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Why Are You Studying This Population?

Posted on January 16, 2008

Exploring the role of racism in your own life is important for researchers who work in non-majority communities, states Darrell P. Wheeler (bio).


So when we talk about studying mainstream or not, it’s really not about the audience of the subjects. It’s about the audience of the researchers. And I’m a very clear person in that the researcher is a critical part of the equation in the research experience. And until the researcher has done an exploration of why he or she is engaging a particular community, I think he or she stands a chance of doing great damage to that community, or at least not being authentic to the process.

Let me give you an example, and it’s going to be slightly long-winded, but I think it’s really critical. If you’re going to do work on African-Americans, and you haven’t explored for yourself the role of race and racism in your own life, the roles of power and privilege in your life, how you've experienced power and privilege, how you've benefited from your statuses, gender-based statuses, class, et cetera, then it's harder for us to relate to our clients because our clients bring all of that to the table, and then we ultimately ask them questions that impact on all of those.

We ask them questions about their economics. We ask them questions in my field about their sexual experiences, all these intimate aspects of their lives. And then the researcher hasn't explored that and is viewing this as an objective experience.

So for me, the researcher, I, back to an earlier question, how does this impact, you can get called doing me-search, is what I've heard other people call it, me-search versus research. Are you really exploring you, or are you doing valid research? And I don't think that's a meritorious question. I think it should be about the methods.

And there may be times when I have greater insight into communities like me, and there may be times that my insight clouds my reality. But the question for the research community should be, "Are they solid research questions? Are they valid research methods?" And often times because I bring such a passion, people then say, "Well, he's too close to the subject matter." Well, I don't think that’s the issue. I think that I'm pushing your buttons because I'm asking you to explore your own stuff in this equation, and you'd rather not explore it.

I think that's a real challenge in my work because I do push people's buttons, because I push back at the research community and ask them very candidly, "Why are you studying this population? What's in it for you?"

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Excerpted from interview with researcher in September 2007.


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