Laura Stark’s lucid and engaging new book explores the making and enacting of the rules that govern human subjects research in the US. Using a thoughtfully conceived combination of ethnographic and archival work, Behind Closed Doors: IRBs and the Making of Ethical Research (University of Chicago Press, 2012) locates the emergence of a system of “governing with experts” by Institutional Review Boards (IRBs) in the middle of the twentieth century. Stark shows how the features that now characterize the IRB deliberations that consider whether research on people can proceed in institutional contexts emerged in the particular context of the NIH Clinical Research Committee in 1950s and 1960s, and she explains how they managed to spread thereafter across the US and the globe. Behind Closed Doors draws from a wide and transdisciplinary set of methodological resources in articulating the power of performative language in shaping negotiations around human subjects research, suggesting innovative ways to read documentary evidence as a narrative of voices in time.
True to its title, Stark’s story takes us behind the closed doors of occasionally heated IRB deliberations. It also introduces us to some of the spirited and disruptive “healthy patients” of the Clinical Center at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), prisoners and conscientious objectors among them, as they were dosed with LSD or infected with malaria and influenza, making a kind of home in the Center or cleverly escaping from it. It’s a wonderfully stimulating book that should be widely read and included on the syllabi of many graduate seminars to come.