Research ethics committees, ethnographers and imaginations of risk

Kirsten Bell, L.L. Wynn

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


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
Publication statusPublished - 30 Dec 2020


  • research ethics
  • research ethics committees
  • ethnography
  • procedural ethics

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