The Sociology of IRB's

August 15, 2005

For decades, but especially in recent years, social scientists have been frustrated by institutional review boards, campus bodies that must approve studies involving human subjects.

The IRB's, as they are called, are best known for their work on informed consent with medical research. But the boards also must approve projects in which sociologists conduct surveys or do interviews -- even though such work doesn't pose any of the dangers of, say, a drug whose side effects could be deadly.

To most sociologists, the fact that their projects face the same scrutiny as medical research makes little sense. "We think, 'they are killing people and all I want to do is talk to them,' " quipped Charles L. Bosk, a professor of sociology at the University of Pennsylvania on Saturday, at a session at the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association.

Bosk and others at the session said that it was time for sociologists to stop complaining about IRB's or wishing they would go away, and instead to start studying the boards -- with the idea that their research could point to problems and possible solutions. And while the sociologists at the meeting were uniform in saying that the IRB system isn't working for social science research, they stressed that one part of the problem is that there are in fact dangers associated with social science research -- and IRB's don't have the will or knowledge to deal with them.

Sydney A. Halpern, a professor of sociology at Vanderbilt University, said that the problems with the system are linked to its history. "The imposition of medical models on social research goes back to the 60s," she said. While social scientists have periodically won "impressive concessions" about how their research should be evaluated, Halpern said that the key fact is that the system was set up for another kind of research, and social scientists then had to look for ways to make it work.

"Social scientists have been reactors to rather than framers of regulatory policy," she said.

In recent years, she said, sociologists, anthropologists and others have reported "a crackdown" by IRB's on their work, because of "an escalation of the perception of risk in social and behaviorial science," Halpern said. But the irony is that this escalation of perception didn't follow any scandal or actual case of an ethnography causing harm. In fact, Halperson said, the heightened scrutiny of social science research has come at a time that there have been scandals (and deaths), but in medical research.

Raymond DeVries, a professor of sociology at St. Olaf College, has been studying the make-up of IRB's and their attitudes, in an attempt to pinpoint the problems. A big part of the IRB mentality comes from demographics, he suggested. Medical professionals far outnumber social scientists on IRB's, he said, and most of the social scientists are psychologists, not sociologists or anthropologists.

But there is also the question of how much deference IRB members give to different kinds of research projects. DeVries has been observing IRB meetings at a large medical center to study the dynamics, and he spoke at the sociology meeting about two projects that were reviewed by the board on the same day. One was a social science project -- research on new ways to work with victims of sexual assault to find out what happened to them. The other was a medical proposal -- on new drugs to treat serious skin diseases.

On the sexual assault study, nearly every member of the IRB offered suggestions on the study, regardless of whether the IRB member had any particular expertise in the subject area. On the drug trial, only "housekeeping details" were discussed.

DeVries said that many IRB members act as if they believe that there is "a softness" about social science research. "People feel that everybody can do sociology."

But there is "deference" shown to medical research, he said. In addition, because medical researchers tend to appear before IRB's frequently, there is "an easy rapport" between the researchers and the IRB members, while a sociologist may "be kind of novel."

Judging from the nods of audience members, most agreed that they do not get a fair shake with IRB's. But Bosk, of Penn, said that they would just be wasting their time if they complained or talked about how their research should be exempt from review. The stance needs to be, he said, "If research oversight is inevitable, can we please make it realistic?"

Bosk said that one approach may be for sociologists to point out the way that IRB's "have dulled the imagination" about real ethical dilemmas and "trivialize the very serious issues" sociologists face.

The traditional model of IRB review is to weigh the potential benefits of research against the risks faced by subject participants. But as several people pointed out at the sociology conference, the benefits of sociology research -- while real -- can not be summarized into a simple statement a biomedical researcher might use, "This research could cure a disease." So Bosk and others said the entire benefits/risks approach just doesn't work, because sociologists lose out on the benefits, but the risks are more subtle.

Bosk said that he sees two main risks to subject participants in most sociology research. One is a breach of confidentiality. The other is that "political realities change." As an example of the latter, Bosk gave an example of a hypothetical sociologist who was studying Muslims in Detroit on September 10, and who might be pressured, post-9/11, to use research in a very different way.

Phil Brown, a professor of sociology and environmental studies at Brown University, said that he thought a lot of research in the social sciences posed dangers to communities as much as to individuals, and that the IRB system did little on that issue. As an example, he noted research that may lead people to identify genetic markers or health traits that are associated with various groups. The research may pose no health threat to an individual (which is what the IRB would be looking at), but could do serious damage to a group, he said.

Jonathan B. Imber, a professor of sociology at Wellesley College, said that he was pleased that the discussion focused on finding new ways to tackle the problems with IRB's. "Rather than continue to present ourselves on the defensive, we need strategies to go on the offensive," he said.

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