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Special Considerations: Interviews, Ethnographic Work, and Oral Histories


Some interviews are considered Exempt from Review by the IRB, while others require an Expedited Review.  Please review the information on this website to determine if your interview qualifies for Exempt from Review status. Note, however, that even studies that fall under the Exempt from Review category must still submit an IRB application for review by the IRB. Whenever feasible, researchers should use consent forms when conducting interviews.

Ethnographic Work

Ethnographic interviews may use an oral rather than written consent process, with protocol akin to those used in journalism:

  • Interviewees are aware of their rights including the right to retract content and revoke consent for a limited time after completing the interview
  • Interviewees consent to video or audio recording of the interview
  • Interviewees state whether they would prefer their identities to remain confidential (quotes are attributed to pseudonyms) or whether they prefer to be explicitly identified
  • The interviewer will explain to the interviewee the degree of confidentiality and public use of the recordings and  these assurance will be enforced in practice
  • If quotes from the interview are to be used by the interviewer, the interviewee will have the right to review the use of the quotes in context
  • The interviewer will provide contact information to the interviewee so that he or she can exercise that right
  • Risk and benefits of participation are provided to the interviewee
  • The interviewee is aware at the outset approximately how long the interview may be expected to last
  • The interviewee is fully informed that he or she may stop the interview at any time

When you are conducting ethnographic interviewing that meets the criteria for expedited review, please consider the following in preparing your protocol:

  1. Risk: Be explicit and complete when describing the potential risks to your participants. The IRB does not expect research to be risk free, but it has an obligation to evaluate the risks and benefits of each protocol, and it can be difficult for the IRB to assess risks in other cultures.
  2. Degree to which participants are fully informed: The standard written informed consent agreement covers the important points about which participants must be informed. If you are going to use an oral consent procedure, or if you choose to make up a written form that is more appropriate for your research population, you should still be sure to inform participants of these points: what they will be asked to do, what risks they might be exposed to, and how you will handle the interview in terms of confidentiality, and most importantly, that participation is fully voluntary and that they can end the interview and withdraw from the study at any time without penalty.
  3. Documentation of consent:  The standard written informed consent agreement provides you with documentation that participants gave informed consent, and it partially protects you and affiliated individuals and institutions from later charges of misconduct. The IRB recommends that written documentation of informed consent be obtained whenever it is appropriate and possible to do so. However, if in your judgment obtaining written consent is inappropriate or risky in itself, please explain why, and explain what you will do to document consent. One alternative is to tape record the interview, or at least the informed consent procedures. 

Oral Histories

As of October 2003, most oral histories have been excluded by the U.S. Office for Human Research Protection (OHRP) from oversight by Institutional Review Boards because, in OHRP's opinion, this methodology does not meet the federal regulatory definition of research.  Researchers who plan to employ this methodology, however, are still encouraged to read the information about the Exempt from Review description in order to determine whether their study truly falls within that category. If any PI is still unsure as to whether the IRB needs to review the protocol, s/he should consider the following before contacting the Chair of the IRB:

  1. Are the purposes clearly set forth? How realistic are they?
  2. What factors demonstrate a significant need for the project?
  3. What is the research design? How clear and realistic is it?
  4. Are the terms, conditions, and objectives of funding (if applicable) clearly made known to judge the potential effect of such funding on the scholarly integrity of the project?
  5. How do institutional relationships affect the purposes and objectives?

And review the following links:

Please note that it is always advisable to confer with a member of the IRB if there is a question about a protocol falling within the Exempt from Review category.