Skip to content

IRBs, Ethnography, and Blogging

Interest in law-and-sociology and law-and-anthropology research is growing among among law faculty. This is certaintly true in my corner of intellectual property law; read the presentations and comments from the recent Cultural Environmentalism conference at Stanford (particularly those by Rebecca Tushnet and Julie Cohen) for examples of what ethnography might do. Interest in this approach is also growing, judging from my conversations with colleagues, in areas of law as diverse as international law and hate crimes law.

Ethnographic inquiry involves research on or involving human subjects, and that means that it runs into the problem of the university’s Institutional Review Board, or IRB, which sits in judgment of research methods that pose an undue risk of harm or exploitation. The idealized research models at the core of the typical IRB are biomedical research and psychological research. Social science research, particularly descriptive social science research, doesn’t fit the IRB paradigm very well.

The conflict between social science research methods and the goals of IRBs has been the subject of recent blogospheric commentary at Savage Minds. The American Anthropological Association even has a formal statement. I want to raise a related question.

The HHS definition of “research” that triggers IRB review of research protocols is this: “Research means a systematic investigation, including research development, testing and evaluation, designed to develop or contribute to generalizable knowledge. ” Ordinary journalism, I take it, usually falls outside of the definition. (Particular universities have their own guidelines, but any university that receives federal funding for research begins with the HHS standard.) If I, as a faculty member, interview someone and publish an article in the local newspaper that relies on that interview, my interviewing “method” isn’t subject to IRB review. (If my interview notes become part of some later research project, then my “method” is, I assume, subject to IRB review. But I’ll leave problems of retroactivity aside.)

Here’s my question: For purposes of IRB review, what is blogging? If I intend to interview people and post discussions of my interviews at this site, am I planning to engage in the kind of systematic investigation that counts as “research”? Is blogging “designed to develop or contribute to generalizable knowledge”? If I happen to interview people and post the results, but don’t formulate a plan in advance, is that “research”? Or is this, in either case, “journalism” (or something else), so that it falls outside the scope of IRB review?

UPDATE (3/29): It turns out that Dave Hoffman posted about this very topic at Prawfsblawg Concurring Opinions, in February, and I missed it.