Apples and oranges: Ethnography and the IRB

Publication Date


Document Type



This article outlines the trials and tribulations encountered in negotiating institutional review board approval of ethnographic research among undercover police officers and recreational drug users in dance club settings. While Institutional Review Boards (IRBs) and ethnographic research seek to protect the participants of research, they operate on two diametrically opposed paths. Ethnographers enter the research field with the goal of observing natural behavior, and taking steps to ensure they do not influence activity; anonymity is impossible, while confidentiality essential. IRBs, on the contrary, mandate an informed consent and oversight process that can compromise confidentiality. This has greatly affected contemporary ethnographic research and has had serious consequences for both the research participants and the production of knowledge.

Original Citation

Librett, M., & Perrone, D. (2010). Apples and oranges: Ethnography and the IRB. Qualitative Research, 10(6), 729-747. https://doi.org/10.1177/1468794110380548