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Research is a powerful tool to determine fact from fiction. Policies, programs, and solutions are grounded in these facts, making researchers agents for shaping how the world works.
However, long-standing values and practices rooted in racism, ableism, and classism are ingrained in the fabric of research, leaving many researchers unaware of the harm they are causing. Researchers can counteract harmful aspects of these practices by sharing power with the people and communities they study.
Harmful research practices
Harmful values and practices include the following:
- Objectivity. This is the distance between the “researcher” and “researched.” It is based on the belief that neutrality on a subject is the best way to determine its facts. Objectivity allows researchers, intentions aside, to define themselves as experts without learning from people with lived experience. Objectivity also gives researchers grounds to claim they have no motives or biases in their work. Racism, sexism, classism, and ableism permeate US institutions and systems, which, in turn, allows for research that reproduces or creates racist stereotypes and reinforces societal power differences between who generates information (white cisgender people) and who is a subject (Black, Indigenous, and other people of color at the margins of class and gender). At best, objectivity curbs how impactful research can be, and, at worst, it irrevocably harms a community.
- Rigor. Rigor measures whether research is reliable, accurate, and trustworthy. It’s a standard asked for by funders and research institutions alike. However, researchers often define rigor as following an established research protocol meticulously instead of ensuring data are contextualized and grounded in community experience. Rigor in this sense does not guarantee trustworthiness or accuracy.
- Exclusive funding. Funders help drive the creation and shape of research, but they often fund white-led research institutions before or instead of funding communities of color directly. Without stipulations on whether to dedicate resources, or how much, to community collaborators, funding white-led institutions excludes people with lived experience and organizations with invaluable community connections who don’t meet the prerequisites or capacity to receive funding.
How researchers can rectify harmful research practices
Sharing power with the people and communities they study is a key way researchers can end harmful research practices. Here are some steps they can take:
- Recognize your power (also known as reflexivity). Researchers hold institutional power because they create widely used information, shape the way people see research subjects, and benefit from producing research. Researchers’ identities, including their race, ethnicity, and gender, also affect their relationship to power. Therefore, researchers must understand that their findings affect people’s lives and a community’s reputation. Before beginning a project, researchers should consider how their presence, power, and identity shape the research. It is in researchers’ control and is their responsibility to use their power ethically by investing it back into the community.
- Check your bias. We live in a racist society, and every person has subconscious racist ideologies. The only way to ensure racist ideologies do not leak into research is to check for these biases and actively discuss how racism and other systems of oppression could affect researcher judgment and how systemic oppressions affect the project.
If researchers only value objectivity, they will not challenge established belief systems. So, researchers must question how they feel about their topic of study and what they know about its roots. They should learn who created that system, who it was created for, and how racism has affected it. They can use this information to check against their existing beliefs. If researchers do not actively check for their biases, it will affect their research.
- Understand who to center: Participatory methods are created by and for people who have been harmed and excluded by systems of domination and systems intended to serve them. Authentic participatory methods require a shift in power to the individuals and groups who have the most at stake yet the least-heard voice. Doing so is ethical and more effective, as people without institutional power hold essential knowledge that more “objective” stakeholders do not possess. According to bell hooks, this phenomenon is known as radical marginality.
Researchers should assess power within a community to understand who has institutional power and who doesn’t. They can ask themselves, “Who is at the mercy of this system, and how will I center them as experts?” Power can come from where someone works (institutions, government, corporations) or from personal identity. Researchers should center the people at the margins. For example, in a participatory project on policing, the people who are policed—not the police—are the experts to include.
- Share decisionmaking: Typically, researchers enter a community with a fixed topic before knowing if that topic is an issue or of interest to the community. Instead, sharing control of the project’s direction honors that people with lived experience are experts and rightful research partners and ensures data are contextualized and grounded in the community’s experience.
Researchers can share decisionmaking at any and all research steps by using participatory methods to ensure people with lived experience have a platform to shape the project to reflect their experiences. Researchers should compensate people with lived experience as experts and hire them as project staff and consultants. And, if concerns arise from the community, they should pause, review, and change the research to reflect what the community wants.
Research can be a tool for positive change, but it can also cause harm. Creating equitable research requires a shift in researchers’ mentality on the values and practices of research and deep questioning of the status quo. Researchers (and those who fund or commission research) must commit to understanding the history and impacts of power and racism in our field. They must also acknowledge the personal and institutional power they hold and share it with people with lived experience to create lasting, positive change.
The Urban Institute has the evidence to show what it will take to create a society where everyone has a fair shot at achieving their vision of success.