Dear Colleagues,I find that one of the most awkward parts of conducting research is handing people my IRB consent form. There are times when this act feels comforting, serving as a reminder that first and foremost, I am a researcher interested in a specific topic. Other times though, my encounters unfold like this: As I chat with an interviewee before turning on the recorder, I slide them a consent form and pen across the table. And then there is an awkward pause.The language that fills the IRB pages tends to be dry. Sometimes, it looks formidable. Other times, blunt. What are the benefits to you for contributing to this study? None.I find myself not only explaining the content of the consent form but also justifying its purpose. It’s ultimately to protect you (participant). And the university. As if this simple form—which is not specifically catered to our discipline—can undo all the problematic and exploitative research that has been conducted over the ages.
At times in my fieldwork, it is the consent form itself—not participation in the study—that makes my participants, members of a governmental institution, uneasy. I’m told: I don’t want to sign this. I don’t want my name anywhere on any forms, but I want to participate in a recorded interview. Is that okay? This question uncomfortably forces my hand. Because technically, no, I don’t have approval to get verbal consent from this particular “study population.” But I have received permission to verbally consent individuals whom I can slot into other categories, like “relevant expert.” In moments like these, I’m often unsure if the ethical thing to do is actually what the IRB says it is.
While I understand there are certain situations where these protections would provide some comfort to research subjects, in my fieldwork, I often find that the consent process—that is, having one’s name officially documented—is viewed as riskier than participation itself. Yet my participants’ preferred consent process is not legible to my institution’s IRB. How does one explain these concerns to an IRB? What might an alternative process for obtaining consent for a study like mine—or in other anthropological contexts where consent forms are awkward, or perhaps even harmful—look like?
Concerned About Consent
Dear Concerned About Consent,
Fortunately, my research projects have been mostly “exempt” or “expedited” by the IRB – and I have usually been able to make the case that it is safer for participants not to sign consent forms because having their signatures on file, no matter how well protected, would put them at greater risk.
I can relate to your discomfort about presenting some research participants with a consent form to sign. Through my own research encounters, I have become fascinated by how consent forms are used and received very differently by different people, and how the wider research context determines this process.
In my experience, in contrast to yours, government officials have hardly blinked when I ask them for signed consent. Government officials often seemed pleased (perhaps flattered) because the form and the ensuing interview embodied their competence.
In my earliest research in a Hong Kong church community, the all-male leaders (like the government officials in my later work) were pleased to sign consent forms and to be recorded. These were mostly one-time interviews. By contrast, women I spoke with regularly were put off by consent forms and recorders and claimed they had “nothing important” to say, although that was not the case. Younger women preferred to speak casually as friends and a consent form got in the way of that.
Like you, I have observed the differences that the presence of a consent form can produce in the nature of information shared with me. Occasionally my interlocutors who signed the consent form would ask me to turn off the recorder and would speak “off the record.” Similarly, without signed consent forms, I have found that interviewees are often more willing to go off script. In a setting where consent is obtained and a recorded interview is taking place, my interlocutors often provided only the “official” perspective, something they would share with a journalist, presenting a frontstage view.
Your question also reminded me of some interesting conversations I have had with strangers on airplanes or in airport waiting areas. Two memorable ones became “research” without my realizing it. Was I supposed to whip out a consent form after the fact? In one case a drunk white man in an airport waiting area asked me why I, a “white woman,” was going to the Philippines. I said I was doing research on courtship and marriages between U.S. men and Filipino women who had met through correspondence. He then provided racist stereotypes of Filipino men (drinking, gambling, womanizing) to explain why Filipinas would “obviously prefer” foreign men like him. Another time, I was studying migrant women and their Hong Kong-born babies. By chance, the middle-aged Filipino woman in the airplane seat beside me recounted a poignant family story of her sister’s ill-fated romance and how she was secretly sent to a convent during her pregnancy.
When I described such impromptu conversations with my institution’s then-director of the IRB, he agreed that it was not necessary to pull out consent forms in such cases, but his reason was simply that “it wasn’t research.” Although his view of research was too narrow, I nonetheless embraced it as a giving me the freedom to deem parts of my work “not research.” I could rely on my own best judgement about how best to enforce and interpret the principle of “do not harm.” In some cases, as in my latest research on “real but fake” passports, not having a written record of respondents’ names is the “safest.”
