Thursday, January 10, 2008

Social Science Research - IRB's

So, I'm not as up on Social Science research as I once was, back in the day, but now, working in the midst of Biomedical researchers, I am very familiar with Internal Review Boards (IRB's).

I bring this up because I just read this great article on BlogHer which discusses the pros and cons of IRB's. And I have to say, I'm not really buying the "con" argument. I agree with the author that when the Humanities, as a whole, try to get around these kinds of reviews because they are "limiting" or "intrusive," that's often the cry of poor planners. I mean, we too should have a well-thought-out methodology. And have SOME idea of where our research is leading us, and what some pitfalls might be. That even our "non-invasive" questioning of informants actually DOES have an impact. Recent use of anthropologists by the military highlights this issue in Afghanistan and elsewhere.

But what really got me thinking about this was an article in the Philadelphia Inquirer a few months back about a pair of twins:

The two had been put up for adoption and separated in infancy as part of a 1960s experiment......

Their continued search for answers led them to Viola Bernard, a renowned New York psychiatrist who believed that identical twins would better forge individual identities if separated. She had persuaded the adoption agency to send twins to different homes.

They also uncovered Peter Neubauer, a prominent psychiatrist at New York University, who studied the separated twins to compare the forces of nature with nurture.

Bernard already had died, but Neubauer, who was in his 90s, met with the twins in his Upper East Side apartment. They say he revealed nothing about the study or what was learned. The results are sealed until 2066, thanks to ethical problems that became clear later.

"I had nothing to do with the separation.. . . We came in much later. All of this is documented," he said when contacted by a reporter. When asked what he had intended to learn, he said he could not talk about it.

The twins did discover that the study had included five pairs of twins and one set of triplets, and that Schein and Bernstein were dropped early on because one reportedly had grown faster than the other.

The adoptive families were told that their children would be part of a child-development study. They were never told that they had adopted separated twins.

Neither Schein nor Bernstein expressed bitterness toward the researchers, calling their actions well-intentioned but misguided. Minnesota's Bouchard said such a study would be unthinkable now, but ethical standards were different in the mid-20th century.

See, this is the kind of thing that gives social science research a bad name. What are the ramifications of our research? Just because it's "too hard" or "we don't have time" or "we aren't well-funded enough" doesn't mean we can do slap-dash research AND expect credibility. The history of Anthropology is littered with examples of mis-used research findings and discredited theories run amok. I just hope we have adequately learned from our mistakes and strive to make fewer in the future!

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