studied. If we let these Institutional Research Boards have full sway, without consolidated guidelines to oversee their judgment process, we risk the bureaucratic beast rearing its ugly head. Systems, such as those, that serve only to ensure their own future have no place in the realms of scientific study. They stifle progress and indenture the ethical researcher to never ending bureaucracy. Students and researchers alike need to organize and call for a system where the great and good come together to determine the guidelines and practices of review boards. We must cut through the "red tape" that hampers the advancement of research to reach the core of why these regulatory bodies exist.