Yet in other cases our interlocutors may want to be named. Many of us, as anthropologists, have been trained to think we protect our interlocutors by using pseudonyms. So, it was especially eye-opening to me the first time that migrant worker activists said they wanted me to use their real names. In some cases, I ended up confirming with them exactly which statements should be identified by name (such as their criticisms of policies) and which aspects of their lives or experiences (such as haram behaviors) should not. Here my ethical decision-making was guided, first and foremost, by the wishes of my interlocutors (“please don’t mention that about me”) and, second, by my knowledge of how the use of names is understood as an ethical practice in other disciplines. In ethnomusicology, for example, it is considered unethical for researchers not to use the real names of their musical interlocutors because it makes them invisible and denies them recognition.
Ultimately, Concerned About Consent, your letter reminds me that there is a lot to be learned from the ways in which people are named or nameless in IRB consent forms as well as in our field notes and publications. In a mixed-up world where “real names” on IRB consent forms often protect us and our universities more than they protect our interlocutors, and where pseudonyms and anonymity can be yet another way of silencing our interlocutors, it is best for all of us to carefully consider the geopolitical contexts and shifting power relations that are ultimately far more important than the perpetuation of a one-size fits all IRB approach to research that is often ill-fitted to anthropology.
Professor and Chair of Anthropology
University of Pittsburgh
Dear Concerned About Consent,
I have also had concerns about using signed consent forms, but for a different reason. I conduct collaborative research with Native American communities in the United States, and part of this process is developing the goals and methods of my research with community partners (Shannon 2017). An important part of collaborative or community-based research as a methodological practice and ethical framework is to share authority with your partners and to be willing to take no for an answer. One of my first research experiences with “no” had to do with my planned use of signed consent forms.
When I was a graduate student, a community partner insisted that I not use consent forms in my research. While discussing how I planned to conduct ethnographic research for my dissertation, Joe Podlasek (Lac Courte Oreilles band of Ojibwe), then director of the American Indian Center in Chicago, told me it would be problematic to ask for signed forms from community members because, as Joe explained, it is reminiscent of treaty signing and other dubious federal promises (Shannon 2007; see also Grobsmith 1997 and Wax 1980).
Before this conversation, it had never occurred to me to ask the IRB to adjust the consent requirements. Joe’s request prompted me to call IRB staff at my university to discuss his concerns about the signed forms and the negative connotations they have in Indian Country. IRB staff asked me to submit an amendment to waive written consent. In response, they granted the proposed accommodation for audio recorded consent, which Joe said was more flexible and “a hundred times better” than a pre-made form. This experience shaped how I seek and document informed consent to this day.
Based on this experience and my work since, I have three recommendations for you. My first suggestion is to bring your research partners into conversation about your methods, including your informed consent procedures, so they are part of determining culturally appropriate ways to discuss, distribute information, and seek consent about your research project. When community partners are involved in the planning of research, the question about how they will benefit will likely be answered by them as they guide you to create a more reciprocal approach.
My second suggestion is to not assume IRB staff will be unwilling to consider accommodations to the standard requirements. We talk about the IRB as if it is a thing or faceless institution, but it consists of people—you can call or email them! Ask for what you need to make your research successful and in line with the spirit of IRB protections, while keeping local cultural contexts and ethical practices in mind. In case you do end up taking a collaborative approach to research design, here is the language I use in grants and IRB documents to indicate that our plans often change on the ground as we continue to work together:
Flexibility and sensitivity to issues of power and knowledge sharing are key components in any collaborative endeavor involving Indigenous communities. All partners realize that the project structure is subject to change with increasing input from community members, but we also believe the project as outlined to be a feasible and productive guide to our process. Respecting different knowledge systems and allowing partners to determine the nature of their participation are key to implementation and sustainability.
A signed form is intended to document or record evidence of consent. There are multiple ways to do that through other means, including during audio and video recordings. There are also some advantages to recording consent orally, rather than on a preprinted page. For example, the individual’s stated consent and whether they want a copy of the recording cannot (without editing the original file) be separated from the recording itself, unlike a piece of paper. An audio recording also allows the participant to ask questions about and dictate acceptable uses of the recording if they want, and they can provide conditions that the researcher may not have thought of or placed in a predetermined list. Here is an example of the language I include in my IRB applications about verbal consent:
This project will use verbal consent and, when appropriate, video or audio recorded verbal consent. Consent will not be documented in writing. First, there is no more than minimal risk of harm to subjects. Second, signed documents have a particular negative symbolism in Native American communities and can produce unease (Shannon 2007). Consent will be clearly and repeatedly sought verbally throughout the research. When audio or video recording, consent will be documented on the recording by an affirmative response to the interviewer who will ask before and after the recording is started, “Is it ok for me to record this?” Therefore, we request IRB approval to waive written consent.
