My name is danah boyd and I'm a Principal Researcher at Microsoft Research and the founder/president of Data & Society. Buzzwords in my world include: privacy, context, youth culture, social media, big data. I use this blog to express random thoughts about whatever I'm thinking.

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more reasons to love Jean Lave

Sometimes, people tell you what you need to hear at the exact right moment, even when they themselves do not realize it. As i mentioned before, i’m taking this amazing course this semester. What i’m beginning to realize is that it is not the brilliant readings that are of value to me so much as the ways in which it is helping me frame academia and research. As i am starting to admit that i won’t be in graduate school forever and taking steps towards dissertation, all of my neuroses about the academic process are coming out full force. (Of course, this is not helped by the layers of bureaucracy and hoops that are required to move towards graduation.)

Last fall, i submitted my IRB (“human subjects”) forms for approval. The stack was a small tree. On Tuesday, shortly before class, i received “conditional” approval for my work and was told that i would know what i needed to change within a month. How i love the slowness. These IRB forms have been weighing on me. In order to step through that hoop, i had to list every question i would ask my subjects in a sort of formalized script, exactly how i would recruit my subjects (including the exact wording), the hypothesis of my research that i am testing, etc. These forms fundamentally conflicted with how i believe good ethnographic research works. Sure, i could do an interview study from this but my whole project is about hanging out amongst youth, both online and off. Of course, interviewing will be a part of it, but there’s so much more. But to say exactly what that will be has felt so unreasonable that it took me six months to file the damn forms because i had a complete panic attack every time i looked at them. I finally sucked it up and tried to articulate everything i could. Yet, i still felt as though i had failed. I failed to account for the times when i sat on the 22 overhearing teenagers’ commentary following school. I didn’t account for the invitations that i receive to sit in on people’s classrooms, special programs to keep teens off the streets. I didn’t account for the times when teens saw my MySpace shirt and came up to me to tell me their story. Eeek!

And then, in discussing Beamtimes and Lifetimes, we started talking about the process of doing ethnography and the dangerous assumption that ethnography is the same thing as an interview study. Having been involved in a backchannel about how Traweek’s project could’ve possibly gotten through IRB, i piped up and said that i thought that people conflated the two because of the amount of formalism required to get through IRB. Jean’s response was priceless. In essence she said that you have to submit the forms to the best of your ability but “you don’t have to do what they say.” IRBs are there to protect the university, to make you think about ethics, but they don’t know how to handle ethnography and the most important thing is to create a list of your ethics and to stick to them, to really be accountable to yourself – “everybody ought to write their own ethics statement and follow it.” I told her about the formalism of the forms and she laughed and said “gracious me, throw that stuff out the moment you’re done.” She reminded us that ethnography can’t be done that way, that we will all fail ourselves. “Be careful, if you say you’re going to do this tight-assed medical model stuff, you might end up doing it.”

At one point, one of the students spoke up: “remember, you’re being recorded.” She laughed, smiled and said, “that’s okay, send it to the committee.”

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12 comments to more reasons to love Jean Lave

  • Well, now I feel guilty that my IRB stuff was waived (although I don’t even know if I’ll interview anyone). The online training at my university was certainly pointedly aimed at the medical, which just drove me crazy even though I am all for getting people to treat research subjects ethically.

  • IRBs are there to try and make sure you don’t hurt the people you study, NOT to protect the university. If they allow a study that hurts people, nothing is going to protect the university or them for that matter. Yes I know it is frustrating and difficult to describe what you are going to do in the case of ethnography (and many other social science approaches), every social scientist I know bitches about it. Yet I think that being dismissive of the IRB, treating it as that nasty hurdle one has to jump, is simply evidence of not understanding its purpose and ignoring its history. We have plenty of examples of intensely mentally abusive social science studies (Zimbardo anyone?).

    One solution to not do IRB is to work for industry research. It’s always an option.

  • Irina – first off, i do work for industry and that’s where a lot of my research is housed these days.

    But i adamently disagree with you abou the IRB not being about protecting the university. I’m not sure about CMU but at Berkeley, it is pretty explicitly about protecting the university. We have to take CITI courses (and a bazillion other moral upkeep courses) which have been sold to the university as a way to protect them against lawsuits. The original intent of IRB is definitely about protecting the subjects, but at many schools, ESPECIALLY state schools, that has been taken to a new extreme and their concern is more about getting lawsuits than anything else. Sadly.

