Thursday, April 24, 2008

Schrag on How Talking Became Human Subjects Research: The Federal Regulation of the Social Sciences, 1965-1991

Zachary M. Schrag, George Mason University, has a new paper that will be of great interest to many researchers, How Talking Became Human Subjects Research: The Federal Regulation of the Social Sciences, 1965-1991. It is forthcoming in the Journal of Policy History.

There has been much controversy in the past year over proposed expansion of the category of research subject to review before Institutional Review Boards, potentially including oral history research. The American Historical Association submitted a letter to the Office for Human Research Protections objecting to inclusion of oral history, and has lauded Schrag's research. Schrag blogs about these issues at, appropriately enough, the Institutional Review Blog.

Here's the abstract for his new paper:
In universities across the United States, institutional review boards, or IRBs, claim that they have the moral and legal authority to control the work of researchers in the humanities and social sciences. While IRBs may claim powers independent of federal regulations, they invariably point to these regulations as a key source of their authority. This article draws on previously untapped manuscript materials in the National Archives to trace the history of the federal regulation of social science research. Officials raised sincere concerns about dangers to participants in social science research, especially the unwarranted invasion of privacy as a result of poorly planned survey and observational research. On the other hand, the application of the regulations to the social sciences was far less careful than was the development of guidelines for biomedical research. Regulators failed to define the problem they were trying to solve, then insisted on a protective measure borrowed from biomedical research without investigating alternatives.