Are IRB's Needed for War Zones?

A common complaint among social scientists in recent years is that institutional review boards -- which are supposed to protect the interests of human subjects in research -- are too involved in work they don't understand. Good social science is getting held up, the social scientists say.

October 22, 2007

A common complaint among social scientists in recent years is that institutional review boards -- which are supposed to protect the interests of human subjects in research -- are too involved in work they don't understand. Good social science is getting held up, the social scientists say.

On Thursday, however, the anthropology blog Savage Minds published an analysis of a kind of anthropology work involving human subjects that is apparently not being subjected to IRB review: work for the U.S. military in Afghanistan and Iraq. The analysis suggests that there is considerable confusion about whether IRB's must review projects done by their professors who work for the military, and that there are no signs of such reviews taking place.

The lack of such review, according to some experts, raises serious ethical questions. And while some of those raising questions believe that any work by anthropologists for the military in Iraq is unethical, others who are concerned believe that it would be possible to do such work in an ethical way -- provided IRB's or similar bodies are involved.

The discussion comes at a time when anthropologists and other social scientists are debating the ethics of working for the military or other security agencies. A special committee of the American Anthropological Association is finishing work on a report on whether new ethical guidelines are needed for such work. The American Psychological Association, which has outlined all kinds of work it would consider unethical for its members to pursue while working with federal security officials, is facing criticism from some of its members for not going far enough.

U.S. military officials (and those in other countries) have long used anthropologists in wartime to explain local cultures and societies, so there is not shock that anthropologists would end up in Afghanistan or Iraq. But a recent article in The New York Times about such work has set off a new round of debate.

The article did not address the IRB issue, but Thomas Strong, a cultural anthropologist at the University of Helsinki, was intrigued by the question of whether IRB reviews would be required for professors at American universities doing this work. Strong learned that at least one anthropology professor (who might normally be covered by IRB rules) has taken a leave to work for the military in Iraq. Marcus Griffin, that professor, who is on leave from Christopher Newport University, in Virginia, is open about his work (he even blogs about it), which is in contrast to other academic anthropologists who have tended not to be forthcoming about such activities.

In one recent entry, Griffin noted that many social scientists believe that helping the military is "professional suicide" and inappropriately backs a war most anthropologists view as illegal, unethical or both. Griffin offers another view: "My counter-argument is that anthropological research is used to better understand the population culturally, socially, and organizationally. This situational awareness leads to better decisions by soldiers on the street and in briefings such that there is a general reduction in kinetic operations due to knowing non-kinetic options. This is vital in countering an insurgency or civil war because U.S. forces may inadvertently support the wrong stakeholders or create negative second or third order effects that are mission defeating.

"This knowledge is also vital because it gives a soldier information on the street that the indigenous people among whom he or she moves takes for granted and assumes is common knowledge. I’ve yet to be asked for targeting information -- there are personnel [who] are far more skilled at figuring out who stone cold killers are on the streets in need of apprehension than I will ever be. There is no need to compromise professional ethics by engaging in targeting and by doing so reduce the ability to produce qualitatively different information soldiers could use. Finally, prolonging an illegal occupation is a political ideology on the part of some academics and as far as I can tell, most of us want to do well by the Iraqi people and get the hell back home to our families with no further loss of life or injury."

Strong, armed with the knowledge that a Pentagon anthropologist worked at a university covered by IRB rules, went about trying to find out if Christopher Newport's IRB had reviewed Griffin's work. As Strong describes in his Savage Minds post, he received no information from Christopher Newport (neither could Inside Higher Ed), but he was referred to military officials who maintain that no IRB review is necessary for the work and that separate military regulations govern the situation. Strong disputes that view, writing that the latest military regulations on the topic actually have the effect of making the work subject to IRB review.

And whatever the regulations state, Strong argues that IRB's should be reviewing such work. "As the question of social scientists working for the military continues to raise heated debate, I think it is vital that we calmly and carefully produce a complete picture of the situation rather than simply cast aspersions," he wrote. "I am not a fan of IRB 'mission creep.' Nonetheless, it would be ironic if anthropologists with NSF funding to study, say, the esoterica of Melanesian cosmologies were required to receive IRB review, but those getting DoD funding to interview (while wearing a uniform and carrying a gun) people in the midst of civil war were not."

Via e-mail, Griffin said he thought it was too early to debate the ethics of the work being done by social scientists for the military. "I have a hard enough time getting the work done here in Iraq for which informed debate can be based upon in the future, let alone write entries on my blog for my students to think about back home," he said. "Right now everybody seems to be beating a straw man: There isn't sufficient work accomplished from which to form a position regarding ethics."

To anthropologists opposed to any role for their discipline helping the U.S. military, the case exemplifies their concerns about ethics. "It seems to me that the militarized anthropologists try to have it both ways," said Hugh Gusterson, a professor of anthropology and sociology at George Mason University. "They come to the anthropology meetings and complain that they're not taken seriously, say they're doing serious anthropological work, and talk about establishing a new sub-field in anthropology. Their talk is all about academic legitimacy. Then, in this context, they say they're exempt from the rules that academics play by."

Gusterson is among the leaders of the Network of Concerned Anthropologists, which is asking anthropologists to sign a pledge not to work for the military or the "war on terror."

He said that "it seems as clear as daylight that it is not possible for someone who calls themselves an anthropologist" to work for the Pentagon in Iraq in an ethical way. "You cannot get meaningful free consent in a war zone if you are armed and wearing the uniform of the occupying forces; you cannot control what the military will do with the information you gather and thus ensure that it does no harm," Gusterson said. (The "does no harm" to research subjects standard is part of the anthropology association's ethical system and is also a standard applied by IRB's.)

Carolyn Fluehr-Lobban, a professor of anthropology at Rhode Island College, has been considering these issues as a member of the anthropology association panel studying the ethics of working with the military. She said that she thinks there is a way to get voluntary informed consent, even in a war zone. "Informed consent is possible even under the worst circumstances," she said. "There are people who want to collaborate with the U.S. and see it with their interests," she said. "But they need to understand the work and its uses."

But she said she was concerned about whether researchers could do that without an IRB -- and without some independent oversight. "You want checks and balances," she said. Doing work in Iraq creates "real potential for coercion" of research subjects, and only an outside panel can assure that protections are being provided.

Fluehr-Lobban is well aware that such reviews can complicate work. She is currently doing a major study in Sudan about the various powers there and how they are responding to the push for Islamic law. Her work is supported by the U.S. Institute of Peace, which while not easily confused with the Pentagon, is part of the government.

She said that when the project went before her college IRB, she received plenty of scrutiny and had to make changes in her research plans. For example, she said that the IRB was concerned about how she would evaluate the potential dangers posed to people she interviewed -- and suggested that she recruit two advisers (one an anthropologist and one a non-anthropologist who is an expert on Sudan) to consult on short notice before doing interviews. While this is an extra layer of preparation, Fluehr-Lobban said it wasn't blocking her research, but was making sure that everyone was protected.

Of her IRB, Fluehr-Lobban said: "They were more concerned about my research subjects than about me." And that's appropriate, she added.


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