    There are other ways of doing ethics work, especially in ethnography… but they don’t protect the university. That’s why they try to shove ethno projects into the psych framework.

  • ‘”you don’t have to do what they say.” IRBs are there to protect the university, to make you think about ethics, but they don’t know how to handle ethnography and the most important thing is to create a list of your ethics and to stick to them, to really be accountable to yourself – “everybody ought to write their own ethics statement and follow it.” I told her about the formalism of the forms and she laughed and said “gracious me, throw that stuff out the moment you’re done.” ‘

    WTF!

    I hope Lave wasn’t on deep background, or “involved in a backchannel” when this:

    http://www.npr.org/programs/morning/features/2002/jul/tuskegee/

    or more recently this:

    http://www.jhu.edu/~jhumag/0298web/health.html

    (which happened while I was a student at this place); or

    when this happened:

    http://www.ewg.org/reports/perchlorate/behrens.html

    The idea that ” IRBs are there to protect the university” is absolute foolishness and
    a vulgar expression of some of the heights of academic arrogance that aid, abet and excuse, both practically and ideologically the above madness, not to mention other crimes against humanity that (mis)utilize human subjects, especially non-white, poor and marginalized ones.

    Indeed Lave’s claims should been turned over to the UC Academic Senate:

    http://www.universityofcalifornia.edu/senate/welcome.html

  • Because I try not to be entirely cynical, I choose to believe that one of the purposes of the IRB is to protect research subjects. But having filled out the forms for ethnographic work and working closely with someone from the IRB to get it filled out, I have to say that the process is better suited for medical and psych studies. They generally don’t know much about ethnographic methods, so you kinda have to explain that at every turn. I absolutely believe that a big part of the process is to protect the university from legal action. The last pass I took on mine just involved changing the phrasing on a few things and it had nothing to do with protecting the subjects… it had everything to do with how the forms would look to a lawyer.

    That said, I don’t think it’s just an evil hoop you have to jump through… I pretty much agree with Jean Lave on this one. The process is useful to you. The forms are useful to the university. All things considered, I would rather help protect my school from legal action anyways.

    And I’m sorry yours are taking so long, dear.

  • At my university up here in the great white north, it is no secret that the ethics review is primarily to protect the university, rather than deal with some of the issues related to real critically-informed ethics. (As one of the originators of the ethics review process at this university told us in the research course she teaches, if they were really concerned about ethics, almost all of the medical research at this institution would be shut down.)

    However, having an ethics review is better than not. In Canada, there is now a process underway to review the protocols that will (eventually) be able to accommodate alternate, and primarily qualitative, methods that were not contemplated in the original “scientific method” conceptions: ethnography and critical ethnography, institutional ethnography, action research, critical biography and life history, and even grounded theory (Glaser-style). The university is even starting to learn about accommodating aboriginal-informed research, which precludes a signed, informed consent document.

    I had a somewhat easier time relative to the interviews, since my method as I constructed it could not be based on pre-determined questions; hence, no questionnaire to submit!

  • Yes I agree that the IRB process is bias for the med-brain-shrink crowd. But that is not the reason to toss the baby with the dirty water.

    Indeed I think many folks could use an **institutional** ethics overdose, as opposed to the more Lave-ian personal “how-to-b-good” ethics writing game. I would be curious to hear from her how she sees (if at all) a difference between the two?

    We need to ask ourselves what does the nature of the capital-logophallocentric-disposition called U.S.A., Inc. have to do with the call (and even the presumed need) for a “personal” ethics plans.

    & The curious might web-in (tune-in?) here and raise some questions about IRB his-stories…:

    Philosophers, Grave Robbers, and Anatomies: Medicine at Dartmouth–Library Grand Rounds

    Tuesday, February 14
    12:00 – 1:00 P.M.
    DHMC Auditorium E [and simulcast on the web–see below]

    Take a unique look at the History of Medicine at Dartmouth, using materials from Dartmouth’s Rauner Special Collections Library. We’ll start with key medical texts from the 15th and 16th centuries, and then delve into the sometimes sublime history of the Medical School and Hospital. We will explore how the Library’s collections can promote a deeper understanding of the philosophy and practice of Medicine at Dartmouth. There will be an opportunity for a hands-on look at rare and unique texts brought in from Special Collections.

