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The sensitivities of the research process

Watch the video featuring researchers Elaine Chase, Zeina Amro and Ben Anderson reflecting on the sensitivities of the research process.
In any research project, it’s important to make sure we’re getting good quality data. In community-based research, this can be difficult because we’re often trying to find out how people are living their lives, their needs, the barriers to prosperity, the pressures they experience. These can be very personal questions and perhaps the researcher asking the questions is just seen as another form of pressure, why should they trust us with the details of their lives? We’re going to hear from researchers working in three quite contrasting situations about how they work to establish the trust of local participants. In the first example, Elaine describes how important it was to create a rapport with the person you interview.
Her example comes from a research project when she had to interview a 12 year old boy in a residential care home in the UK. And I wanted to know about his experience of having an advocate while he was in care, in public care, so I went to visit him and he was in his room. And first of all he wouldn’t talk to me. He was strumming his guitar and he was having a problem putting two chords on his guitar together. I don’t know that much about music, but I know how to put a couple of chords together.
So we talked through how they might work together and he was soon able to play the two chords together which brought about a big smile on his face. And then we got chatting and I suppose the point is that, I went in with my agenda, I was quite pushed for time, but stepping back and seeing what was important to him at that time was to work out how to put these two chords together. And I think spending a bit of time doing that with him created what we talked about in researcher as rapport. It creates a connection with people.
It shows that you’ve got interest in them, that you’re interested in what they’re doing and you’re not just there with your own agenda. Listening to the voice of the community means being aware of what they need from us as well as pursuing our own agendas as researchers. In Zeina Amro’s work at Birzeit University when she was working with Syrian refugees as community researchers, she took care to be sensitive to people who may be vulnerable especially when working in public places. So she decided to put a limit on where the researchers could take photos in a public place.
So I might think that this methodology is brilliant but if it puts the person that I work with in a place that is precarious or because they are in a precarious situation, that makes them more afraid or anxious then it will actually influence the type of data that they will bring back and what kinds of experience that they will share. So this was something that I learned only through this experience and I realized it very much that it’s not a limitation it’s actually something that reflects a lot of the dynamics of living as displaced in Jordan. And what’s important about Zeina’s approach is that she’s able to get so much more out of the research.
So really paying attention to what happens with the method, why these sensitivities exist, makes us learn about the contexts a lot, and the context itself cannot be separated at all from what we learn. Like, we can’t just focus on the words or the transcripts or the photographs, in my case. I have to always interpret them in the context in which they were made in. Even in a very different context like the UK, Ben is very aware that he could be seen as a distant researcher intruding.
Because if you turn up in a neighbourhood as a researcher from university 20 miles away or even further and start asking personal questions or questions that are potentially sensitive culturally or personally, yeah you’re not going to get a lot of answers and you might get people to shut down. On the other hand the local community based researcher has an advantage here. If you’ve got a local community researcher that knows the neighborhood, that knows the people, that knows the culture, then they can potentially facilitate a much more open, much more friendly and communicative interview and you can get much better data or better quality data.
You might be working yourself as a community member doing research or as a citizen scientist collecting data about your locality, or as an academic researcher collaborating with local community members. In all these cases, we have to approach with care, as we have heard, to create rapport, take an interest, beware of ways they might be vulnerable, pay attention to the context, and work with local community-based researchers. Being open and sensitive to what the community has to say and not just chasing the answers to our initial questions that’s the way to get better quality data. And ultimately that will have the greater impact on the prosperity of that community.
This video is about researchers reflecting on the sensitivities of the research process and working with vulnerable people.

Their stories illustrate the importance of ‘reflexivity’ – of reflecting carefully on how your research approach, and the questions you ask, are perceived by the community members.

Elaine Chase (UCL Institute of Education) explains the importance of creating a rapport with the people you talk to. It is not necessary to ask about the key research questions – just having a chat, talking about all kinds of topics, can be sufficient to create a friendly relationship, just as you do in normal daily contact with neighbours and workers in the community.

Zeina Amro (Kings College, London) talks about being sensitive to people who may be vulnerable. This was important when she was working with Syrian refugees as community researchers. She decided to put a limit on where the researchers could take photos in a public place, for example.

Ben Anderson (UCL Institute of Global Prosperity) describes the value of working with members of the local community as community researchers.

Elaine is a very experienced community researcher, and in the video she lists several types of sensitivity we have to bear in mind as we carry out a community-based research project.

This is a valuable checklist to be aware of as you plan your project, and these issues will come up again over the next two weeks. So we have summarised them in the article ‘Community-based research: Points to note’ – see Downloads.


Here you can leap ahead to Step 1.12 (End of week discussion), where you can propose the questions you would like the educators to answer at the end of the week. You can also ‘Like’ the other questions proposed, i.e. the ones you would particularly like the educators to respond to. The educators will respond to the ones with the most Likes at the end of the week.

Over to you

Thinking of your own community context, how might your sensitivity to the research process affect the kind of knowledge it produces and who benefits from it? Like or reply to other comments to help us develop this kind of approach to community based research.

Looking ahead to the next activity, now is the time to post your overall comments and questions to the End of Week Discussion step 1.12.

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Community Based Research: Getting Started

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