Ethics Committee

Institutional Review Boards and Anthropology

Over the past several years in response to deaths and harm to participants in biomedical research, the federal government, institutions of higher learning and others have taken steps to ensure that research involving human participants comply with the federal regulations governing the protection of human subjects or participants in research. The regulations, originally developed with the intent to govern higher risk biomedical research, apply to all research involving human participants supported by the federal government. In many instances, institutions of higher learning and others who undertake research require that the regulations, known as "the Common Rule," apply to all research, private or public, involving human participants. The Common Rule affects, among others, ethnographic research and related social science research.

The American Anthropological Association has been active in responding to federal activities related to human research protections, as well as addressing anthropologists’ queries about complying with their home institution’s Institutional Review Board policies.

AAA Statement on Ethics

Human Research Ethics

Complex Ethics Cases

  • The Confidentiality of Field Notes
    A medical anthropologist who observed the transplant of an artificial heart into a man who died several months later fought legal efforts in 2003 to force her to turn over her field notes. The case drew national attention from anthropologists who were concerned that it may set a precedent in compelling scholars to make confidential research notes public.
  • IRBs and the Shelf Life of Ethnographic Data
    An anthropology department was faced by its IRB’s policy of having investigators either destroy data with identifications, including photographs, or destroy or lock up the identifications, or face not being in compliance in any future publications. This anthropology department answered its IRB with a request that ethnographic data in the context of anthropological research be exempt from this rule under certain conditions (longevity of the research project, length of commitment of the researcher to the community, provision for identifications to be destroyed upon the death of the researcher).
  • Anthropologist Rena Lederman Interviewed by the IRB Advisor on Ethnography and IRBs
  • AAA Questionaire on IRBs and Anthropology

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