Every year, my students ask me questions about doing research with marginalised groups. The university is an incredibly privileged space, but some of our students are not – and many of the others are politically committed and care passionately about inequality and abuses of power. Often, they want to contribute to causes by conducting their dissertation research on related topics. However, there are questions around whether exploring these topics through research with human subjects is appropriate – too often, students end up asking for time and attention from people who already live difficult lives, and producing projects which (due to time constraints and lack of background knowledge) make little difference. I advise my students to ask themselves a number of questions when selecting their research topics:
- Who is this research for? Is there a demonstrable need?
The best way to approach this question is to design research in collaboration with community groups – some charities and organisations have data collection needs and are happy to receive offers from competent and committed students (you may need to provide them with a CV or informal reference to assure them that what you produce will be useable). Your department may already have links with organisations, or you may have your own relationships with charities, NGOs or community groups, who can be asked if research might be useful. The onus must be on their needs and not your interests, but if these are complementary, that’s great.
If there is no identifiable need in the community, there may be other ways to research your chosen topic which don’t put people out or ask them to engage in intellectual, practical or emotional labour on your behalf. The best way to do this is to use pre-existing sources of data (see point 4 below).
- What are my motivations?
This question is related to the social need for the study, but pertains to you personally. Is this: (a) an issue and group you’ve been involved and familiar with for a while; (b) something you feel passionate about and want to educate yourself on; (c) an exploratory study which might lead to socially useful projects; (d) just curiosity? If (d), why are you curious about this group of people and is there a form of Orientalism at work? (Examples of some groups that are frequently exoticised and fetishised by ‘outsiders’: Muslim women, trans people, sex workers). If (b) or (c), you can probably conduct an initial study using pre-existing data. If (a), you might already know of a community organisation or group to work with on a project there’s a need for.
Examine your motivations honestly – if you feel they’re anything but honourable (or you aren’t sure what they are), research something else. If you feel confident about your motives and the need for your study, continue to examine and reflect throughout the research, to make sure you are looking after participants and collecting data in the most rigorous way. This doesn’t mean spending hours in self-analysis and writing a methodology chapter which is little more than an autobiography. Instead, it means taking time to really look at yourself and your relationships with participants (and how they are structured by power and privilege). You might be able to discuss these issues with some participants and ask how they feel about the research – but this is a form of emotional labour which can be arduous as well.
- Am I qualified?
If you want to research people more marginalised than you, ask yourself if you have enough background knowledge or life experience to be doing that. There are different opinions about whether researchers should always be ‘insiders’ (and ways the ‘insider/outsider’ binary can and should be problematised). Being an ‘insider’ is by no means a guarantee that you’ll be able to do good research. However, if you aren’t at all familiar with the group you want to research, you should ask yourself whether you’re in fact qualified to carry your project out.
Academia is full of privileged people, and if we all stuck to researching our own social groups there would be huge gaps in the knowledge and evidence base (bigger than there are already). However, research on more marginalised groups should proceed from a commitment to and association with the group in question, and if you want to make a career out of this type of research it should be combined with advocacy around (not just lip-service to) diversifying academia. Ideally, research on marginalised groups would always be able to be carried out by members of those groups – since they are the experts on their own lives. This doesn’t mean there is no role for allies or that ‘outsiders’ can never do research, but the aim should be to diversify academia so that research could always be insider-led.
- Do I need to ask people for their time/attention?
If you’re able to go ahead with a project that involves human subjects, this doesn’t necessarily mean you should. Ask yourself if you really need to create a new dataset or whether there is existing material that can be used to answer your questions. Charities and community organisations often have their own archives – by far the most common research request made by organisations I’ve worked with is for a student to conduct analysis on a pre-existing dataset they haven’t had time to engage with themselves.
