Academic Regulation of Research: Human Subject restrictions

Nathan Newman nathan.newman at
Fri Aug 25 09:05:22 PDT 2000

Lingua Franca has a very interesting article this month on the issue of how social science "Human Subject" review committees are increasingly limiting and pressuring researchers who do interviews, going even beyond the restrictions that arose in the case of human experimentation.

The article starts with a case from UC-Berkeley, including some folks from my old Sociology department, but it is part of a much broader set of practices. The key example of the experiment examples leading to the restrictions were the Milgram experiments, where it was discovered that many people will electrically shock other people to the point of apparent death when commanded to do so with the right authority (in this case a scientific lab coat and actors pretending to go unconscious). This was a key part of a tradition of research showing how authoritarian structures lead to pervasive abuse even among what are usually considered good-hearted people - and a note that the "good German" was not unique to any country.

Yet while the authoritarian structures analogous to the experiments have not been banned from our society, experiments that could expose them have been. In the name of defending the supposed delicate psyches of folks volunteering for such experiments, we have essentially allowed those controlling research funds to prohibit research unmasking the effects of the abuse of power.

Now, that same logic is extending to restricting basic interviews with subjects and increasingly making it impossible for academic researchers to do any kind of undercover research.

Of course, both experiments and deceptive interviews can be abused, but it seems bizarre to leave the structures of power and systematic deception in place in our society, while banning research that might expose that power.

Any counter thoughts justifying the whole "human subject" review committee phenomena?

-- Nathan Newman

Some excerpts from the article:

Volume 10, No. 6 - September 2000 Don't Talk to the Humans The Crackdown on Social Science Research

By Christopher Shea

JOHN WILMOTH'S ACADEMIC CAREER was nearly derailed by a series of chats with an old man -- a very old man. There was nothing unusual about the conversations. But what followed, Wilmoth says, was "basically a six-month hell."

In March 1995, Wilmoth, a demographer at the University of California at Berkeley, strode into the lounge of a retirement home in San Rafael, California, and introduced himself to Christian Mortensen. Born in 1882, Mortensen was 112 years old. Some of Wilmoth's overseas colleagues had read about Mortensen in a Danish newsmagazine, which reported that he had emigrated from Denmark in 1903. If the dates could be confirmed, the demographer would have documented the existence of one of the world's oldest living men. Wilmoth, who worked mostly with statistics, also hoped that interviews with someone of biblical age would add a dose of human interest to his future articles.

He consulted with Mortensen's legal guardian and his doctor, who thought social stimulation was a great idea. A rigorous interrogation, it should be stressed, was not what Wilmoth had in mind. "Our first meeting," he says, "consisted in my asking him, 'Gee, how old are you? When were you born? What are your happinesses in life?'" Over the next few months, Wilmoth chatted with his new buddy about the joys of Danish cigars and checked his stories against surviving records. (They matched.) In December 1995, Wilmoth contacted Berkeley's institutional review board, or IRB -- the campus committee that oversaw research involving human subjects. He wanted to give Mortensen some tests to gauge his mental agility, and he thought a little oversight at this point made sense.

To Wilmoth's surprise, the IRB told him he was already in serious trouble. A colleague of Wilmoth's from another university had taken a blood sample from Mortensen, but that wasn't the real problem. The real problem was that Wilmoth had failed to report his contact with a vulnerable human subject. In February 1996, Berkeley officials told Wilmoth they were starting an investigation into possible scientific misconduct.

The associate dean for research appointed a professor emeritus from the law school to investigate the case. Wilmoth was up for tenure, so the stress was considerable. He spent hours penning memos that documented his state of mind at every turn. The chairman of the demography department, Ronald Lee, set aside his own work to help Wilmoth make the case that the university was overreacting. At one point, Wilmoth says, a Berkeley administrator told him he may have "blown it." After six months of investigation, he was finally cleared by a committee of three Berkeley professors, who could hardly believe the case had gone so far. "We looked at this and said, 'What have we done?'" recalls sociology professor Ann Swidler.

Ethically speaking, Wilmoth had run a red light on a deserted street at 3:00 a.m. (In the end he got tenure.) But some academics believe that the university's reaction to his case, though extreme, highlights a problem that is spreading across the country: the unwarranted and intrusive policing of social science research by human-subject committees. Wilmoth, whose Web site features a tribute to Mortensen (who died in 1998), sees himself as a victim of "regulatory mania." The people who oversee work on human subjects at universities "are all running scared," he says. They "are afraid of what will happen if the federal regulators even think a rule has been broken, even in a minor case like mine."

Murray L. Wax, a professor emeritus of anthropology at Washington University in Saint Louis, echoed this point when he testified before the National Bioethics Advisory Commission in April. These days, he said, the "gravest ethical problem" facing anthropology has nothing to do with anthropologists' doing harm to the people they study. Rather, he argued, it is "posed by unknowing and overzealous IRBs, and by governmental regulators attempting to force qualitative ethnographic studies into a biomedical mold."


Neil Jumonville, the William Warren Rogers Professor of History at Florida State, always considered himself an unambivalent supporter of the tight regulation of human-subject research. "We all know we need IRBs so the world doesn't turn into One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," says Jumonville, the author of Henry Steele Commager: Midcentury Liberalism and the History of the Present (1999). But his opinion changed last year.

In October 1998, one of Jumonville's graduate students, Stephen Parr, got a note in his mailbox alerting him that all projects involving interviews had to be approved by the human-subject committee. This was the first that he or his adviser had heard of the regulation. Parr, at work on a dissertation about the New Left's activities at Florida State in the 1960s, had already taped hours of interviews with ex-activists in his quest to tell the neglected story of what has been called "the Berkeley of the South." Now he learned that he was supposed to have described his research project to the committee and outlined the kind of questions he wanted to ask. Worried, he put his research on hold.

Jumonville accompanied Parr to a committee meeting in June 1999 to register his concern. Surely, Jumonville asked, human-subject regulations were never meant to apply to historians? He was not reassured by what he heard. "The thing that really got to me in that meeting," he says, "was that I went in there and said, 'We are part of the humanities. Do you claim jurisdiction over the humanities?' And they said, 'Oh, yeah.' And I said, 'Does that include literature?' 'Oh, yeah.' They said they claimed jurisdiction over religion and music. I said, 'If we had a journalism school, would you have jurisdiction over that?' 'Oh, yeah.' I said, 'If Jefferson were in the room, he'd fall out of his chair.' They said, 'This isn't about Jefferson.'"

Parr's work was cleared retroactively, but Jumonville began trying to find out if Florida State's practices were typical. He learned that the American Historical Association (AHA) had agreed that human-subject rules covered history, although it urged universities to approve history projects quickly. The AHA's acquiescence was more disturbing to Jumonville than Florida State's actions. "If I went to the AHA saying I would like us to pass a resolution that all historians should have their research approved in advance by a committee made up of a cross section of the university, the members would fall on their backs laughing," he says. "But this is essentially what the AHA has approved."

Argues Jumonville, "They are letting in through the back door something that in its worst aspects could be like McCarthyism. It's oversight over what can be thought and said." (Florida State's standard consent form asks, "Is the research area controversial and is there a possibility your project will generate public concern? If so, please explain.")

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