Research ethics committees, ethnographers and imaginations of risk

Kirsten Bell*, L. L. Wynn

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

18 Citations (Scopus)
13 Downloads (Pure)


Ethnographers’ concerns about institutional ethics review are by now well-known and several hypotheses have been advanced to explain their complaints. Many have highlighted the lack of epistemological fit between ethnographic methods and ethics review paradigms. Others point to the existence of a “victim narrative” and suggest that circulating horror stories are unrepresentative of ethnographers’ experiences, or argue that ethnographers’ complaints disguise a self-interested and un-reflexive desire to avoid oversight. A final explanation suggests that resistance is restricted to an ageing cohort of scholars raised in an era before ethics review became the norm. Drawing on two surveys of ethnographers conducted a decade apart, we conclude that the most convincing explanation for the longstanding “chorus of complaint” is the fundamental epistemological conflict between ethnographic methods and the way ethics review is currently constituted. We conclude that the time has come to radically reframe and restructure ethics review regimes.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)537-558
Number of pages22
Issue number4
Early online date30 Dec 2020
Publication statusPublished - Dec 2023

Bibliographical note

Copyright the Author(s) 2020. Version archived for private and non-commercial use with the permission of the author/s and according to publisher conditions. For further rights please contact the publisher.


  • ethnographic fieldwork
  • ethnography
  • institutional review boards
  • procedural ethics
  • research ethics
  • research ethics committees


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