Fieldwork Safety and IRB Detachment

Emily Channell

Doctoral Candidate at CUNY

In the fall of 2014, three months after returning from fieldwork in Ukraine, I was required to submit a “Continuing Review Form” for my university’s IRB. After spending several months the year before arguing with the IRB about what forms needed to include participants’ acceptance of being photographed and what an “official” translation would mean before they would approve my research, I was frustrated to read the questions on the Continuing Review.

“Have there been any unanticipated events, protocol violations, adverse events, subject complaints and/or DSMB reports since the last continuing review that have not already been reported to the IRB?” “Has any new information come to light that might affect the risk/benefit ratio of the study?”

These questions seemed absurd in the context of what I experienced during my fieldwork. About two months into my stay in Ukraine, mass mobilizations of hundreds of thousands of people began in Kyiv, the capital and my research base. The mobilizations and a protest camp continued until my research ended in June of the next year. In January 2014, people began to be killed and to disappear from hospital beds. In February, nearly 100 people were shot and killed by militarized police forces, whose provenance is still uncertain. Representatives from the US Embassy met with me and other state-funded grantees, attempting to convince us to leave the country (admitting only in March that they could not require us to evacuate under any circumstances). My fieldwork — and whether I would finish with enough legitimate “data” to write something at the end of it — was rife with uncertainties that mirrored the feelings of my local friends who participated in my research project. At home, those in my program watching from afar sent comments like, “How exciting!” and “I wish something like that would happen in my field site, it’s not that interesting here.”

My experience forced me to consider ethics in research in ways that I never anticipated. I spent months trying to figure out my relationship with the protests in Ukraine themselves and whether it was possible to engage with protesters in a critical way without endangering myself and others around me. This included attempts to obtain “research materials” in a way that did not put participants in and supporters of my research at risk. As an American citizen, I was forced to consider leaving the country under the guise of a relatively official evacuation, leaving my friends behind to face whatever came their way — and I was lucky to have the privilege to make the choice to stay despite my government’s recommendations. When I did return to the US at the end of my grant period, I was asked to sum up my experience to others who had peripherally observed what had happened. In this context, when I received the IRB’s request for a Continuing Review that was so detached from everything I had experienced, I was angry. If they cared so much about whether someone wanted to have their photo taken, couldn’t they at least bother to ask if all the people who helped me with my research were still alive?

The realities of ethnographic research — which, I suspect, most practitioners know — is that what happens on the ground often looks completely different than what was proposed in a grant or IRB application. Before I left the US, my advisor told me to keep my eyes open for everything, and that my final project would look nothing like what I thought (I don’t think even she knew how right she would be). Knowing this, it was extremely hard to take seriously the details expected in my IRB application, because “risk” and “benefit” are terms that are contextually fluid in ways that IRBs do not recognize. In my application, I presented my research in what I felt was an extremely detached and even falsified way, knowing that my field experience would not fit the stagnant outlines expected from the IRB.

When the protests in Kyiv began, I quickly dove into the mobilizations with my Ukrainian friends, who are largely leftist and feminist activists. From the beginning, these people were attacked and harassed during the protests, which were being touted by Western media either as the true representation of democracy in Ukraine or as a neo-fascist takeover. Of course, the reality was infinitely more complex. As days and weeks went by, it became very unclear to me what might happen next not only to my research but also to my friends, who ensured my safety throughout the protests while also constantly helping me find ways to continue my research in the context of uncertainty. While other Western observers and participants posted constant updates on social media, I felt it was more important for me to keep quiet. In this way, I felt I could continue doing research without calling attention to myself or to my friends, who faced danger not only from the governing regime (which targeted all protesters) but from the growing presence of radical right-wing nationalists (who found this a convenient opportunity to continue targeting leftist and feminist activists with attacks and harassment).

When I returned, transitioning back into academic life while the country I had been living in went to war was extremely challenging, a feeling that was exacerbated when I received the IRB’s request for Continuing Review. I didn’t know how to answer questions like whether anything had happened to impact the “risks” and “benefits” of my research. I had just spent eight months terrified that every person I knew in Ukraine would die or be kidnapped. I didn’t know how to translate this into Review Board language when “risk” meant death or bodily harm and “benefit” was meaningless. Even now, as I am writing my dissertation, I find every person who reads any part of it asking about my relationship with my “informants.” I was unable to remain detached or “objective” in this context; I came to love the people in Ukraine who participated in my research not just because they were kind enough to help me. They took me in, offered me escape from the city center, explained things I couldn’t understand, sent me away from the mayhem when they knew it was getting too dangerous, and called me when something significant happened. Our relationships were not framed by “risk” and “benefit” but by sharing an experience that I hope happens only once in our lifetimes.

As anthropologists, the circumstances of our research are largely out of our control, and in part, this is what makes our research so essential. We should be able to respond to rapidly changing contexts in order to understand them better and to help others comprehend them. After my experience, I firmly believe that my research is better than it would have been if I had not allowed my relationships with my interlocutors to cross over into friendship. I began to frame my research and writing around the goal of presenting the mobilizations honestly (rather than with some sort of pretense of objectivity). They were complicated, as I observed as many ugly interactions as I participated in beautiful, positive actions and initiatives. Only by placing my trust in people who were willing to treat me as a friend was I able to engage with this complexity. Ultimately, this is reciprocity. Portraying these events in an honest way is all my friends have asked of me in return for their ensuring my well-being.