The approach I describe above is not appropriate for all projects and circumstances—not even within my own dissertation project! In other cultural and institutional contexts, consent forms were familiar and preferred.Rethinking IRB applications and forms as more than just hoops to jump through can provoke us to think deeply about the purpose behind this process and plan our research design accordingly. So, my third suggestion is to think broadly about how you seek informed consent. It can and should occur in many ways beyond a signed form. We often think of consent as one-to-one, explaining our project to each individual we meet. But you can also reach out more broadly, if appropriate to the cultural context in which you are working.IRB research protocols separate recruitment and informed consent as distinct activities, and the templates can suggest consent is a onetime question instead of an ongoing practice. However, in my research context, community outreach is not primarily about recruitment—it is intended to contribute to the “informing” part of informed consent in manners requested by community partners. For example, I have introduced myself and projects I am working on to communities through being interviewed on a tribal radio station, writing and distributing newsletters and blog posts to keep everyone updated, creating Facebook pages for projects, and contributing articles to tribal newspapers so that community members not only know who I am and why I am there, but also know they are invited to give feedback on the project itself.Sometimes there are tribal research review boards to submit your IRB materials to; when there was no board, I provided a copy to tribal college leadership. In some research contexts, providing these materials (the application, not just the script) to an advisory board or community group you are working with can be another way of seeking consent and guidance for your research. It also encourages us to use plain language in our application, which is welcomed by the IRB team as well as community members.
The IRB and the forms we fill out for research approval can make it seem like the researcher alone is in control of the project. But without the people in the communities where we work, there is no project. Collaborative research with tribes offers one model for creating more reciprocal and respectful research relations and outcomes. Community-based research in other contexts might lead to different methodological innovations and models for sharing authority. What I would like to suggest is that anthropological research design and methods can be made more effective and creative when developed in dialogue with the people with whom we work. In other words, not only theory but also appropriate methods can emerge from our experiences in the field.
Associate Professor and Curator of Cultural Anthropology
University of Colorado, Boulder
Grobsmith, Elizabeth S. 1997. “Growing Up on Deloria: The Impact of His Work on a New Generation of Anthropologists.” In Indians and Anthropologists: Vine Deloria, Jr., and the Critique of Anthropology. T. Biolsi and L. J. Zimmerman, eds. Pp. 35–49. Tucson: University of Arizona Press.
Shannon, Jennifer. 2007. “Informed Consent: Documenting the Intersection of Bureaucratic Regulation and Ethnographic Practice.” Political and Legal Anthropology Review 30(2): 229-248.
Shannon, Jennifer. 2017. “On Being a Tentative Anthropologist: Collaborative Anthropological Research with Indigenous Peoples in North America” in Practicing Ethnography: A Student Guide to Method and Methodology, edited by Lynda Mannik and Karen McGarry. Toronto: University of Toronto Press. Pp. 58-65.
Wax, Murray L. 1980. “Paradoxes of “Consent” to the Practices of Fieldwork. Special edition, “Ethical Problems of Fieldwork,” Social Problems 27(3): 272–283.
Anonymous. 2022. “Yours Sincerely, Concerned About Consent.” In “Yours Sincerely an Uncertain Anthropologist,” edited by Paige Edmiston and Alexandra Dantzer, American Ethnologist website, June 15 2022, https://americanethnologist.org/features/yours-sincerely-an-uncertain-anthropologist/yours-sincerely-concerned-about-consent1
Constable, Nicole. 2022. “Dear Concerned About Consent” (Response to “Yours Sincerely, Concerned About Consent”). In “Yours Sincerely an Uncertain Anthropologist,” edited by Paige Edmiston and Alexandra Dantzer, American Ethnologist website, June 15 2022, https://americanethnologist.org/features/yours-sincerely-an-uncertain-anthropologist/yours-sincerely-concerned-about-consent1
Shannon, Jen. 2022. “Dear Concerned About Consent” (Response to “Yours Sincerely, Concerned About Consent”). In “Yours Sincerely an Uncertain Anthropologist,” edited by Paige Edmiston and Alexandra Dantzer, American Ethnologist website, June 15 2022, https://americanethnologist.org/features/yours-sincerely-an-uncertain-anthropologist/yours-sincerely-concerned-about-consent1