Background to the AAA Statement on Ethnography and Institutional Review Boards

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.

In October 2003, the federal office that oversees the protection of participants in research, Office of Human Research Protection (OHRP), Department of Health and Human Services, determined that oral history did not constitute "research" and OHRP excluded this methodology from the regulations outlined in the Common Rule. As a result, oral history projects would not necessarily be required to undergo review by Institutional Review Boards (IRBs). Since oral history is one of the many methodologies used in ethnography, the question rose as to whether or not other ethnographic methods or ethnography as a whole could be similarly excluded.

At the 2003 AAA Annual Meeting, a roundtable discussion was organized to address the relationship of ethnography and IRBs. The session "How Does Ethnography Fit Into IRB Guidelines? What Are the Challenges" involved Patricia Marshall (Case Western Reserve University), Edward Bruner (University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign), Edward Liebow (Battelle Seattle Research Center), Stuart Plattner (National Science Foundation), and Nathaniel Tashima (LTG Associates, Inc.). A number of recommendations came out of the well-attended and engaged discussion. An important and immediate outcome was the suggestion that AAA develop a statement on ethnography and IRBs to be used by policy makers, IRBs, and ethnographers.

The statement would be a concise educational document that defines ethnography, describes ethnographic methods, addresses benefits and risks, emphasizes the importance of protecting those studied, considers exemption and expedited review of research, and addresses informed consent. Carolyn Fluehr-Lobban (Rhode Island College) and Patricia Marshall agreed to draft the statement and an initial draft statement was circulated to the Committee on Ethics. AAA staff Melissa Coates and Amy Beckrich provided background research to assist in developing the draft statement. The Committee on Ethics met via telephone conference call on April 23, 2004 to discuss the statement and, subsequently, a revised version of the statement was drafted with the help of AAA staff Peggy Overbey and Stacy Lathrop.

The full Committee on Ethics voted unanimously to approve the draft statement (7 yes, 0 no). Two ex-officio members of the Committee also voted and approved the draft statement.

Stuart Plattner and Helen McGough (University of Washington), Marjorie Speers (Association for the Accreditation of Human Research Protection Programs and Glen Drew (OHRP) contributed to the development of the statement.

On May 23, 2004 the AAA Executive Board considered the draft statement, concurred with the scope, content and intent of the statement, and suggested revisions at the Executive Board meeting. The proposed revisions were incorporated and the Executive Board adopted the Statement on Ethnography and Institutional Review Boards by electronic ballot on June 4, 2004.

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