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Regulating Ethics: The Status and Stakes of Institutional Ethical Review for the Social Sciences

Rebecca Tapscott

Since 1974, institutional ethical review of human subjects research has transformed from a peculiarly American practice to a global standard. However, worldwide, social scientists have found institutional ethical review ill-suited for addressing ethical concerns in their disciplines. Critiques of ethical review made by scholars of politics and IR have emphasized ethics in practice. Our intervention instead reframes ethical review as an institutional and organizational structure for knowledge production that is foundationally shaped by its biomedical origins. The article connects historical and sociological studies of institutional ethical review with IR theory on diffusion and localization to analyze novel data on national-level requirements for ethical review. It makes three contributions. First, it presents evidence on the status and trajectory of ethical review, for the first time taking a global approach that pays equal heed to the biomedical and social sciences. Second, it shows how drawing institutional structure, norms, and political economy into conversation can explain why the same system produces significantly different implications for knowledge production and human subjects protection in these two areas. And third, it frames ethical review as a structure that regulates knowledge production, setting clear stakes for scholars of politics and IR.

This talk is co-sponsored by the UW Center for Studies in Demography & Ecology.