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Position Statement on Ethnographic Research & Institutional Review Boards (January 16, 2008)
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On behalf of the Society for Ethnomusicology the SEM Board of Directors approves the Position Statement on Ethnographic Research and Institutional Review Boards, which originated in the SEM Ethics Committee and has the unanimous support of the Board of Directors.

For a copy of the SEM Board of Directors' Memorandum to IRBs (February 15, 2013), please click here.


The Society for Ethnomusicology recognizes the need to respect and protect the rights of human subjects in scholarly research. The establishment of Institutional Review Boards (IRBs) in the United States was originally intended to ensure the safety of participants in federally funded biomedical research, but in 1981 federal regulations known as the "Common Rule” were revised to cover all research involving human subjects. Since then the application of IRB guidelines to research by students and university employees has become more generalized and now affects researchers outside the clinical and biomedical models, including scholars conducting ethnographic research. The Society for Ethnomusicology joins other scholarly societies in calling for changes in the application of IRB guidelines to ethnographic research. We seek a review protocol that acknowledges our scholarly objectives and methodology and that will be more consistently and appropriately applied. The Society views the current situation as a threat to academic freedom as well as a detriment to the spirit and practice of the ethnographic endeavor. In support of this position we offer the attached policy document prepared by our Ethics Committee.

SEM Policy Guidelines for Institutional Review Boards

The interpretation and application of IRB guidelines to ethnographic research proposals differ widely from one institution to another. In some institutions, review boards and academic departments work cooperatively to see applicants through the review process, while in others the relationship appears more adversarial. Many ethnomusicologists have become frustrated and alarmed by a local review process that unnecessarily delays or constrains their research plans or those of their students. For both students and faculty members, the IRB review process appears to challenge the integrity of their work and the nature of their relationships with research consultants and host communities. The emphasis in the "Common Rule” on anonymity of research subjects and the insistence on destroying documentation at a project’s end are particularly antithetical to the kind of work ethnomusicologists and other ethnographers do. These constraints both discourage and undermine the freedom of inquiry that underlies academic teaching and research.

The following statements represent the position of the Society for Ethnomusicology regarding the IRB review process and may serve to help IRB panels understand the nature of ethnomusicological research and the ethical guidelines that professional ethnomusicologists have developed over the years and made a part of graduate student education:

  1. Ethnomusicological research deals with people making music. It may involve individuals, groups, or entire communities, in tribal, rural, urban, or suburban locations. Field research activities may include observation, participant-observation, interviews, and conversation, and may be documented by field notes, photography, and audio or video recordings. Relationships with consultants, developed over time and often long-lasting, provide the basis for meaningful research studies and informed consent. Each local situation dictates the culturally appropriate means of obtaining permission for conducting research and for documenting that research with audio and visual recording media.


  1. Graduate programs in Ethnomusicology provide training in appropriate conduct for ethnomusicologists in the field. The values embodied in this training are summarized in the Society for Ethnomusicology "Statement on Ethical Considerations” (section on "Field Research”):
    1. Responsible conduct in field research in ethnomusicology is guided by the following obligations:
      1. Honesty in the representation of oneself and one’s work.
      2. Cultivation of relationships based on informed consent, rights of privacy and confidentiality, and mutual respect.
      3. Sensitivity to other cultures’ and individuals’ ethical values.
      4. Sensitivity to proprietary concerns regarding recorded materials, photographs, and other documentation.
      5. Awareness of the connection between proprietary concerns and economic interests, as well as anticipation of future conflicts that may be caused by one’s research activities.
    2. Ethnomusicologists acknowledge that the responsibilities of field research extend beyond the fieldwork setting and often involve a long-term commitment to the rights and concerns of field consultants and their communities.
    3. Ethnomusicologists acknowledge that field research may create or contribute to the basic conditions for future unanticipated, possibly exploitative, uses of recordings and other documentation. They recognize responsibility for their part in these processes and seek ways to prevent and/or address misuse of such materials when appropriate.
    4. Ethnomusicologists recognize the need to be informed regarding copyright and other laws pertaining to the ownership of intellectual and cultural property and to be aware of the potential protections and liabilities of contractual arrangements dealing with depositing, licensing, and distributing musical sound and audiovisual recordings.


  1. Research documentation, in the form of field notes, recordings, photographs, videos, and publications, is important not only to the immediate research project but to the historical record and should be archived and preserved (except in rare cases where specific cultural, religious, or other prohibitions apply).


  1. Of the three levels of review – full IRB review (for more than minimal risk research), expedited (for minimal risk research), and exemption (for exempt categories of research) – the most appropriate for the majority of ethnomusicological research proposals by faculty members, and by students conducting research toward the B.A., M.A., or Ph.D, is exemption, as outlined in the Common Rule, Section 46.101 (b) (2):

Research involving the use of educational tests (cognitive, diagnostic, aptitude, achievement), survey procedures, interview procedures or observation of public behavior, unless:
(i) information obtained is recorded in such a manner that human subjects can be identified, directly or through identifiers linked to the subjects; and[emphasis ours] (ii) any disclosure of the human subjects' responses outside the research could reasonably place the subjects at risk of criminal or civil liability or be damaging to the subjects' financial standing, employability, or reputation. (http://www.hhs.gov/ohrp/humansubjects/guidance/45cfr46.htm#46.101)

Ethnomusicological research that is not considered exempt should generally be considered for expedited review as posing "minimal risk” for subjects, as noted under the Common Rule, Section 46.110, category 7:

Research on individual or group characteristics or behavior (including, but not limited to, research on perception, cognition, motivation, identity, language, communication, cultural beliefs or practices, and social behavior) or research employing survey, interview, oral history, focus group, program evaluation, human factors evaluation, or quality assurance methodologies. (http://www.hhs.gov/ohrp/humansubjects/guidance/expedited98.htm)

The Society for Ethnomusicology supports revision of the IRB review protocol to acknowledge the unique status of ethnographic research and to take into account the need for and value of identifying consultants and documenting and preserving their responses.

  1. All IRB panels reviewing ethnographic research proposals should have an ethnographer on the panel. Appropriate reviewers may be found on the faculties of ethnomusicology, anthropology, folklore, oral history, or other programs. If no such reviewer is available, an outside ethnographer should be consulted such as those working for municipal, state, and federal agencies, or members of national and international academic societies.
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