“It’s about ethics in conducting research!”

Communities on the margins have been the subjects of research for the past couple of centuries (colonial-era anthropology, anyone?). And that’s just the problem – they are subjects: voiceless, commoditized and objectified bodies from whom information can be obtained as it benefits the researcher. Members of these marginalized communities are generally infinitely more equipped to conduct the research themselves: they understand relevant questions, community needs, relationships with dominant structures, and their own identities and navigations of social structures infinitely better than out-group researchers.

Alison Phipps, Director of Gender Studies at Sussex University, posed six hugely important questions that researchers should ask themselves before embarking on research with vulnerable populations:

  1. Who is this research for? Is there a demonstrable need? (If there is no identifiable need in the community, there may be other ways to research the chosen topic which do not put people out or ask them to engage in intellectual, practical or emotional labour on your behalf.)
  2. What are my motivations? (Examine your motivations honestly – if you feel they are anything but honourable (or you are not sure what they are), do not conduct the study. If you feel confident about your motives and the need for your study, continue to examine and reflect on these throughout the research, to ensure the safety of your research participants and the rigour of your data. This does not mean spending hours navel-gazing and writing a methodology chapter which is little more than an autobiography. Instead, it requires you to make time to really look at yourself and become mindful of your relationships with participants and how they are structured by power and privilege.)
  3. Am I qualified? (…research on more marginalised groups should proceed from a commitment to and association with the group in question, and if you wish to make a career out of this type of research it should be combined with advocacy around (not just lip-service to) diversifying the profession. 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.)
  4. Do I need to ask people for their time and attention? (Ask yourself if you really need to create a new dataset or whether there is existing material which can be used to answer your questions[…]There are also web-based sources of personal narrative which are public, such as blogs, vlogs or Tumblrs (although since these are not research archives you should ask authors for permission before studying them). There are also interesting projects which can be conducted through content/discourse analysis of policy documents and media sources…) 
  5. How will I look after my participants? (Ensure that you develop a rigorous framework around anonymity and confidentiality, and (most importantly) that this is communicated to your participants effectively and in appropriate terms. Be aware that if you are not an ‘insider’ you may not fully appreciate the risks posed by participating in your research, so design your ethics framework and research instruments in collaboration with the community organisation or charity you are working with.)
  6. What will I do with the findings? (If you have been asked to conduct a research project by a charity or community group, ask them about helpful formats for your findings. Do not just forward them a copy of your dissertation report! 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 constitute a betrayal of the organisations and people who have given you their time and emotional labour. It would also expose self-serving motivations behind your research, and might cause community groups and individuals to approach future requests for research participation with justified trepidation.)

Sex workers are one such community that are over-researched but rarely afforded the opportunity to speak for themselves. There’s often a paternalistic expectation for them to engage researchers because  “they should be grateful” that any attention is paid to them at all. Academic research around sex workers is frequently reduced to issues which are of absolutely no utility to the communities in question:

Sex work is often only researched in the context of the “empowerment v. exploitation” debate. Making sex work a “special” topic by taking it out of the context of the rest of the world is a way of dehumanizing sex workers. Only when we are seen as our jobs and nothing more can we be carved out of everyday life and marginalized as a field of study unto ourselves.

Research should certainly include sex workers, when appropriate, but it need not be about us. In fact, putting sex work back into a broader context can make research much more useful to us. Consider the following research questions:

  • What happens to formerly criminalized people when they move on to new jobs?
  • What paths do informal or undocumented workers take to transition to new careers?
  • How do people who have worked for cash their whole lives manage their retirement years?
  • What challenges are faced by parents who are stigmatized or criminalized for their jobs?
  • How do people get involved in social movements other than the one most aligned with their identity (that is, how do sex workers and others become allies in other social movements)?
  • How do the online and offline communities in various social movements relate to each other?
  • How does your national housing strategy (or lack thereof, Canada) include or exclude informal workers like sex workers?
  • How does “black market” money work its way back into the formal economy?

By researching sex work as something in and of the world around it, we can get past the useless for-or-against debate and produce knowledge about sex workers’ real lives.

In this post-Orange is the New Black/Caitlyn Jenner/marriage equality world (I include the latter because now that marriage equality is the law of the land, there’s a kind of discursive understanding that there’s now advocacy and political space for “the rest of the LGBTQ community’s issues”), transgender identities and community issues are increasingly becoming the topics of research. But rather than focusing on the ill effects of cisnormativity, why our investment in rigid gender understandings is harmful, the pathologization and medicalization of certain genders and bodies, hyper-surveillance and over-policing, or the other myriad institutional issues that make trans individuals acutely vulnerable; we (i.e. fellow cisgender researchers) instead tend to focus squarely on the nature – including the legitimacy and validity – of gender variance and non-normative identities. Is it any wonder that many trans folks are inherently distrustful of us cis academics and thus unwilling to participate in our research?

Let me tell you something: trans people have already been studied. We’ve been interviewed, sampled, tested, cross-referenced, experimented upon, medicated, shocked, examined, and dissected post-mortem. You’ve looked at our chromosomes, our families, our blood levels, our ring fingers, our mothers’ medicine cabinets, and our genitalia (over and over again with the genitalia- stop pushing condoms on us, dumbass, we know what they’re for.) You’ve watched us play with dolls, raise children, fall in love, look at pornography, get sick, die, and commemorate ourselves. You’ve listened to our ears. You’ve listened to our fucking ears! But you’ve never listened to our voices and you need to do that now.

There are already studies about what trans people need. You want them? Go read the needs assessment Michelle O’Brien wrote for THAC in Philadelphia. Go look at the final report of the Sex and Gender Minority Subcommittee of the Mayor’s Task Force on Homelessness. Go read that amazing omnibus study the San Francisco public health department commissioned a few years back, the one that found trans women have an average monthly income of $536. Ever seen rents in San Francisco?

So what do people like me need? Not counseling. Not new labels on condoms. Not more doctoral candidates palpating our business. Trans women need, more or less in order: decriminalization, housing, education and employment. As in, not being swept off the street, not being banned from shelters, yes being allowed in GED classes, and, well, employment. Can you provide these? Not as a goddamn researcher, and probably not as a member in good standing of whatever professional body you aspire to join. You want to actually do something as good you say you want to do, drop out, abrogate your loans, and become a social worker. Decriminalization, housing, education and employment. You’d do better to hire one of us as a receptionist.

This is where community-based participatory research takes on massive importance. In this new post-positivist research paradigm, it is not necessary for privileged researchers to continue to narrate the lives of subject-participants in the research they conduct. Rather, it is incumbent upon us to place community members at the forefront of our research projects: to create a project structure where they delineate the research boundaries, construct the questions, and collect and interpret rather than just exist as the data. Our most important role as ethical researchers is to a) amplify the narratives of marginalized individuals who can and do speak for themselves (not simply through academic avenues, but in extra-academic mediums, as the academy is not the foremost space for legitimate knowledge production) and b) to address the structures (in both academia and society at large) that are constraining and driving the social exclusion of these communities and preventing them from having the autonomy and authority to speak on their own behalf. 

Participatory research isn’t the easiest: it can be incredibly time consuming and slow. But it’s always worth it, and infinitely more worthwhile than reproducing the violent dynamics of discursive erasure and epistemic injustice in the academy.


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