Researching the IRB

Students often ask me questions about the IRB process couched in terms of what they *have* to do or about what I want them/need them to do for a particular project, to which I usually answer “what do YOU think you need to do?” By reframing the question in this way, I am not avoiding the question. Instead, what I am hoping to accomplish is to help them see the IRB in a new way. In a way that shows a sense of responsibility for the work and respect for the process. But the piece that I think I have been missing is the perspective of the research participant. Instead of saying: “what do YOU think you need to do?” I realize that I should instead be saying “what would YOUR PARTICIPANTS want for you to do?” I am starting to think about this in terms of becoming the kind of a researcher that I would to come do participant observation with me.

What kind of a researcher would I want to explore my community?
The research that we do is fundamentally about gaining an appreciation for and understanding of people, but sometimes we forget to think about ourselves in this way. As ethnographers, we are of course aware of feeling anxious and awkward at times, but for every ounce of emotion that we experience, we should remember that many of these are (perceived) reactions to the emotional responses to our very presence as researchers, which in turn engenders new responses, which are then refracted through and experienced by our participants, who also, lest we forgot, have their own emotions, not to mention reactions to being studied. Okay, so this is starting to get kinda complicated….

But really, it is quite simple: If someone announced themselves to me as my ethnographer, what kind of person would I want for them to be?

A good listener
Our training in linguistics cultivates heightened awareness of language and communication. I think we should take every opportunity to showcase this skill. Really hear it when someone offers “the one thing that you need to know about our community is…” To the extent possible, remain silent and wait to understand how your words and actions will be understood before you speak and act. When you perceive that you have crossed a line, seek to understand how rather than getting defensive and retreating. Use this as an opportunity to go more deeply in. Begin to share some of the things that you are observing. If you have gotten it wrong, seek humbly to understand how. When your community understands that you understand them, it fosters respect and the research will go easier.

Someone who is excited about their own work
As a research participant, if I am going to get something out of this experience, it will be a chance to understand myself in a new way – to see my actions through a new lens. This will happen if this person is a careful observer, which they likely are (see above), but how I am going to feel about it will be shaped by how this person orients to their work. If they seem apologetic or defensive, how am I going to feel about this? If they seem to enjoy what they do, I will get more out of the experience of being researched.
There are many moments of frustration over the course of an ethnography – at times it may be necessary to demonstrate enthusiasm even when you are not connected to experiencing that just at that very moment.

Someone who will treat the project and me (and themselves) with compassion
Finally, as a research participant, I need to feel reassured that this person is smart and empassioned (see above), but also that their intentions are good. I have opened myself up to them and allowed them access to my life world, I need to understand that this was not a bad decision.

And here is where it comes back to the IRB. The IRB is essentially an exercise in articulating your values as a researcher. It makes you list all the ways you are smart and prepared for this research, and then you sign something with your participants that says that you will treat them with respect. It is a lot of work, and of course is an imperfect system, but if it can come to be something that just helps us talk about what we do and why we do it, then it is not wasted.

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