Reflecting on research ethics when researching ‘vulnerable’ populations
I love research. This is the reason why I did my PhD and why I’m in academia. That said, I am cognizant of the fact that academics, in their quest to get data for their studies, are at times unaware of the power dynamics that inform the research process. Self-reflexivity, it seems, doesn’t happen often enough in the research process. Interrogating the power imbalance inherent between the researcher and the people they are studying doesn’t happen enough. Similarly, it is rare for me to hear academics reflecting on what happens to the people who are the subjects of their study after they have finished gathering data and have already published their results. After projects have finished, academics are then put under the pressure to think of the next big thing, thereby beginning the cycle all over again. The publish or perish mentality probably makes it difficult for academic to truly engage in questions of reciprocity with the communities they’ve worked with.
Our responsibilities to the people and the communities we’re researching has been an issue I’ve been reflecting on incessantly over the past week. As someone who has researched ‘at-risk,’ ‘marginalized’ groups (placed in quotation marks because this is a classification oftentimes given to these groups by outsiders, which may not necessarily be shared by the groups in question) for over a decade now, I’ve been exposed to the specific vulnerabilities informing the lives of migrant domestic workers, refugees, displaced populations, temporary foreign workers, new immigrants, girls with eating disorders, girls and women with addictions and mental health issues, etc. Thus, I’ve been attuned to ethical considerations and strive constantly to mitigate the power discrepancies that are likely to arise in the research process. I follow everything I write down in all my research ethics applications because I believe that guaranteeing the safety and the well-being of the people we are researching should be our utmost concern. (In fact, if doctors have to recite the hippocratic oath, researchers should recite something similar). I am horrified whenever I hear colleagues flouting ethical requirements, with a noted professor even saying in a seminar I attended that research ethics are guidelines and not set rules to be followed.
With such an endemically flippant attitude towards ethics, it shouldn’t be surprising that academics (myself included) haven’t reflected that much on what happens next. After taking up so much of our research subjects’ time, energy, and - in some cases - generosity and consideration, the least we can do is to reflect on our responsibilities after the project is done. Put more crudely, while we’re in the midst of publishing papers and books on the communities we’ve researched, the lives of the communities we’ve researched usually do not change. It follows that we should certainly take the time consider how our entry into these people’s and communities’ lives and our use of their experiences, their insights, and their thoughts have affected them.
For ‘at-risk’ groups, this is especially the case. As one of the principal investigators of a funded project on the lives of one of the aforementioned vulnerable groups, I’ve been knee-deep in organizing focus groups and survey takers across Canada.* While talking to the women, I’ve been struck with how a few of them have research fatigue. What do I mean? Well, it seems as though government agencies and community organizations and - yes - academics have roped them into participating into different studies. At first, they were eager to share their experiences, but now, after participating in at least two studies, each of which asks about different aspects of their lives, they told me that they’re feeling a bit…pessimistic. Said one woman, ”I give my answers, I share my lives with them, then what? Does anything in my life improve? Do policies change? What’s the point of having these forums and these surveys when the same policies are put into place over and over. As soon as people get the information they need from us, they forget about it and nothing happens.”
Now, the studies they have participated in likely have a different agenda from ours. Our main purpose is not only to find out more information and get data, but also to raise community awareness and possibly even set the stage for policy changes and/or community activism. Their observations may not apply to our project. Also, please note that only a minority of the people I’ve spoken to about this project have expressed pessimism so their views aren’t exactly representative.
This aside, their poignant reflections struck a chord. I’m uncomfortable with the idea that nothing can be done, that our responsibilities stop there, that I just have to be ok with the idea that researchers are just naturally “parisitic” folks, as a professor once told me. Though I’m not necessarily saying that all research should be oriented towards positive change and have a blatantly activist slant, I do think that we need to think more clearly about how our research affects the communities we are studying before, during, and after the research process. And, even more urgently, we need to start thinking of pursuing projects that people and communities actually need.
Which is why I am beginning to believe more and more in participatory action research (PAR), where the divide between researcher and research ‘subject’ is eliminated and where equal community participation in the types of research being pursued is key. Rather than seeing research ‘subjects’ as potential sources of data, they become co-researchers and participate actively and equally in the research process by drafting the research questions being pursued, participating in data-gathering, and analyzing research data collaboratively, among many tasks.