If you’re not working with an organisation, there are a number of public data archives, including the Mass Observation Archive, the UK Data Archive, the UK Data Service, and many more. There are also individual web-based sources of personal narrative which are public, such as blogs, vlogs or Tumblrs (although since these aren’t research archives you should ask authors for permission before studying them). There are also interesting projects that can be conducted through content/discourse analysis of policy documents and media, which can give greater breadth than the small number of interviews it would be feasible to conduct for many student studies.
Think hard about whether you need new data, before you consider asking people to provide it. If you’re doing a research project at the request of a community organisation and they are keen for you to work with human subjects, explore ways participants could be remunerated for their contribution (but with no sense of obligation). There may also be small pots of funding at your university that you can access for this purpose.
- How will I look after my participants?
Research ethics are important to any project, but particularly one which involves a researcher with more privilege working with participants with less. If you haven’t read any literature on research ethics, remedy that before you even think about anything else. Then ensure that you develop protocols for informed consent, anonymity and confidentiality, and looking after the emotional wellbeing of both your participants and yourself, and (most importantly) communicate these to your participants effectively and in appropriate terms.
Be aware that if you aren’t an ‘insider’, you may not fully appreciate the risks posed by participating in your research, so ideally you should design your ethics framework and research instruments in collaboration with a community organisation or charity you’re working with. You should also work closely with your supervisor to ensure that you’ve designed your research in as ethical a manner as possible. Finally, be aware that this is the bare minimum for research ethics – it’s a process that requires you to constantly reflect and (most importantly) listen.
If you’re working with an organisation or community group, explore how they can help you to introduce yourself and put potential participants more at ease. When you recruit participants, emphasise that participating in the research is their choice and they can withdraw any time with no hard feelings. This is particularly important if you’re recruiting through an organisation which provides help and resources, as there may be concerns that these are conditional on participating in your research. Be open to any misgivings or worries participants may have, and be aware of the fact that they may (rightly) suspect your motives.
Also understand that even if there’s an identified social need for your research, people who are dealing with the practical and emotional consequences of social problems may not necessarily have the space or time to want to talk to you about them. It’s patronising to expect participants to feel empowered, and arrogant to want them to appreciate you, even if you have the best intentions. Of course, it’s possible to develop wonderful, mutually fulfilling relationships with research participants – but to expect this is a form of entitlement. Building trust takes time, especially if you are not an ‘insider’ or ally (and often, quite rightly, even if you are the latter).
- What will I do with the findings?
If you’ve been asked to conduct research by a charity or community group, ask them about helpful formats for your findings. Don’t just forward them a copy of your dissertation! Depending on the target audience, possible outputs might be a short briefing paper, an informational video or a training workshop for staff. Writing a dissertation is a stressful process, and it might be tempting to just submit it and then forget about the whole thing. However, this would let down the organisations and people who’ve given you their time and emotional labour. It would also show your motivations to be self-serving, and might cause community groups and individuals to be wary of researchers in future.
You should also consider what you might do if you’re asked to take part in academic or policy events, or are contacted by journalists about your research. Do you really need to occupy the platform yourself, or can you hand it over to a community representative? If there’s specific interest in your methodology, dataset or findings you may be the best person to describe these, but you should ideally also ask for a community representative to share your platform as they can speak to the issues first-hand. If the request is simply for a generic ‘expert’ (which it very often is), always pass this on to representatives of the group in question. Never give out names or contact details of participants without permission though – channel requests through organisations or community groups.
To summarise: if your research isn’t needed, don’t do it. If you’re unsure of your motivations (or if they’re self-serving), don’t do it. If you’re a complete outsider, don’t do it. If you can use existing sources of data, use them. If you do end up working with marginalised people, look after them. Afterwards, give up your platform whenever you can. (And do download the infographic at the top of this page, to remind you of these key principles).
Finally, read this: Fuck You and Fuck Your Fucking Thesis (why I will not participate in trans studies). Most of you will (quite rightly) be put off. If you can read it with no misgivings at all, you are probably kidding yourself (and definitely lacking the sensitivity and social conscience for this kind of work). If you read it with a heavy heart but still want to carry out your research, it might be worth doing.