Cross-cultural Research with Children

Cross-Cultural Research with Children: Negotiating the Labyrinth of Institutional (Ethics) Review Boards (IRBs) through Proactive Partnerships

Doing research with children in multiple countries is rewarding, but also challenging. For many scholars, one particular challenge involves working with institutional review boards (IRBs), independent ethical review boards designed to protect human subjects.  Over time, IRBs developed norms for consent, assent, confidentiality, and privacy, among other concerns that provide standard protocols for research practices. For example, in the United States, children under the age of 18 are considered minors. In almost all research situations, informed consent standards require that in addition to receiving verbal or written assent from the children themselves, the parents or guardians of the children must provide written consent as well.  Although parental consent may be waived in certain situations, this waiver is rare and another protection mechanism for children must be provided.

Unfortunately, this standard protocol does not always translate across countries. Different countries approach guardianship as well as the practice(s) of research differently, creating a number of challenges during our IRB submission. We learned these challenges the hard way when doing research on children’s conceptualizations of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) careers in 4 countries. At the end of the project, we had gathered data from over 400 Pre-K through 4th grade children (typically ages 4 – 10, some as young as 3) in four countries (Belgium, China, Lebanon, and the United States); however, getting IRB approval for all 4 countries took almost a year because what is typical in the U.S. for data collection with children is not always typical elsewhere. Ethical practice requires contextual understanding. Accordingly, we were asked and had to figure out how to communicate and document these cultural differences to our U.S. IRB in ethical research a manner that allowed them to achieve their central objectives even as the protocols—from their initial perspective—looked different from what they considered “typical” for research such as ours. (Certainly anthropologists, sociologists, and other scholars who have historically and routinely engaged in cross-cultural or international research have successfully addressed such challenges; however, the increasing global economy and interest in global and intercultural scholarship has extended these challenges to a broader array of disciplines that may be less familiar with how cross-cultural research complicates research logistics even as it can enhance research richness).

A graduate student at the time of this research, the process of working with IRB through this process, while at times frustrating, taught me—and my colleagues (Dr. Lorraine Kisselburgh, then a graduate student, and Dr. Patrice Buzzanell, the PI and originator of the project)—a lot about some of the logistical nuances of cross-cultural research, data collection with children, and working with ethical review boards. Our hope is that the examples from our research will help you anticipate potential miscommunications and resistance to cultural differences so that we can gain the cross-cultural and lifespan benefits that come from studies such as this. An unintended benefit of this process, was the opportunity we had to communicate and partner with IRB personnel to expand cross-cultural understandings of particular cultural practices and norms in terms of parenting and guardianship as well as conducting research.

In all 4 countries, we recruited children through local schools. In the United States, in addition to school board, principal, and teacher permission, we gathered consent and assent forms from every participating student, consistent with typical U.S. IRB protocols for young children.  This process worked similarly in Lebanon; however, we had to change the process for Belgium and China.  In Belgium, as soon as the child arrives at school each morning, guardianship transfers to school officials. This means that if there is a medical emergency or a research request, the administrator(s) and/or teachers can authorize action. Guardianship thus transfers from parents to school administrators and back during the day. Parents do not have to be contacted. Parental consent for research also operates differently in China.  Here—at the elementary schools affiliated with universities—parental consent for research conducted in the elementary schools was only required for biomedical research (e.g., drawing blood). Since our research involved questions such as “what do you want to be when you grow up?,” our Chinese collaborators informed us that sending letters home and requesting parental consent would have caused undue concern among the parents, violating a primary goal that the typical parental consent process was intended to fulfill.

As one might imagine, it took a while to work through the standardized IRB processes that are not set up to deal with research situations like ours. The lack of inclusion of parental consent forms for the protocols for Belgium and China were initially questioned. The idea of guardianship and therefore the authority of consent transferring out of the control of parents based on context was foreign to the administrative assistants responsible for the initial review of our IRB applications. After a few unsuccessful emails, we met in person with IRB assistants and decision makers to work through the details of crafting a protocol that was culturally sensitive, consistent with U.S. human subjects requirements, and met overall research goals.  In addition to guardianship concerns, for data collection in Belgium and China, we were partnering with non-U.S. colleagues to collect the data as none of us spoke either Flemish or Mandarin. As a result, there were a number of initial concerns from IRB administrative staff, given recent reports of research abuses within and outside of the U.S., that all research personnel be familiar with and follow the ethical principles around which U.S. IRB orient. However, talking through their concerns and ours helped. Even with the incredible volume and hard work these IRB staff experience daily, they worked diligently with us through rounds of meetings and letters to find appropriate ways to address the cross-cultural differences that complicate understandings and applications of human subject protections.

The communication strategy we found most successful involved teasing out IRBs specific goals and finding reasonable ways to fulfill human subject goals and achieve our research goals. In addition to documenting how research and guardianship worked in the Belgium and China, we were initially asked to provide signed documents on letterhead from high level government or education officials who could attest to this as the national norm, in English or written in the national language and then translated into English by an independent, verified translator. Needless to say, we as researchers did not have access to high government officials.  So we negotiated again, explaining our dilemma and asking: “Can you tell us the purpose of this particular letter/document?” Once we understood their purpose, we were able to provide letters from different, more accessible sources. For example, for our data collection in Belgium, we had the head of a university ethics board write a letter approving our research protocol as consistent with national and university norms. In China, we were able to find a university official who could provide similar documentation. In both cases, we also helped the letter writers understand the purpose and perspective of the IRB, so that they could tailor their letters appropriately.

