Social Science and the IRB
Information from the National Science Foundation
Interpreting the Common Rule for the Protection of Human Subjects for Behavioral and Social Science Research: questions and responses.
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Ethnography From the NSF
Is written documentation of informed consent required in ethnographic research?
Ethnographic research interviews are not necessarily formal interviews with a questionnaire. They often are simple conversations on the respondent's home ground (as opposed to the researcher's laboratory). Competent adult individuals have the option of participating and responding to questions or the respondent has the choice of not allowing the researcher access to his or her person, ignoring requests for information, giving misleading replies, or responding to requests in other ways that preserve the respondent's dignity and independence. Informed consent is usually implied by the respondent's willingness to talk to the researcher.
In most ethnographic projects a request for a written, formal consent would seem suspicious, inappropriate, rude and perhaps even threatening. In other words, written consent can potentially harm the research interaction and generate rather than ameliorate concern in respondents. In many parts of the world, for many people with a history of exploitation and unfair dealings with authorities and government, a request to sign a form is fraught with danger. Respondents may not be fully literate, may not have familiarity or experience with social science research, and may have learned to expect the worst from strangers through experience or popular belief.
The roles of women and minors are not necessarily the same in other societies as in the US. In many cultures women and children are forbidden from making any agreement without their husband's or father's permission, which may not be appropriate in all situations. Written informed consent in such cases would be impossible to obtain, or if obtained would generate concern in respondents.
Researchers should be sensitive to such cultural differences within the US as well as in cultures outside the US. A vital aspect of protecting and respecting human subjects is to "do your homework" of learning about the cultural norms of those you wish to study. Expertise regarding the locale is essential and may be provided by the investigator or a consultant. In these circumstances the Common Rule authorizes a waiver of written documentation. §117(c)(1) discusses situations where the only record linking the subject and the research would be the consent document, and the principal risk would be potential harm resulting from a breach of confidentiality. § 117(c)(2) deals with waiving written documentation of informed consent in situations where "the research presents no more than minimal risk of harm to subjects and involves no procedures for which written consent is normally required outside of the research context." This covers a large portion of ethnographic research on non-sensitive topics.
see Informed Consent and Waiver of Consent.
As with any project, the IRB administrator should assess the research to determine if there is any risk of harm to participants (beyond that which might be experienced in daily life), to determine whether the research is exempt or qualifies for expedited or full review.
What is "group consent" and how is it relevant to informed consent?The concept of informed consent derives moral force as a mark of respect for persons. The request for informed consent envisions each human being as autonomous and capable of making informed judgments about appropriate personal activities.
Many traditional societies rely on an elder or group of leaders to express decisions with respect to the group. An individual community member who acted independently, without the knowledge and consent of the group, might be seen as suspicious, perhaps acting counter to the best interests of everyone. The appropriate way for a foreigner to get permission to do research in a setting like this would be to present the project in an open meeting, allowing questions to be raised and answered publicly. After formal group approval, any individual member of society would be free to cooperate or not with the research project.
In all societies, when research is planned in sharply defined communities, consultation with community representatives may be necessary in order to avoid negative gossip and refusals to participate. Such community consultation and public relations is part of a good research design and not a substitute for individual informed consent.