Getting in is Half the Fun: IRB Gatekeeping and Prison Research

Jim Thomas, Northern Illinois University

Prisons keep people out just as they keep people in. This, of course, makes it difficult for researchers to probe the darker corners of prison life, especially prison culture. Ethnographers -- researchers who study prison culture from the point of view of prisoners through qualitative interviewing or participant observation -- have an especially difficult time. Not only must we navigate and negotiate prison administrators' concerns for security and public image to obtain their permission for access, but we also face a more recent, and in some ways more formidable, gatekeeper: The Institutional Review Board (IRB) of our schools. IRBs are charged with assuring that research protocols do not endanger human subjects. However, IRBs often seem to work at cross-purposes with academic freedom and free inquiry. Ironically, even as they assess research in order to protect human subjects, they not only subvert rigorous scholarship, but can -- through incompetence, ignorance, or over-zealous moral entrepreneuralism - put both subjects *and* researchers at risk.

In this paper, I provide a few examples of IRB proceedings to illustrate recent difficulties that scholars have faced in a variety of both ethnographic and survey research projects. I suggest that, in some ways, the IRBs have created for themselves an image of star chamber inquisitors. I conclude by offering several stratgies for presenting prison research proposals to the IRB.

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Updated 05/20/2006