Disadvantaged failed by social research

susan-stregaDespite good intentions, the methods for collecting and disseminating information about marginalised groups are not just flawed – they’re also often “ethically unjust”, according to Flinders University’s latest Visiting International Research Fellow Susan Strega.

Associate Professor Strega (pictured), from the University of Victoria in Canada, said current research practices are of no real benefit to the subjects involved and should be reformed to inject more fairness into the process.

“A lot of the ways we conduct research about marginalised populations is ethically flawed, it’s socially unjust,” Associate Professor Strega said.

“We’re often – and I include myself in this – in the business of taking things from people, taking their life stories, taking information from them and building our careers from it,” she said.

“While these stories often need to be told, we have to ensure they are told in ways that disrupt inequality, and that the people being researched benefit in the short and long term.”

As part of her month-long stay at Flinders, Associate Professor Strega will next week deliver a public lecture on the ethical challenges arising from studying marginalised groups, including young mothers, Indigenous people and sex workers.

Building on her own experiences of conducting research with people on the margins, Associate Professor Strega will propose new reforms for how to better gather and share information.

The visiting social scientist, based at Flinders School of Social and Policy Studies, said researchers often “seduced and enticed” disadvantaged people to take part in their research in the false promise that they, or people like them, will benefit from it.

“We often decide in isolation what would be interesting to find out about a particular group without even asking that group what would be useful to them,” she said.

“But that information is often used against them to say they are part of the problem, that there’s something individually wrong with them which means they’re in this situation.

“For example, we know a lot about poor people but we don’t know much about the rich, in the same way we know quite a bit about street sex workers but we don’t know much about their customers.”

To balance the research process, Associate Professor Strega said researchers should give their subjects greater control over the research agenda, and dismiss the notion of research being “professionals researching down” on their subjects.

“Researchers have an obligation to address the inequalities facing the people they’re researching, rather than just accumulate more information about them.

“We have to give them control over the research process, the analysis of data and what we’re going to do with that data – so how it will be released, who to and in what form.

“And if we want people to participate in research we also have to compensate them adequately.

“Social science research has been going on for more than a century now and yet inequality is worse, so we really need to question what contribution we’re making.”

Associate Professor Strega’s visit has been funded through Flinders Visiting International Research Fellowship, an annual program which aims to attract international researchers to the University and foster lasting collaborations with global institutions.

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