There are numerous shortcomings to PAR, of course: it is laborious, it is difficult to organize, it leaves researchers vulnerable to charges of subjectivity and an absence of research rigour, and, most importantly, it requires a high degree of trust between everyone involved. I believe that these shortcomings are not onerous enough to necessitate abandoning PAR as a methodology. The benefits of ensuring that research is more ethical and actually meets the needs of the communities involved, and is thus more representative of their actual experiences, far outweigh the shortcomings. Whether and how PAR will work for this project I am part of has yet to be seen, but I am optimistic that using PAR will make our project stronger and more socially relevant.
*For more information on our project, please see www.gatesurvey.com.
Thoughts on power and privilege: when NOT to intervene
Something happened today that makes me rethink about the complicated nature of privilege and highlighted once again the importance of self-reflexivity. I won’t go into detail but suffice it to say that all of us need to take the time out before acting and think more about the repercussions of our actions.
This reminds me of the time, years and years ago, when a good friend of mine, YP, was involved in a relationship with KL, who later became her husband. YP and I were part of the same feminist group, so we mostly shared similar political outlooks. YP and I were close. One night, YP confided in me that KL had hit her and that she didn’t know what to do about it. She felt trapped, conflicted and worse of all, she felt like a shitty feminist and was afraid of the judgment of her peers (like me) for ostensibly believing in gender equality but staying in a relationship that was, by all accounts, harmful.
I did not know what to do. I did not know what to do for YP because she said these things to me in confidence. I was seething with anger towards KL. I wanted to hurt him, to make him pay, to make him know that he was a rotten human being. After much deliberation, I decided, unbeknownst to YP, to message KL. I told him in no uncertain terms that what he did was terrible, that he was being abusive, and that he really needed to stop hurting my friend. I was in my very early twenties and, in hindsight, I was so naïve that I honestly felt that what I was doing was right. How could it not be? I was helping! My intentions were good!
Those of you who work with domestic violence survivors can probably predict what happened afterwards. The amount of shame and guilt I felt then has in no way disappeared; if anything, it has grown bigger and the idea that I violated someone’s trust pains me even today. Rather than being grateful – which I idealistically expected – YP was livid. I then realized that I violated her trust and that in no way did I make her situation “better.” I acted pig-headedly, thinking that I could ‘rescue’ YP away from a fraught situation and that my words would have a healing effect. After all, isn’t this what happens in after-school tv specials? YP then told me that by sending KL an unsolicited message, I put her in a terrible situation where the power imbalance between the two of them was heightened, where rather than having the authority to get him to apologize, she now felt that she had to apologize to him. She also added that there were circumstances in KL’s personal history that made what he did not necessarily forgivable but a little bit more understandable.
The point isn’t that YP’s interpretations of my actions were wrong or right. The fact is that she had every right to be angry with me. I was wrong because I intervened when YP did not ask me to. My actions effectively put an end to my friendship with YP. In thinking that I could help her and save her, I made the situation worse. It was an act of feminist colonialism, where I assumed that YP did not have the agency to act and to resist and that it was up to me, the good old feminist activist, to intervene. I don’t know whatever happened to YP and to KL. I really hope that both of them – yes, even KL – are at a good place.
What happened today was a bit similar but on a much smaller and less intense scale. No one was physically harmed, but I did hurt a really good friend because of my actions. I think one of the lessons I’m finding it tough to learn is that there are battles that all of us who are social activists – heck, all of us who are empathetic, well-intentioned human beings – just simply cannot participate in, no matter how much we really want to. And that before jumping in and acting, we have to be self-reflexive and think really long and hard about all possible repercussions of our actions. A good friend isn’t one who acts presumptuously but is one who listens, who is supportive, and who gives someone the space and the courage to fight their own battles. Intentions almost don’t matter; actually, it is almost always the case that intentions are bunk. It is the real, hard, tangible consequences of your actions that one has to account for. Power dynamics are a complicated issue, and an outsider who acts even with the purest intentions may invariably worsen said power dynamics.
(This blog has taken a rather intense turn, hasn’t it? What is supposed to be my respite from the hurdles of academia has become a space for political and personal writings and self-reflection. Trust me, I’d much rather write about, say, Katie and Tom’s divorce or about the brilliance of late harvest Vidal wine from Strewn. Life certainly takes interesting turns).