Institutional Review Boards and Applied Research

Panel Sponsored by the Consortium of Practicing and Applied Anthropology Programs (COPAA)

Society for Applied Anthropology Meeting, 2007


Susan Hyatt (IUPUI)


This is a COPAA-sponsored roundtable on university IRBs. In some cases, the IRB review can reinforce our commitment to ethical practices and foster trust between researchers and communities. In other cases, reviewers’ categories do not fit the parameters of the qualitative methods used by many anthropologists. Additionally, some IRBs cannot realistically assess the risk posed to subjects by anthropologists engaged in applied research. Anthropologists from different subfields will share their experiences dealing with IRBs and discuss with the group how we might develop strategies to make institutional reviews more responsive to our needs as teachers, researchers and applied practitioners.


Satish Kedia (University of Memphis)
Merrill Singer (Hispanic Health Council)
Ron Loewe (California State University Long Beach)
Wolf (George) Gumerman (North Arizona University)

General themes

There was high consensus in the discussion about the issues involved in getting IRB approval for all anthropological research including applied projects.

Satish mentioned the issue of projects that involve collaboration among other universities and institutions.  The project can target the same population but each institution has its own IRB process and informed consent requirements.  Satish posed the question of how this process could be streamlined and noted that it is a burden for study subjects to have to sign 4 or 5 different consent forms.

The second challenge is that there is very little understanding on IRBs about issues surrounding qualitative research methods; the IRB wants to know the exact questions and wants to be reassured that the same questions will be asked to each respondent.  As Merrill Singer pointed out, ethnographic and qualitative research involves iterative processes where the questions are always changing in response to what’s been learned.

Several speakers mentioned the problem of getting permission for student projects in a timely fashion.  This differed from institution to institution; Hyatt gets her own IRB for research approved before the semester begins, then has her students listed as co-researchers, a strategy that sometimes saves critical time.

Merrill Singer’s organization, the Hispanic Health Council, is working with community organizations as well as providing direct services.  That group has its own IRB, which has the advantage that it reviews only Hispanic Health Council projects; nonetheless, every site at which they work requires a different IRB review and timing is critical.  Their strategy is to get all sites to agree to accept one IRB and one consent form.  Merrill also noted that when new people join the IRB, they seem to have a “new sheriff in town” attitude and need to be socialized.  Everyone mentioned the utility of finding someone on an IRB board who can be an ally and try to smooth over the approval process.

Ron Loewe described a project he worked on regarding the emergence of Civil Rights tourism in Mississippi which involved speaking to people in a number of different constituencies, including the business community, Civil Rights activists, and others.  The research was blocked because there was so much variation in the kinds of people the group was interviewing and, therefore, there couldn’t be a single, pre-approved questionnaire.

Ron also shared his experiences as member of an IRB at Cook County hospital in Chicago involving a private hospital nearby requesting fetal tissue from abortions for use in research; this was a much more politically and ethically sensitive.  The model for IRBs in this kind of medical research does not translate well to other kinds of work that applied anthropologists do.

Wolf is an archaeologist and has not had to file his own IRBs but he offered his perspective as chair of a department.  He must sign off on course research proposals before they go to the IRB and so he sees himself as facilitating that process to ensure a smoother process, like making sure that everything is correctly filled out.  He invites a staff member from the IRB to the department once a semester to give an overview of the process and also tries to get someone from the department to serve on the IRB.  Most student and class projects go through the approval as expedited.

Susan Hyatt noted that when she is teaching her research methods course, she gets IRB approval for her own research and then has the students sign on as co-researchers.  This speeds up the timeline for approval.  She also mentioned the fact that she serves on her institution’s Social and Behavioral IRB which is dominated by medical personnel who are used to a biomedical model for research.  Consequently, they regularly raise questions about qualitative and ethnographic projects that are completely inappropriate, including asking about sample size, bias and control groups.

A lively discussion followed these introductions.  One contributor noted that there are studies of IRB going on which are intended to document some of the mismatches between the kinds of research going on and the review process.

Many institutions have established reciprocal IRB arrangements so that a project only needs to be approved once and other institutions defer to that review.

Satish brought up the complexities of recruiting subjects for studies; often subjects are referred by organizations providing services and clients are sometimes surprised by being contacted by researchers.  Recruitment strategies also need to be carefully monitored to ensure confidentiality.

Another participant noted the problems of deciding to request permission to publish a study 4 years after a project has begun.

Several people noted that the IRB seems to have become a legal process more concerned with protecting institutions from liability than with genuinely protecting the rights of vulnerable subjects.

Merrill noted the difficulty of distinguishing training projects from research.

Another participant in the session commented that sometimes people from countries where signing documents has negative consequences are reluctant to sign consent forms even though they are glad to participate in the research.  There is little or no flexibility on the issue of signed consent. Others commented that their IRBs did allow for verbal consent as an alternative in cases like this.

Someone else noted that the Federal Guidelines specifically allow for the option of verbal consent.

Another participant noted that he was carrying out a project on sexual behavior in a country where the legal age of consent for sexual activity was 16, but his home institution forbade him to collect data from anyone under 18; therefore, his team was missing the possibility to contact a critical population at high risk for HIV/AIDS transmission.

Several people expressed the frustration that there is no higher authority to appeal to when an IRB refuses to consent to a project or imposes conditions that the researcher finds burdensome or onerous.  Several people suggested that one strategy could be to lobby for some kind of appeals process.

Many people hoped for an action plan to emerge from the discussion; one of the challenges of coming up with strategies is the fact that there was obviously a great deal of variation among institutions.  Everyone expressed the hope that the Society for Applied Anthropology and COPAA would take this on as an issue that deserves further discussion and that warrants the development of some kind of official statement from the perspectives of applied anthropologists in all sub-fields