A group of sex workers in New York city has openly criticized Sudhir Venkatesh’ recent ethnography of New York sex workers. There are many criticisms, one stands out for me. An article from the Museum of Sex blog relates how SWOP-NYC and SWANK, two sex worker groups thought that Venkatesh’ work increased the risk to prostitutes by reporting that clients could opt out of condoms for a 25% surcharge:
His conclusions, for example about large numbers sex workers advertising on Facebook, were easily shown by other researchers and commentators to be incorrect. Other conclusions such as the fiction that “there’s usually a 25% surcharge” to have sex without a condom not only bore no relationship to reality but also endangered sex workers and public health programs working with them.
We were so concerned by what we uncovered that in October 2011we wrote a letter to the Columbia IRB to the Columbia University Institutional Review Board (IRB) and to the Sociology Department asking for some clarity about Sudhir Venkatesh’s research. Specifically, we asked for the research project titles, dates of research, and IRB approval numbers for each of the years he claimed to have conducted research while at Columbia University. We also wished to make Columbia University’s IRB and the Sociology Department aware of that the research appeared to create additional harms and risks for sex workers in the New York area. Our action is an example of the degree to which communities of sex workers have organized and the degree to which we will question research that we find harmful. We are no longer a “gift that keeps on giving” for Venkatesh, we are a community that speaks for itself.
For me, the IRB issue sticks out for legalistic reason. How exactly does a third party appeal to an IRB board? It’s obvious if the aggrieved person is a research subject. But what about third parties? Let’s say that SWOP & SWANK are correct that this book/article increases risk, what responsibility (if any) does an IRB board have?
The issue is unclear because IRB’s themselves are muddled institutions. They don’t operate through statute or contract. It’s an ad hoc administrative unit set up by universities to make sure research complies with federal guidelines. At most, they can inTterfere in research if you cross them. But they aren’t penal institutions – there’s no IRB police. There’s no “human subjects 9-11.” Even though I am sympathetic to the claim that ethnographic publications may endanger at risk groups, it is unclear to me how third parties may leverage genuine concern into an actionable complaint.