So when I do a study like this again, I would work harder to anticipate the perspective of the IRB, informing them about the different cultural protocols with appropriate documentation, talking with the IRB in advance, and leaving lots of time to work through all the details. Specifically, I would recommend that I/you:

1)    Think like the IRB. Be sure you understand the goals and objectives of IRB generally, and your IRB personnel specifically. Set-up your application to meet their goals in language they understand. In addition to the human subjects protections, increased threats of legal liability and negative press increase pressures to avoid anything potentially problematic. Show them why it is not a problem, from their perspective—whether your audience is the initial gatekeepers or the full board. Before you submit your application, see #2.

2)    Be proactive and initiate a partnership. If your study is going to deviate from the national (or institutional) norm, and you have good reasons for doing so, talk to IRB personnel in advance. IRB personnel can often help you know what language to use and/or what documentation to provide. Even when you are frustrated by what seems to be administrative hoop-jumping, rather than human subjects protection, keep the goals in sight: protecting human subjects while getting rich, cross-cultural, lifespan data. It may not always seem that way, but you’re on the same team. Go into the meeting knowing your key objectives, your best understanding of theirs, and ask questions to help you understand the specific obstacles. As more researchers complete cross-cultural work with minors, these new understandings of cultural differences will become part of institutional memory, but it takes time, especially with the regular turnover of IRB boards.

3)    Leave time. Lots of time. Start early and be persistent. As we worked through each country, one-by-one, we were able to begin gathering data, so we started to see the rewards of all these logistical efforts. Not anticipating the challenges, including a number of others not listed here (e.g., school board review timelines, anti-research teachers, different interview approaches), delayed access to the data, but we got the data, and we’re better prepared for the next collection.

4)    Be strategic. And as a graduate student or tenure-track professor: When you get the chance to do a logistically complicated study like this, do it (but we wouldn’t necessarily recommend it for the dissertation), you’ll learn a lot. Have other, complementary research projects that give you access to data that doesn’t require the same logistical overhead.

Although only one part of the logistical story of collecting data across countries with children, it, along with our other research adventures, provided a complement to formal education that few experiences could match.

Dr. Brenda L. Berkelaar
in consultation with Dr. Lorraine Kisselburgh & Dr. Patrice M. Buzzanell


Dr. Brenda L. Berkelaar (Ph.D. Purdue University) is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Communication Studies at The University of Texas at Austin, where she does research on work, careers, and new technologies/new media. Dr. Lorraine Kisselburgh, is an Assistant Professor in Brian Lamb School of Communication at Purdue University, and conducts research on intersections of organization, technology, and gender and difference. Dr. Patrice M. Buzzanell, the P.I. and originator of the research study is a professor in the Brian Lamb School of Communication at Purdue University who researches career, leadership, and work-life issues, particularly relating to STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math disciplines).

More details on our research process are addressed in a chapter earlier presented to the 2009 Chinese Communication Association Convention and published as:

Kisselburgh, L.G., Berkelaar, B.L., & Buzzanell, P.M. (2010). Collaborative research in global contexts: Institutional and ethical synergies. In Communication in e-Society: Innovation, collaboration and responsibility (pp. 69-84). Shanghai, China: Shanghai People’s Publishing House.

If you are interested in some of the results of the study, recent publications include:

Buzzanell, P. M., Berkelaar, B. L., & Kisselburgh, L.G. (2012). Expanding understandings of mediated and human socialization agents: Chinese children talk about desirable work and career. China Media Research, 8(1), 1-14.

Berkelaar, B. L., Buzzanell, P. M., Kisselburgh, L. G., Tan, W., Shen, Y. (2012).  “First, it’s dirty. Second, it’s dangerous. Third, it’s insulting”: Chinese children talk about dirty work. Communication Monographs, 79(1), 93-114. doi: 10.1080/03637751.2011.646490

Buzzanell, P. M. (2011). Interrogating culture. Intercultural Communication Studies, 20(1), 1-16.

Buzzanell, P. M., Berkelaar, B. L., & Kisselburgh, L. K. (2011). From the mouths of babes: Exploring families’ career socialization of young children in China, Lebanon, Belgium, and the United States, Journal of Family Communication, 11(2), 148-164. doi:10.1080/15267431.2011.554494

Kisselburgh, L., Berkelaar, B. L., & Buzzanell, P. M. (2009). Discourse, gender, and the meanings of work: Rearticulating science, technology, and engineering careers through communicative lenses. In C. Beck (Ed.), Communication yearbook 33 (pp. 258-299). New York: Routledge.

We are grateful for collaborations and assistance  from colleagues throughout the world, especially including Wufeng Tan (China), Yiwen Shen (China), Steven Eggermont (Belgium), Abrar Hammoud (USA), Rebecca Dohrman (USA), and countless others who helped with data collection, transcription, and translation.

Author: Center for Intercultural Dialogue

Wendy Leeds-Hurwitz, the Director of the Center for Intercultural Dialogue, manages this website.

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