Troubling the IRB: Institutional Review Boards' Impact on Art Educators Conducting Social Science Research Involving Human Subjects

By Sanders, James H., III; Ballengee-Morris, Christine | Studies in Art Education, Summer 2008 | Go to article overview

Troubling the IRB: Institutional Review Boards' Impact on Art Educators Conducting Social Science Research Involving Human Subjects


Sanders, James H., III, Ballengee-Morris, Christine, Studies in Art Education


This article seeks to explore ways in which academic researchers' investigations and representations have been shaped by the demands of human subjects research protocols and Internal Review Board (IRB) policies. The authors explore prescriptive procedures that dissuade, if not preclude, art education researchers' investigations, with a focus centered on studies involving (homo)sexual subjects. The article aims to engage colleagues in dialogue about (un)ethical strategies and tactics that are at times employed by academics who attempt to satisfy (un)reasonable IRB requirements. Through a brief historic overview of human subject research practices, international examinations of literature concerning research policies, and an examination of their own study, the authors encourage readers to contemplate the ethical challenges posed by restrictive IRB policies. This essay encourages colleagues to (re)consider how their institution's office of responsible research practice could be presenting obstacles to the pursuit of quality educational research and recommends actions to dismantle such impediments.

Over the past 4 years, there have been numerous pleas for (re)examining institutions' human subject research review board policies and practices (Hemmings, 2006; Fitch, 2005; Sanci, Sawyer, Weiler, Bond, & Patton, 2004). Cries for reforming Institutional Review Board (IRB) policies have been issued by ethnographers (Lather, 2003; Martin & Knox, 2000), journalists (Cohen, 2007), historians (Schräg, 2007), and those conducting narrative and survey research (D'Augelli, Hershberger, & Pilkington, 1998). While recognizing the importance and value of protecting human subjects from harm, these critiques have called attention to the inappropriateness of institutional review boards that impose cumbersome authorization processes on social science research. These processes, largely based on biomedical models, have policed the ethical practices of social science researchers, including those engaged in studies posing little or no risk to research subjects.

Critics' arguments have called attention to the ways that IRBs' defensive policies attempt to avoid lawsuits and potential loss of federal funding (http://venus.soci.niu.edu/-jthomas/ethics/sssieth.html). These policies have encumbered the process, have produced an overload of IRB applications that may be assigned to insufficiently informed reviewers (those unfamiliar with Social Science Research), and have demanded researchers' use of standardized protocols and practices that require participants to sign lengthy boiler-plate consent forms. These procedural expectations have appeared to most negatively impact research that addresses difficult social problems and populations.

This article briefly reviews the history of policies formed to govern ethical human subject research, explores current debates regarding institutional review boards' uniform enforcement of national standards for ethical human subject research, discusses tactics and strategies used by academics attempting to work around or through restrictive IRBs, and considers a study that demonstrates the difficulties art education researchers have in complying with IRB requirements. Employing historic research (Stankiewicz, 1989; Efland, 1990; Bolin, Blandy, & Congdon, 2000), document and content analyses (Smith-Shank, 2004; Barrett, 2005), and autoethnographic methods (Ballengee-Morris, 2000; Spry, 2001; Sanders, 2007), we aim to tease out tensions between extant IRB policies, and the work of art education and arts policy researchers. We encourage those in the academy to work toward ensuring that their institution's human subject research policies, procedures, and practices do no harm to the quality of art education inquiry, nor limit a scholar's freedom of speech or pursuit of knowledge.

Art Educators' Involvement with Human Subject Research

Graduate students and faculty in art education programs across the country have regularly explored how human subjects read (semiotics and art criticism), socially interact with/around (ethnography), and construct meaning from (visual cultural studies and art theory) artifacts.

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