The University Record, January 28, 2002

Research sensitivity tips offered

By Colleen Newvine
News and Information Services

It’s one of the most common questions researchers ask: how does race or ethnicity affect what I’m studying? Whether it’s a behavior, a health condition or a belief, differences almost invariably turn up when comparing one racial or ethnic group to another.

But what do the differences mean and are the differences shown really true? Two recent events at the School of Nursing, part of the school’s observation of Martin Luther King Day, examined how race and ethnicity factor into research. The first was a panel discussion on the appropriate use of race as a variable in research, the second a presentation on culturally sensitive research.

James Jackson, director of the Center for Afroamerican and African Studies, said that early in his career, he simply refused to do comparative studies of one race to another because it didn’t seem researchers were asking the right questions of the right people, nor did they know what the differences meant. For example, he said, researchers wanting to understand behavior within one group would compare that group to whites. Why, he asked, is white behavior considered the standard against which other groups should be compared?

Debra Brown, a registered nurse and program associate in the Office of Multicultural Affairs at the School of Nursing, said she had a difficult time initially explaining to her dissertation committee why she only wanted to study Blacks, and did not plan to include whites in the study. Her research was about Black behavior and including other groups would only confuse the focus, she said. Brown noted that comparisons across groups can show disparities and discrepancies, but also can make one group appear inferior, particularly if researchers don’t think through their results. For example, are the differences in groups really about race or are they about socioeconomic status, education or income?

Where and how researchers find their study subjects could skew numbers with one or more of those factors—comparing a wide cross section of whites to a narrow group of poor Blacks who live in Harlem is almost certain to find differences, Jackson said.

Brown noted how the wording of a research questionnaire itself could skew numbers, as well. In a study of healthy behaviors, figures showed Black Americans were less likely to exercise and to eat breakfast. But the study questions gave as examples of physical activities, such things as swimming, golf and tennis—not the sorts of things older Blacks might engage in, Brown said with a laugh. SeonAe Yeo, associate professor of nursing, had similar criticisms for questionnaires about physical activity, which she believes lean toward white-male activities, such as competitive sports, but don’t reflect female or minority activities like climbing stairs, gardening or walking.

Mei-yu Yu, associate research scientist at Nursing and director of the Health Asian Americans Project, said few studies do a good job of assessing Asian-American behavior because it’s a difficult group to include. Asians don’t share a common language, history, culture or religion, and because many Asian-Americans are recent immigrants, many do not speak the language well. This is particularly true of the elderly. Because it’s a group with unique health needs—Asian-American women have lower rates of breast and cervical cancer than any other U.S. racial or ethnic population, for example—it’s important to overcome these barriers, Yu said.

Yeo said lack of understanding of cultural differences can lead those analyzing the numbers to draw inaccurate or incomplete conclusions. As one example, she said Asian custom prescribes the activities and diet of a woman who has just given birth as a precaution for her health, but not knowing those customs might lead someone outside the culture to see those practices as simply deviant from how other groups behave after giving birth.

Some of the suggestions the speakers offered to researchers who want to do a better job of representing race and ethnicity in their works:

  • Minorities might not volunteer for studies as frequently as whites because of mistrust, Yeo said, so it’s important to tailor the experience to their needs. For instance, when she wanted people to come to an exercise lab, she made the hours convenient around the participants’ work schedules and offered childcare. In another example, she approached health care providers in Ypsilanti to help her gain access to Black teenagers, and she worked with the providers to help explain to the teens what the study was about. She added that group-oriented activities taking place in their communities might build trust better.

  • Motivating participants is critical, so understanding what they want is an important first step, Yeo said. This could be something tangible like offering a gift certificate from a local business, or something broader, like assisting participants with understanding how the study could help their community become healthier.

  • Research teams should reflect the groups being studied, Brown said. Having Blacks interview Blacks, for example, is “important if you want to get the truth.”

  • In questionnaires, use words and definitions that are relevant to participants’ lives, Yeo said, and clarify words and definitions as well as possible. Using a focus group from the ethnic or racial community to review the questionnaire can help in this step.

  • Understand that race is a social construct, and that if researchers ask study participants for their race, it’s likely they might see themselves in different terms than the researchers would use, Jackson said. That’s why in his 20 years of working with the U.S. Census, he’s disagreed with the way the Census questionnaire asks respondents to name ethnicity.

    “There’s nothing wrong with doing race research,” Jackson said, “but like anything else, you need to justify why you need to ask about race.”

    Yeo added that people don’t understand how to budget and allow time for designing culturally-sensitive studies. It’s neither easy nor cheap, she said, but the payoff is worth it.