    This Library Grand Rounds will feature Jay Satterfield, Special Collections Librarian, Dartmouth College Library; and Pamela Bagley, Information and Education Services Librarian, Dartmouth Biomedical Libraries.

    Please join us! No registration is necessary.

    If you are unable to attend this Grand Rounds, you can view the presentation live on the web. You’ll be able to ask the presenter a question via email–and earn Category I CME credit. [Please note: RealPlayer software is required for the web simulcast; a download link is provided on the page.]
    — Go to http://www.dhvideo.org
    — Click on “Conferences on the Web”
    — Select “Library Grand Rounds for February 14, 2006”

    Library Grand Rounds are a forum for presenting information resources and tools of interest to Dartmouth clinicians. Please contact biomedical.libraries.education@dartmouth.edu if you have questions, comments, or suggestions for future Library Grand Rounds.

    HAPPY VALENTINES DAY!

  • Yes I agree that the IRB process is bias for the med-brain-shrink crowd. But that is not the reason to toss the baby with the dirty water.

    Indeed I think many folks could use an **institutional** ethics overdose, as opposed to the more Lave-ian personal “how-to-b-good” ethics writing game. I would be curious to hear from her how she sees (if at all) a difference between the two?

    We need to ask ourselves what does the nature of the capital-logophallocentric-disposition called U.S.A., Inc. have to do with the call (and even the presumed need) for a “personal” ethics plans.

    & The curious might web-in (tune-in?) here and raise some questions about IRB his-stories…:

    Philosophers, Grave Robbers, and Anatomies: Medicine at Dartmouth–Library Grand Rounds

    Tuesday, February 14
    12:00 – 1:00 P.M.
    DHMC Auditorium E [and simulcast on the web–see below]

    Take a unique look at the History of Medicine at Dartmouth, using materials from Dartmouth’s Rauner Special Collections Library. We’ll start with key medical texts from the 15th and 16th centuries, and then delve into the sometimes sublime history of the Medical School and Hospital. We will explore how the Library’s collections can promote a deeper understanding of the philosophy and practice of Medicine at Dartmouth. There will be an opportunity for a hands-on look at rare and unique texts brought in from Special Collections.

    This Library Grand Rounds will feature Jay Satterfield, Special Collections Librarian, Dartmouth College Library; and Pamela Bagley, Information and Education Services Librarian, Dartmouth Biomedical Libraries.

    Please join us! No registration is necessary.

    If you are unable to attend this Grand Rounds, you can view the presentation live on the web. You’ll be able to ask the presenter a question via email–and earn Category I CME credit. [Please note: RealPlayer software is required for the web simulcast; a download link is provided on the page.]
    — Go to http://www.dhvideo.org
    — Click on “Conferences on the Web”
    — Select “Library Grand Rounds for February 14, 2006”

    Library Grand Rounds are a forum for presenting information resources and tools of interest to Dartmouth clinicians. Please contact biomedical.libraries.education@dartmouth.edu if you have questions, comments, or suggestions for future Library Grand Rounds.

    HAPPY VALENTINES DAY!

  • Yes, dealing with the forms for ethnographic research can be a serious pain, but you might be surprised how many researchers try to enter the field without having thought through their research goals. Yes, there needs to be flexibility within the IRB process because medical experiments are inherently different from ethnographic studies. However, wearing the ethnographic research label doesn’t mean that the work is inherently safe for participants. Safety still needs to be established through some mechanism and this is were the peer-review process of IRB comes into play. It doesn’t work flawlessly nor is the issue of protecting the university off the table…but I have yet to see a proposal for a better process.

  • Phred

    One solution to not do IRB is to work for industry research. It’s always an option.

    Depends. If your company does contract research that requires an IRB as a precondition (NSF, NIH, etc.), you still have to do it even if you aren’t on that grant money yourself.

  • nicole ellison

    I have to echo the concerns about this “say what you must to get it approved, and then do whatever you want” attitude about IRBs. I’ve had my share of frustrations with IRBs and indeed, data that were less useful after making required changes. But, IRBs aren’t there solely to protect the institution. They also protect the researcher. Suppose something does go terribly wrong and a participant claims damages from your study, and you’ve not followed the actions listed in your IRB-approved form? I believe in this case the institution’s legal team may not represent you as they would in other situations. So, they are there to protect the researcher as well as the participants and the institions (although I agree, in some cases they can be overzealous and misinformed).