There is significant debate concerning the appropriate purview of the IRB; indeed the Office of Human Research Protection (OHRP) is currently seeking public comment on a series of proposed changes to the regulations [The Common Rule].
Some argue that federal regulation of human subject research has largely derived from the ethical concerns emerging out of the biomedical field and are ill-suited to the research methodologies routinely employed in the social sciences. Some argue that IRBs have so expanded their scope that research has been seriously constrained.
Student research sometimes focuses on issues that raise concerns for the well-being of the subjects and for the students themselves. Projects that involve the collection of data about illegal activities or sensitive issues (such as drug use, underage drinking or sexual behaviors), those which could cause emotional distress, and those which would place the students at risk if confidentiality were breached need to be constructed with special care. So too, in the context of a relatively small campus and local community, it is important to be especially attentive to issues of confidentiality and privacy.
Oral histories that describe or document particular lives or historical events are exempt from IRB review. Oral histories and similar investigations that are intended to produce generalizable knowledge (e.g., that are designed to draw conclusions, inform policy, or collect data to test economic, sociological, or anthropological models and/or theories) do require IRB review.
Oral history Association: Principles and Best Practices
The American Anthropological Association Statement on Ethnography and Institutional Review Boards provides the following definitions and guidance:
Ethnography involves the researcher's study of human behavior in the natural settings in which people live. Specifically, ethnography refers to the description of cultural systems or an aspect of culture based on fieldwork in which the investigator is immersed in the ongoing everyday activities of the designated community for the purpose of describing the social context, relationships and processes relevant to the topic under consideration.
Ethnographic inquiry focuses attention on beliefs, values, rituals, customs, and behaviors of individuals interacting within socioeconomic, religious, political and geographic environments. Ethnographic analysis is inductive and builds upon the perspectives of the people studied. Ethnography emphasizes the study of persons and communities, in both international and domestic arenas, and involves short or long-term relationships between the researcher and research participants.
Multiple methods are used in ethnographic research. These include but are not limited to the following: unobtrusive direct observation, participant observation, structured and unstructured interviewing, focused discussions with individuals and community members, analysis of texts, and audio-visual records. Ethnographic methods can be employed in non-traditional ways in interdisciplinary projects that bridge the sciences and humanities.
The complexity and length of ethnographic research engenders an approach to ethics that is both dynamic and flexible. The process of obtaining informed consent may be continuous and incremental throughout the course of the research, and review of consent obtained may be periodic.
Ethnographic research is subject to the Common Rule [….]because it involves "a systematic investigation...designed to develop or contribute to generalizable knowledge." Although ethnographic research takes place in natural settings and differs significantly from clinical research, ethnographic research projects are subject to review by an Institutional Review Board (IRB) to ensure that the participants in the proposed research are not harmed. Because of its complexity, variable contexts, and duration of different ethnographic research projects, ethnographic research should be reviewed on a case-by-case basis.
Institutional Review Boards and Anthropology
Most activities considered journalism (e.g., investigations and interviews that focus on specific events, views, etc., and that lead to newspaper/news publication, documentary production, or are part of training that is explicitly linked to journalism) are not research, and do not require IRB review.
When journalists conduct activities normally considered scientific research intended to produce generalizable knowledge (e.g., systematic research, surveys, and/or interviews that are intended to test theories or develop models), some of these activities may be subject to IRB review. In such cases investigators should consult with the IRB.
If the research examines the effectiveness of educational practices, techniques, or programs, even in settings that include minors as ‘participants,’ it does not require IRB review, as long as the research examines educational practices or strategies that take place in commonly accepted educational settings and involve normal educational practices (regular or special education).
Thus research on the effectiveness of instructional programs or techniques (e.g., strategies, assignments, computer exercises, content units, etc.) does not require IRB review.
American Educational Research Association