From what I gather (and this has certainly been true of my brief experience here at UCSD) most research institutions require their researchers to obtain human subjects approval not only for what I’ll call (for lack of a better word) “physical” experiments — ones that involve some sort of poking or prodding of the subject, or that involve putting things in their mouths or strapping them to machines, etc. — but also for purely “verbal” experiments, such as interviews or elicitations. I realize that the line between these is not sharp, but I think we can all reasonably recognize the difference when we see it. I also acknowledge that there are situations in which, say, recorded interviews can be potentially harmful to the subject — an extreme example might be doing fieldwork somewhere politically unstable and finding out that someone you recorded has been arrested, tortured, or killed for expressing the wrong political views during your interview. (I’m only sort of making this one up, someone actually put it to me this way once.)
On LinguistList on Sunday, Claire Bowern at Rice University asks about Human Subjects approval procedures for (linguistic) fieldwork at different institutions, particularly non-U.S. institutions. She says she is “trying to get a sense” of what these procedures are like at different institutions, but I personally hope that her ultimate mission is to publish some sort of document that linguists can use to reasonably pressure their human subjects review boards to consider granting exemptions or truly expedited approval procedures for linguistic fieldwork.
UPDATE: As you can see from the first trackback link below, Claire has spelled out her reasons for her LinguistList query over at her blog, Anggarrgoon. I am now even more interested in the information Claire will gather from her query, and am particularly looking forward to the book she’s working on.