IRB Guidance for Anthropology Students


Anthropologists frequently come to the IRB process with an “IRB imaginary:” they’ve heard anecdotal stories about how horrible the IRB can be; they think that IRBs are ideologically opposed to ethnographic research; they think that the IRB is going to put procedures in place that make their research impossible; they imagine the IRB to be a faceless bureaucracy that hinders research and blocks students’ projects. They may have read articles about “IRB-creep” or about IRBs as a specific form of governance intruding into the research process.


The imaginary might be an interesting projection of what anthropologists fear most about the ethnographic research endeavor, but it has little basis in fact. IRBs are composed of social researchers, and the IRB process is reflexive, recursive, and self-correcting. The IRB is also an agent of education about the research process and can frequently help you not only craft your protocol, but also to think more deeply about your research methods. In no other document will you so carefully have to identify the people you will be studying, how you will access them, and what you will do with the data you collect. Thinking about these questions can really help you design and conduct better research.


Here are some things to think about as you craft your IRB protocol application:


Identify the subjects involved in your research. Who are they? What are their individual and social characteristics? Next, identify the risks to the subjects who are involved in your research. Are there any risks? Are the risks no more than what is usually experienced in daily life? Are there virtually no risks at all? Or, are there some minimal risks, mainly risks that might become more important if the information you collect about your subjects gets out into the wider community or if someone steals your laptop or data (and this does happen sometimes in the field!).


Consider: Are you collecting “identifiers,” that is, information that would allow someone else to identify your subjects? How are you protecting subject identifiers? What would happen if someone else got a hold of the identifiers and linked them back to your fieldnotes or interview tapes or transcripts?  Note: you CAN collect identifiers! The issue is: what might happen if someone else got a hold of your data? Breach of confidentiality is a risk, but often the kind of data we collect is really of no interest to anyone else. If the latter is the case, then the research probably holds virtually no risks to subjects.


Use the “who cares?” test: You’ve collected information on whether someone likes apples or oranges, and you’ve collected identifying information. But: who cares? If the information gets out that Jane Smith likes apples, not oranges, will anything likely happen to Jane? Probably not. This qualifies as research that poses “virtually no risk” to Jane, and so can qualify for Exempt registration (see below). Now, if the question is, does Jane support a particular political party in a country experiencing wrenching political and social turmoil, then the risk/benefit ratio might change. Still, as long as identifiers are protected, this research on people’s political allegiances might qualify as “no more than minimal risk,” and the protocol can be Expedited (see below). The “who cares?” test is a judgment call, and there is often a very fine line between research that poses “virtually no risk” and research that poses “no more than minimal risk” to subjects.


Video and audio tapes can be considered to carry subject identifiers (a person’s voice or face), so think about how you will use those tapes – will they be transcribed and destroyed? This minimizes risk of breach of confidentiality. Will they be preserved? If so, how will you protect the identifying information on them? Is there sensitive information on them, or do they contain people talking about, say, designing an electronic payment system (virtually no risk); or talking about local political bosses (probably no more than minimal risk, IF the identifying information is carefully protected!).


Consent: It is a myth that IRBs demand signed consent forms for every kind of project. If the project poses no more than minimal risk to subjects, then you can request a waiver of written (signed) informed consent. This usually means you will have to give your subjects a Study Information Sheet (SIS) instead of a consent form.


There are two main parts to your application: The electronic forms – which include some appendices that will automatically be generated as you go through the electronic application form – and the Protocol Narrative, in which you describe your project.


Protocol Narrative: The IRB does not need proof that you are brilliant. They just need to know 1) why is this an interesting research question to you and in your field – do NOT just cut and paste from your grant proposal, as your grant proposal contains a much higher level of detail than is necessary here; describe your project in lay terms; 2) how human subjects will be involved and what you will be doing with them; 3) how you are going to recruit your human subjects, that is, how are you going to initiate contact with people and make them a part of your research; 4) what risks there might be to those people, and 5) how you are going to mitigate those risks. This usually involves a discussion of how you are going to protect your data and any identifying information you might collect.


Is my research International Research or Field Research or both? Appendix H and I are designed specifically for ethnographic research. For Appendix H, International Research, you will be asked, among other things:


Explain how the cultural norms differ compared with U.S. culture in respect to research autonomy, consent, recruitment, confidentiality etc. Include an explanation of the cultural sensitivities that will be required to conduct this study: Consider current events (Include additional documentation if necessary).


How do I get started? Start here: You can also find more forms and information here:


Some helpful resources:


Human Research Protection Program website:

Exempt, or Expedited?

Consent, including Waiver of Written Informed Consent:


Sample IRB narrative 1

Sample IRB narrative 2

IRB handbook chapters