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


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. These studies have involved art educators working with human subjects in conducting interviews (Ballengee-Morris, 2000), collecting survey data (Lampela, 2001), analyzing artworks (Barrett, 2005; Tavin, 2003; Duncum, 2002; Duncum & Smith-Shank, 2001), interrogating online learning (Keifer-Boyd, 2001, 2004), engaging in action research (Daniel, 2004), and exploring cultural traditions and practices (Stuhr, 1995). Given that art education scholars have frequently worked with human subjects when conducting research, compliance with IRB policies has had serious implications.

Federal funding agencies (National Science Foundation, Department of Education, and so forth) have called for standardized, one-size-fits-all compliance assurances. These procedural policies have included informed consent, assent, and assurance forms that academic institutions may require of all researchers of human subjects, even if the projects have received no federal funding. …

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