The following describes special considerations for ethnography in each of the relevant components of an IRB proposal. These guidelines are based in large part on the American Anthropological Association (AAA) Code of Ethics (2012) and the AAA Statement on Ethnography and Institutional Review Boards.  When describing ethnography, the focus is on participant observation unless otherwise described.

Ethnography involves the researcher's study of human behavior and beliefs in the natural settings in which people live. Specifically, ethnography refers to the description of cultural systems or an aspect of culture in which the investigator is immersed in the ongoing everyday activities of the designated community for the purpose of describing the social context, relationships and processes relevant to the topic under consideration. Ethnographic inquiry focuses attention on beliefs, values, rituals, customs, and behaviors of individuals interacting within socioeconomic, religious, political and geographic environments. Ethnographic analysis is inductive and builds upon the perspectives of the people studied. Ethnography emphasizes the study of persons and communities, in both international and domestic arenas, and involves short or long-term relationships between the researcher and research participants.

Is ethnography covered by the Common Rule (HHS 45 CFR 46)?

Since human participants are involved, the research is covered by the regulations.

Do ethnographers and oral historians need to abide by any other codes, laws, and systems of ethics?

It is understood that research undertaken by ethnographers may be affected by the requirements of other codes, laws, and ethics of the country or community in which the research is pursued. Researchers are responsible for identifying and complying with the various codes, laws and regulations affecting their projects.

Selection of Participants and Voluntariness

An ethnographer or oral historian may not be able to identify all of the participants in the study prior to fieldwork. In this section, we recommend describing the groups of people you are likely to interview and observe, making it clear that this list is not exhaustive. You do need to describe clearly how you will make sure that participants know their involvement in the study is voluntary.

It is often impossible or undesirable to use probabilistic (random) sampling with ethnographic research. Frequently, “snowball sampling” or some other types of non-probabilistic sampling are more appropriate. In a "snowball sample”, each respondent is asked to suggest other persons for inclusion in the research. These persons are then contacted to see if they wish to serve as research participants. This is a valid procedure often used by investigators who seek to recruit from populations for which adequate sample frames are not available. For example, a researcher seeking to study patterns of informal leadership in a community may ask individuals to name others who are influential in a community. Similarly, studies of the diffusion of ideas and acceptance of new technologies can be traced through scientific and medical communities.

Snowball samples in and of themselves do not necessarily pose a risk for human subjects. IRBs should follow the normal procedure of examining the project for risks of harm commensurate with normal life. Each respondent is given the opportunity to participate or to decline participation.

Informed consent

Unlike experiments and trials in clinical settings, which have clear beginnings and endings, ethnographic research generally is ongoing, at times sporadic, and takes place in dynamic, natural settings, often where participants are able to decline to participate at any point in the process. The process of obtaining informed consent may be continuous and incremental throughout the course of the research, and review of consent obtained may be periodic.

In most ethnographic projects a request for a written, formal consent would seem suspicious, inappropriate, rude and perhaps even threatening. In other words, written consent can potentially harm the research interaction and generate rather than ameliorate concern in respondents. In many parts of the world, for many people with a history of exploitation and unfair dealings with authorities and government, a request to sign a form is fraught with danger. Respondents may not be fully literate, may not have familiarity or experience with social science research, and may have learned to expect the worst from strangers through experience or popular belief.

In addition, the role of women and minors are not necessarily the same in other societies as in the US. In many cultures, women and children are forbidden from making any agreement without their husband’s or father's permission, which may not be appropriate in all situations. Written informed consent in such cases would be impossible to obtain, or if obtained would generate concern in respondents.

There are also situations in which some community authority must approve the research before any individual community member is asked to participate. In some communities an individual would be put at risk of community sanction if he or she agreed to participate in a research project without the formal approval by community authorities. In some cultural settings, a spouse or male household-head, rather than an individual person, may be the culturally or legally appropriate agent to provide consent.

Ethnographic research interviews are not necessarily formal interviews with a questionnaire. They often are simple conversations on the respondent's home ground (as opposed to the researcher's laboratory). Competent adult individuals have the option of participating and responding to questions or the respondent has the choice of not allowing the researcher access to his or her person, ignoring requests for information, giving misleading replies, or responding to requests in other ways that preserve the respondent's dignity and independence. Informed consent is usually implied by the respondent's willingness to talk to the researcher.

In these and in other cases, IRBs should consider granting ethnographers waivers to written informed consent, and other appropriate means of obtaining informed consent should be utilized.

The Common Rule clearly allows IRBs to authorize oral informed consent. Section 46.117(c) of the regulations permits the waiver of written consent, either if the consent document would be the only form linking the subject and the research and if the risk of harm would derive from the breach of confidentiality or if the research is of minimal risk and signing a consent document would be culturally inappropriate in that context. Section 46.116(d) authorizes the IRB to waive informed consent or approve a consent procedure that alters or eliminates some or all of the elements of informed consent if four conditions are met: (1) the research is of no more than minimal risk; (2) the change in consent procedures will not harm the respondents; (3) the research could not "practicably be carried out without the waiver or alteration; " and (4) whenever appropriate, additional information will be provided to subjects after participation.

These regulations can be interpreted to provide alternative means of obtaining consent. Consent can be assumed in instances where the respondent is free to converse or not with the researcher and is free to determine the level and nature of the interaction between participant and researcher. This in no way absolves the anthropologist from clearly informing participants about the purpose and procedures of the study, its potential risks and benefits, and plans for the use and protection of ethnographic materials gathered during the study.


Usually this is not an issue but gift giving and payment need to be done within the cultural traditions of the group and follow state and federal guidelines guiding all IRB proposals.


Protocols for ethnography are typically written in more general terms than protocols for survey or structured interview procedures. A key characteristic of ethnography is that the research questions and subsequent interview questions and observation topics should evolve while in the research site. For this reason, anyone proposing an ethnographic study should provide a preliminary frame for questions and offer suggestions on how questions might evolve. The ethnographer should also provide explanations of how he or she will ensure that the research will cause no harm.

Privacy and Confidentiality

Ethnographers need to be especially careful about confidentiality when collecting data over time in small communities or groups because the line between being a researcher and a friend easily blur. The protocol should clearly describe strategies for protecting the privacy and keeping information confidential when people may confide in the ethnographer as they would a friend or family member.

The AAA supports the sharing of research data and encourages ethnographers to consider preserving field notes, tapes, videos, etc. as a resource accessible to others for future study. Ethnographers should inform participants of the intent to preserve the data and make it accessible as well as the precautions to be undertaken in the handling of the data.

Risks and Benefits

See AAA Statement on Ethnography and Institutional Review Boards, question 3.

June 30, 2011