The Fetishes of Consent: Signatures, Paper, and Writing in Research Ethics Review

L. L. Wynn, Mark Israel

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

23 Citations (Scopus)


Many ethics review bureaucracies present signed, written forms administered at a single point in time as the default, best-practice method for obtaining and documenting consent to participate in research. The demand is emblematic of ethics review committees’ insistence on form over function, their failure to understand the cultural contexts of field research, and erroneous assumptions about research methods. Ethnographers responding to an international survey argued that written consent may not protect participants, may mask unethical research, and may often be inappropriate for legal, cultural, political or historical reasons. We suggest the dominance of written consent reflects culturally specific views of paper, writing, signatures, and contracts grounded in particular historical imaginations of the authenticity of the signature and the power of writing and forms. Construed by ethics review institutions as culturally universal, the signed consent form has come to take on the qualities of a fetish. [research ethics, informed consent, signatures, forms, research ethics committees, institutional review boards].

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)795-806
Number of pages12
JournalAmerican Anthropologist
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - Dec 2018


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