International Debate

Absurd decisions by ethics committees

February 22, 2011 1808

This blog has been created to offer social scientists the opportunity to hold IRBs and University Research Ethics committees accountable for their decisions and to promote a conversation about the development of proportionate and appropriate forms of ethical regulation. 

Over the last ten years or so, an American system designed for the protection of human subjects in biomedical research has increasingly been imposed on the rest of the planet through the hegemonic position of the USA in scientific research and publication.  If you don’t play by US rules, you can’t collaborate with US scientists or publish in their journals.  The problems in applying this model to the social sciences have been well-documented in the US and are increasingly emerging in other Anglophone countries like Canada, the UK and Australia, and in some of the Nordic countries that closely follow their policies.  They are still having less impact in mainland Europe but researchers there report growing pressure to follow the US example. 

Why is this model causing such problems?  Basically because it has such a narrow view of ethics in application to social science research.  The system has been set up to regard absolute protection of human subjects as its only legitimate goal – which is fair enough when there is a routine risk of causing mortal damage to them.  However, in democratic societies, social sciences also have an important role in informing the public realm: inappropriate regulation of research – for example, in relation to ‘vulnerable’ individuals or groups – risks creating systematic areas of ignorance within a society about its own members and their experiences.  If researchers are silenced, that vacuum is filled by rival social commentators, who may be less subject to the disciplines of science in the stories they tell and the conclusions they draw. 

This model also fails to acknowledge that researchers have rights too, rights as citizens to examine and comment on their own society.  Philip Hamburger, for instance, has argued that the IRB system in the US is fundamentally unconstitutional because it constitutes a form of government control over First Amendment rights to freedom of speech, rights that the US has always claimed to view as integral to its theory of democracy and the place of the public university.  These may not always have been respected but they remain regulative ideals. 

Human subjects’ protection needs to be balanced by respect for these competing rights and ethical goods.  Unfortunately, many ethics committees lack the understanding and perspective to recognize this. They may be dominated by biomedical interests or, in some case, by paternalist health and social care professionals, who impose absurd restrictions and requirements that are incompatible with research at all.  Two recent examples to reach me: a criminologist who spent months gaining the trust of a group of graffiti writers only to be told by his university that he had to get them all to sign consent forms before he could be allowed to research them; and an international student, proposing an ethnographic study of a regulatory inspectorate in his own country, with the agency’s agreement,  to examine the social bases of corruption, who was told by his university that he would have to report any cases of bribe-taking to the agency management or the local police.   I am no great fan of graffiti – but I can recognize that we are only likely to control it if we better understand its creators’ motivations.  I may not approve of corruption but we won’t stop it unless we know how, when and why it happens – and we are not going to find out unless we can observe and record that. 

The Academy of Social Sciences is planning to do some work on proportionate regulation and research ethics, and evidence of the need for this would be really helpful. We need to get our act together if this kind of regulation is not to strangle social science in this country just as much as the funding cuts!

I hope we can make this a space where the absurdities of ethics committees can be exposed and we can try to articulate alternative visions.  Do share your experiences.  This is also a good place to tell the community about interesting things that you have read elsewhere that would contribute to the debate.

Robert Dingwall is an emeritus professor of sociology at Nottingham Trent University. He also serves as a consulting sociologist, providing research and advisory services particularly in relation to organizational strategy, public engagement and knowledge transfer. He is co-editor of the SAGE Handbook of Research Management.

View all posts by Robert Dingwall

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Joanna Bryson

Re the hegemony, in my experience IRBs are only a problem for research funded through the US, in fact it may be only a problem for research funded through the US Military. I have in the last few years experienced the problem of explaining to UK a regional IRB set up for medical research a social science protocol. I have nothing but praise for our IRB, they worked hard and gave us the permission we needed, but the medically-oriented forms & procedures I went through and the composition of the panel were really not appropriate for social science ethics nor… Read more »

Ayesha Khan

Our research organization wants to set up its own ethics review committee for social science research, the first of its kind in Pakistan. I am able to access many documents through other organizations that provide details of how to develop the processes, etc. to review proposals. However, we would want our ERC to be affiliated with some international board so as to ensure its legitimacy. Does anyone know to whom we could turn for that?


I think you give too much credit to the USA hegemony claim. This is about Universities being afraid of getting sued. In the UK, we operate a system were as researchers we need to ask permission from Central Office to do research. If the proposal can harm in any way the reputation of the University (including with their paymasters, the Govt), it is likely it won’t get approved. It sounds to me that small is beautiful when it comes to research. Perhaps large institutions are not the best place to engage in research.

Anthony J. langlois

This may be of interest:

Political Research and Human Research Ethics Committees
Australian Journal of Political Science
Volume 46, Issue 1, 2011, Pages 141 – 156
Author: Anthony J. Langloisa
DOI: 10.1080/10361146.2010.544287

Gillian Nieman

You have hit nail on the head. I am a PhD candidate studying the relationship between Aboriginal people and local government, using a large regional city in Victoria, Australia as a case study site. Local Government is no problem. They understand about signing things. But Aboriginal people are the most over-researched people on the planet, therefore researchers must take time to get to know the community and earn its trust. Knowledge is emergent. I have prepared Plain Language Statements and consent forms, but my Aboriginal participants have said, “don’t wave bits of paper at us”. They know I am a… Read more »

Roberto Castro

Gillian, the problem you are describing is common in many societies all over the world. I have been in the same situation with Mexican peasants, and with lower-class Mexicans. They even distrust someone asking them to sign anything, as they fear that the government will come and arrest them for something they don’t know. The big problem with these IRBs requirements is that they take for granted a natural attitude (in Schutz’s terms), a habitus (in Bourdieu’s terms) that basically belongs to the middle and upper social classes. In other words, the research problems that Ethics Committees produce by demanding… Read more »