Renegade Researchers, Radical Religions, Recalcitrant Ethics Boards

Towards the “McDonaldization” of Social Research in North America


  • Susan J. Palmer McGill University



fieldwork, human subjects, internal review boards, radical social movements, research ethics


Since the rise of the new “ethics culture” in the USA and Canada, there has been a noticeable decline in field research on new, controversial religions and social movements. This study examines some of the new administrative obstacles to research, as experienced by twelve researchers in the course of negotiations with their ethics boards (“REBs” in Canada, “IRBs” in the U.S.) for ethics approval regarding projects involving “human subjects”. The twelve informants’ critiques of their ethics committees, conveyed in interviews, fall into eight categories: (1) unnecessary delays; (2) poor communication skills; (3) excessive concern for potential risk; (4) impeding spontaneity and flexibility in field research; (5) secrecy, immunity and lack of accountability; (6) the hierarchical relationship; (7) REBs exceeding their mandate; (8) disregard for the well-being of human subjects. On the basis of these interviews (and previous studies), the strategic responses of North American researchers to obstacles posed by ethics committees might be analyzed as corresponding to four types: capitulation, adjustment, resistance and reform. While capitulation appears to be a common response among graduate students, resistance appears to be widely practised among experienced researchers, who cooperate deceptively through “benign fabrication” or “gamesmanship”. This study explores the implications of the rise of this rapidly evolving “moral bureaucracy”, criticized by scholars for inhibiting field research through the delaying or halting of research projects, distorting methodologies, and discouraging initiative and originality. Finally, it is argued that the ethical concern for potential harm to human subjects must be balanced with the right of minority groups to be heard; to tell “their side of the story”.


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Author Biography

Susan J. Palmer, McGill University

Susan J. Palmer is a sociologist of religion who lives in Montreal, Quebec. She is an Affiliate Professor at Concordia University and a Member of the School of Religious Studies at McGill University. She received an Insight Grant from the Social Science and the Humanities Research Council for her four year research project, “Children in Sectarian Religions and State Control”. Palmer is the author of eleven books/anthologies, notably Moon Sisters, Krishna Mothers, Rajneesh Lovers (Syracuse, 1994); The New Heretics of France (Oxford University Press, 2011); Aliens Adored: Rael’s UFO Religion (Rutgers, 2004). Her most recent, co-authored with Stuart Wright, is Storming Zion: Government Raids on Religions (Oxford University Press, 2015).


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How to Cite

Palmer, S. (2018). Renegade Researchers, Radical Religions, Recalcitrant Ethics Boards: Towards the “McDonaldization” of Social Research in North America. Fieldwork in Religion, 12(2), 239–258.