I am still unsure if I behaved “ethically” according to the IRB’s standards. When I submitted my Continuing Review form, I glossed over their questions because I did not feel the IRB was concerned about my personal quandaries, only if I had done research in a “safe” way (“safe” here in terms of IRB-established “risks” and “benefits,” not concerning the personal safety of my friends). The IRB isn’t concerned with whether my research actually contributes to a better understanding of a complex situation (a point which is reflected throughout the AAA Statement of Ethics), which leaves me questioning how the IRB helps us do better research if it can’t understand why we are doing research in the first place. While I was lucky that my department and my advisor were fully supportive of the ways my research changed and my responses to those changes in the field, structures like the IRB do not equip researchers at all for the realities of ethnographic fieldwork, which can lead us into a false sense of preparedness. I recognize that IRB approval is a requirement for research among humans, but I propose that methods courses and other pre-research requirements in doctoral programs focus more on the AAA Statement of Ethics, a more flexible and appropriate guideline for anthropology.

Ultimately, these forms and approvals remove us from what is really important about ethics and anthropological research: people on the ground who make it happen. As anthropologists, we should know that our first concern has to be the safety and well-being of those generous people, both in the field and when we leave it. Only when we are honest with ourselves about the nature of our relationships with those people can we truly understand our own investment in our research and what it will mean for those who supported us.  

IRB Federal Regulations Update

As explained earlier, the US federal regulations that govern IRBs are being overhauled top to bottom. (You can access the “Notice of Proposed Rulemaking”, or NPRM, here). This overhaul is consequential for all anthropological research. A period of public comment on the proposed  changes closes at 5 p.m. on December 7, 2015. (Additional information about the NPRM, including instructions on how to submit comments, can be found here, where you’ll also find the the federal Office for Human Research Protection’s summary of the proposed changes; the IRB professional association, Public Responsibility in Medicine and Research, has produced a longer chart comparing the current and proposed regulations which may be helpful as well.)

All anthropologists are encouraged to review the NPRM and submit comments that reflect your interests!

In addition, anthropologists Rena Lederman and Lise Dobrin will submit comments on behalf of the AAA, and they seek your opinions and advice on what the AAA comment should look like. They especially seek feedback on the following five questions (all page references are to the text in the first link above). While these are by no means the only proposals in the NPRM that would affect anthropological research, they represent areas about which Lederman and Dobin especially welcome advice, discussion, and examples. Please send your responses to and by December 1, 2015!

  1. The NPRM proposes to “exclude” from review oral history, journalism, biography, and forms of historical studies that focus directly on specific individuals (section _.101(b)(1)(ii); see NPRM p. 53946-8). Are there certain kinds of anthropological research that should be included in this category? (Note that “exclusion” is a new category, signifying that it would be entirely outside of IRB jurisdiction: unlike current “exemption”, IRBs would not need to be consulted at all about these forms of investigation.)
  1. The NPRM proposes to “exclude” from review research involving the use of educational tests, survey procedures, interview procedures, or public behavior observation, as long as the information is not individually identifiable, OR as long as a disclosure of responses could not reasonably place persons at risk (section _.101(b)(2); see NPRM p. 53950-1). In what ways (and for what reasons) do you think anthropological research fits this category of exclusion?
  1. The NPRM proposes that the Department of Health and Human Services further develop its list of research activities that present “no more than minimal risk” to human subjects (section _.110 and _.102(j); see NPRM p. 53985-6). Which broad categories of anthropological research do you think should be included on such a list?
  1. The NPRM proposes to “exempt” from review research that involves “benign interventions,” that is, encounters in which an adult provides verbal or written responses (which may even be recorded) that are “brief in duration, harmless, painless, not physically invasive, not likely to have a significant adverse lasting impact on the subjects,” and not “offensive or embarrassing.” This exemption would be allowed so long as the individuals responding cannot be identified, or so long as disclosure of the responses “would not reasonably place the subjects at risk of criminal or civil liability or be damaging to the subjects’ financial standing, employability, educational advancement, or reputation.” This exemption would be allowed even in cases of “authorized deception,” where subjects are prospectively informed that they may be misled about the nature or purposes of the research (section _.104(d)(3) and _.104(e)(1); see NPRM p. 53960). To what extent does anthropological research fit this proposed exemption?
  1. The NPRM proposes to change the definition of “human subjects” research to include all research with biospecimens, whether or not they are identified. What this means is that any “secondary” use of biospecimens (that is, work with banked specimens collected by others in research or nonresearch settings) will require researchers to obtain permission from the individual sources of those biospecimens: the NPRM proposes that this be done through some form of blanket consent for “future unspecified use,” obtained at the time of collection (section _.102(e) and _.101(b)(3)(i); see NPRM p. 53942-6). Would such a change impact anthropological research, and if so, how?