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Robert Sellers

Don't Just Reaffirm Your Own Beliefs

Posted on March 1, 2006

Robert Sellers (bio) gives his views about the 'researcher-as-outsider' dilemma in studies on ethnic and racial diversity.


Q: Should research on ethnic/racial issues be conducted only by researchers who are members of the target group?
A: First of all, I think it's really important that you know something about who you are studying. That it's just plain, good science. Too often we just assume that we're studying variables and we're not studying people. So when it comes to issues of ethnic minorities, what happens too often is that people play at it. They don't really understand the groups that they're studying, and this has nothing to do with one's racial/ethnic makeup. Being African American doesn't mean that I know about African Americans. The reason why I look at African Americans is because I've spent a lot of time studying African Americans. I know African American history. I spent all of my time, or most of my time, with other African Americans in various contexts and various settings, and have spent a lifetime as a scholar trying to understand that particular experience.

With that said, I also recognize that there are experiences that I don't know within the African American experience. No matter how much I do to try to understand and empathize, and to study the history of women, to talk to women, to be involved with women's movements, groups, experiences etc., there's always going to be some barrier that I'm never truly going to understand what it's like to be a woman. That doesn't mean that I can't contribute, but I also need to know what my limitations are.

So if you're studying race, and you don't really understand race then that's problematic. That doesn't mean that hiring someone of the same race is going to solve that problem if that person doesn't know anything about race either. The thing that's really important for any scientist or any practitioner, for that matter, is to know what you know and know what you don't know. If you do that, it will help you know which questions you are capable of asking and which questions you quite frankly aren't. Then, you can develop collaborations or get training or other experiences that will enhance your ability to answer the questions you're not as qualified to deal with.

To me, it's not that difficult an issue. If I'm looking for someone who's going to give me help with statistics, I don't just go to the math department and ask the first person I see, I check around. I want somebody who can understand from a research perspective the questions that I'm asking, and translate what I'm looking for into the analyses, and then transfer back those analyses in ways that I can understand them. That same thing must occur with every aspect of one's research, and I think that plays out with regards to working with ethnic minorities.

Now the reality is that there's a cost to that, in that it's harder to recruit participants, and you have to deal with questions like "Where's your control group?" or "Why is this generalizable to other groups?" But if we are really studying the psychology of humans, then we want the diversity, and as long as we're comfortable and clear about who the work is generalizable to and are upfront about that, then I think actually that is a standard which the rest of psychology should look up to.
Q: Some researchers, when dealing with ethnic minority samples, hire research assistants of the same race/ethnicity to do the work, yet they never truly understand the racial/ethnic difference when they publish their findings. What are your opinions on that?
A: When you start off a research project, the first thing that comes up are what questions do you ask, why are you doing the study, why are you choosing these people to study, why is this interesting, why is it important, what do you hope to get from it. All of those questions are informed by that individual's experiences. These are not neutral questions, and the nature of the question has a lot to do with what answer you have. When you're asking those questions without understanding the perspective of the people you're studying, you may end up with an answer that isn't necessarily true to the participants' lives.

I'll give you an example. When many of us see a person with a horrific scar on his face walking past, we could be very compassionate and we may have very good intentions but our focus is on that scar. We think how hard that must be to carry that scar; 'I feel really bad about that, I'm sure that there are people out there who don't treat them right because of the scar, and it must be really difficult to be a person with that scar'. But really, you have no idea what the scar means to the person. The person could have gotten the scar saving his parent's life and he's really proud it. Or he may not even see it as a scar. He may have long since come to grips with whatever the scar meant and the scar is not at all important to him whatsoever. Or he may see the scar as a bonus in the sense that it, for a lack of a better word, is a BS detector; he can get to see inside people right away based on how they respond to the scar.

Now, if you, as a researcher, start asking him questions from your perspective, the only information that you get is how you would react to the scar and how you think people with that scar must feel. You get a very skewed picture of what that individual's life is about and that picture is all about the scar. In doing so, even though you may be the most well-intentioned person, you have reduced the person to nothing but a scar. Too often the work on African Americans and other people of color follows this pattern; they're just seen as racialized beings, or victims of discrimination or stigma, etc. That's why it's important to understand perspective. If you start off with "Okay, I'm going to send somebody else in there who also has a scar, and you can ask the same questions that I want to know and then come back and tell me." I may think that I've done very good, culturally sensitive work, but in fact you've just reaffirmed your own beliefs about what you think those scars are because of the questions that you asked.




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