The Complexities of Affirming the IRB Review Process and Informed Consent

When guidelines for seeking informed consent were first issued by federal agencies in the 1960s and 1970s, some researchers felt that the costs of the new procedures outweighed the benefits. Experienced social scientists questioned the emphasis on written informed consent especially for participant observation studies that may be fluid, unfixed, and there­fore difficult ones in which to seek explicit consent (Thorne, 1980).

In a response to the first edition of this book, sociologist Kathy Charmaz commented that, although informed consent seems to work well when in­terviewing professionals, when interviewing working-class participants, she had found that the informed consent form causes many to “feel uncomfort­able and sets a suspicious tone to the interview” (personal communication, March 5, 1992). In further discussion of the issue, Charmaz (personal com­munication, March 23 & 30, 1997) indicated that despite her attempts to use a form that was short, clear, and devoid of jargon, the process of asking the participant to sign the form sometimes contributed to establishing a sense of authority and dominance in the interviewing relationship. I recog­nize that feeling in my work. When a participant signs the written consent form, I feel a sense of having gotten what I need to proceed and a small measure of control that comes with that accomplishment.

Richard G. Mitchell, Jr.’s (1993) monograph, Secrecy and Fieldwork, critiques the easy substitution of the form of ethical procedure for the substance of ethical responsibility on the part of the researcher. That re­sponsibility, according to Mitchell, is to understand and report as fully as possible the experience and the social world of our participants from their perspective. Mitchell also points out that the requirement to seek informed consent protects the weak and the powerful alike. He argues that in some instances, such as his research on “survivalists,” fieldwork carried out in secret, with no pretense of seeking informed consent, is necessary if the researcher hopes to gain the essential understanding of the participants he or she may be studying.

Mitchell’s perspective is provocative and useful. Doctoral candidates with whom I have worked have indicated that the approach to inter­viewing I describe in this book can be problematic, for example, when interviewing elites and others in positions of power. (See the discussion of interviewing elites in Chapter 7.) Such participants may either refuse to sign the consent form or, having signed the consent form, take other steps to avoid giving real insight into their perspectives.

There are other situations and settings in which the necessity to seek informed consent may hinder the interviewing process, at least initially (K. Charmaz, personal communication, March 23, 1997). In situations in which participants feel vulnerable because of the sensitive nature of the topic of the interview, they may hesitate to sign the consent form. Participants who, for a range of reasons, have a distrust of forms and for­malistic language may balk at being asked to sign. Participants who feel the power relationship between them and the interviewer is inequitable may feel uneasy and awkward when asked to review and sign the form. Interviewing in cross-cultural settings may provide additional complexi­ties for the process of informed consent (Cleary, 2005).

My experience is that the interviewer can deal with some of this un­easiness by thoughtfulness and care in the process of going over the form with the participant. In addition, the process of interviewing the participant three times and developing and sustaining a relationship over a period of time can relieve initial discomfort and can assuage the suspicion that may have arisen at the time that the researcher asked the participant to sign the informed consent form. In circumstances in which the interviewer does not have the ability to build a relationship over time, the informed consent process may be inhibiting. While designed to foster equity between the interviewer and the participant, it may at times inhibit it.

Some social science researchers, arguing for academic freedom of in­quiry, bristle at the bureaucratic approach to ethical issues represented by the IRB review process. They insist that the risks inherent in most social sci­ence research are in no way comparable to the risks of biomedical research, which the guidelines were primarily designed to address. They assert that the IRB process serves to protect the institution rather than the research participant. (For an early version of this critique, see Douglas, 1979.)

In 2003, in the limited area of oral history, the federal Office for Human Research Protection (OHRP), which is responsible for adminis­tering 45 CFR 46, decided that oral history interviewing does not involve the type of research defined by the Department of Health and Human Services regulations and is therefore excluded from Institutional Review Board oversight (L. Shopes, personal communication, October 2004). Since the decision, ambivalence about it has been expressed in many quarters (Brooks, 2005). For a fuller discussion of the oral history exemp­tion from IRB review and the exact wording of the decision, readers may access the Oral History Association homepage on the Internet by searching for the name of the organization. Perhaps most important to note, however, is that most oral historians support the notion of informed consent, with or without the IRB review.

My sense is that while life and death may not be at stake in educa­tional and social science research, the risks to participants are not trivial. The IRB review and informed consent requires that interviewers think through the structure and processes of their study, making them explicit not only to their participants but also to themselves. Developing a sat­isfactory written consent form requires that interviewers be clear about their purposes, methods, and relationship with their participants. In addi­tion to allowing the potential participant to decide whether to participate in the study on the basis of sufficient information, the informed consent form can also protect interviewers in cases of misunderstanding. The pro­cess of making an informed consent form clear can lead a researcher to a more equitable relationship with participants and to the increased ef­fectiveness that almost always flows from equity.

Over time, I expect that more IRBs will have members who are fa­miliar with the assumptions and methods of qualitative research. The give and take between interviewing researchers and IRBs should serve to educate both researchers and IRB members. When an IRB review is done well, that is to say more as an educational process and less as a bureaucratic review ( J. Simpson, personal communication, June 2004), it can serve both research participants and researchers well. For all of us involved in this type of research, it is essential to point out that the IRB review process and informed consent is a beginning and not the end of our ethical responsibilities to our participants (McKee, 2004).

Source: Seidman Irving (2006), Interviewing As Qualitative Research: A Guide for Researchers in Education And the Social Sciences, Teachers College Press; 3rd edition.

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